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20th-Century Math Hidden in 15th-Century Art

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Art and science are often thought of as disparate entities, drawing on different strengths and different ways of thinking. This is surely true, but the disciplines also share patterns of thought and essential characteristics. Take, for example, their inherently collaborative processes. No artist creates in a vacuum just as no scientists could perform the work that they do without the research that came before.

In this manner, it is illuminating to see Anita Chowdry’s shamsa collection inspired by the Islamic manuscript arts, but brought into a this century with the application of modern mathematical concepts, technology, and materials. Her series of shamsas (from the Arabic word for sun) are based on elements from traditional hand-painted Islamic manuscripts from the 15th through 17th centuries in Mughal India and Savafid Iran. In these royal manuscripts the first page was traditionally adorned with an elaborate medallion, meticulously hand-painted with mineral pigments and precious metals.

While studying the techniques used to paint these intricate sunbursts, Chowdry noticed the patterns are strongly reminiscent of fractal geometry and the famous images produced by Benoit Mandelbrot’s research on the topic in the late 1970s and 1980s. Upon realizing this, she embarked upon a journey to incorporate her knowledge of the ancient art of manuscript illustration with modern mathematical concepts and technology. The result is a spectacular collection of images and objects:

Chowdry shamsa

The ancient art of opening hand-written texts with an elaborate shamsa was the starting point for Anita Chowdry's project titled Geometry, Illumination and Beyond

Chowdry hidden geometry

From there, Chowdry went on to draw visual parallels with the concept of fractals

Chowdry illumination

Some of these designs she translated into a new medium by using modern laser-cutting technology to create steel discs to be hung like mobiles

Chowdry Julia Set

Finally, Chowdry abandoned the traditional materials of 15th-century manuscript art to create motifs with the aid of computers using the Julia Set in fractal geometry. She notes that similar motifs turn up in Safavid designs that were influenced by the dragons in Chinese art.

If you’re curious about the type of original artwork that inspired Chowdry’s project, here are some beautiful examples I dug up in my own explorations for this post:

-a rosette from 17th-century India at the Met
-a Persian rug from the Savafid period (that sold at auction for $1.93 million!) displaying a motif reminiscent of the Julia Set (look just above the bird in the detail image)
-a Tedx talk by Yale professor Michael Frame on fractals in math and in nature

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Adrian Morgan 12:16 am 02/27/2014

    The following excerpt is from _Fractal Vision_ (Dick Oliver, 1992). Typed by hand; mistakes will happen.

    Why does Mother Nature’s work show a different geometry than our own? Aren’t we nature, too? Indeed, the difference lies not so much in whose hand does the work, but in the swiftness of that hand. Linearity is the geometry of motion, of cutting, of separation, The faster the saw blade, the smoother the cut. Nature, too, has her arcs and lines: the speeding orbits of the planets, the streaming trail of a light ray, the zip of a bee to the hive. Fractal geometry, on the other hand, grows from stillness, from layer upon layer of repeated joining. When humans slow down, we create lacework, Persian rugs, Baroque furniture, and Gothic palaces. That richly woven artifacts have all but disappeared from our culture is above all a reflection of its velocity. Who has time to weave?

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  2. 2. AnitaC 8:38 am 02/27/2014

    I like the excerpt above, it is beautifully put. Now, of course, we have technology like laser-cutting to do the fine work, though the act of making lacework and other fine hand-work has the power to feed the soul and bring us in touch with our humanity.

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  3. 3. Percival 1:08 am 03/3/2014

    Some of the images remind me of Escher’s circular drawings that exhibit both fractal and hyperbolic geometry at once; particularly his Circle Limit.

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