Saturday art blogging: patterns in Islamic art

by Eszter Hargittai on December 1, 2018

In my senior year of college, I took what must have been the most talked-about course offered at my school: a year-long introductory art history class, “Art 100”. It has since been discontinued, sadly, but also understandably, as it was taught by the entire art history faculty and its coordination must have been overwhelming. The benefit to students was that we got to learn about all materials by experts in it. It was a fantastic and beloved class, in some cases life-changing (see one example of this). Numerous friends in my house (Smith’s name for dorms) had taken it and we had countless conversations about the class (and to my chagrin now as a professor, some also about the profs, but for what it’s worth, they tended to be about our admiration).

One of my favorite sections was Islamic art. I hadn’t known much about it and found the patterns in architecture mesmerizing. When I was in Doha almost a decade ago, I very much enjoyed the tour of the Museum of Islamic Art where lots of patterns greeted us both in the architecture (see above) and the pieces on display (see below and here). Given these positive experiences, I was pleasantly surprised this week to stumble upon the Web site Pattern in Islamic Art, which offers a very nice collection that I wanted to share with you. The slideshow pages take a few seconds to load, they are worth it.




Bill Benzon 12.02.18 at 1:39 am

“In my senior year of college, I took what must have been the most talked-about course offered at my school: a year-long introductory art history class, “Art 100”.”

Interesting, very interesting. In my freshman year at Johns Hopkins I took a two-semester introduction to art history taught by one Phoebe Stanton. I don’t know what prompted me to sign up for it, but when I got on campus I learned that the course, and teacher, was legendary. That was way back in the Jurassic Era of 1965.

It was a great course. And involved a great deal of rote memorization, which was a drag, but, what can I say, we did it. Not cheerfully, but we did it. A big chunk of your grade depended on identification quizzes. You’d see a particular work flashed on a screen and had to supply: 1) name of the work, 2) the artist, 3) date, 4) size, and 5) medium.


Eszter Hargittai 12.02.18 at 8:56 am

Bill, thanks for sharing! I didn’t take the class until my senior year, and did so because there had been so much ongoing buzz about it, it seemed like I’d be majorly missing out if I didn’t. It was true, it would have been a huge shame not to take it. Like you, we had to do a ton of memorization. Perhaps not medium and size, but certainly work, artist, date. I became insanely good at some of it. There was a point at which I could identify artist and approximate date even if it wasn’t one of the paintings we had studied (I know, because I had a friend with whom we’d play that game). The so-called “Wall” was legendary (this is the mid-90s so before it all would have been moved online) where Art 100 students would go to study that week’s art works. Here is an example from 1983, it looked the same in 1995/96 when I took it.


Bill Benzon 12.02.18 at 2:02 pm

We didn’t have a “wall”, Eszter. Don’t remember what we had. Maybe it was just pictures in the extensively-illustrated book.

So, that makes two of us who’ve taken such a course, and 30 years apart. Do we have a third?

I assume such courses still exist. Have they retained the memory component?


cbr 12.02.18 at 6:26 pm

Escher’s fascination with order and symmetry took over his life after this Mediterranean journey in 1936 after he made his second visit to the Alhambra. Escher remarked that it was:

…the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped.


Eszter Hargittai 12.04.18 at 7:28 am

Bill, I know dozens who took the course at Smith, and I suspect over the years, thousands had. It would be interesting to know how many schools offer such a year-long survey course of art history. The question about memorization is an interesting one, needless to say most of that info I don’t have in my mind anymore, but I certainly learned a lot about style and historical context.

cbr, good point. Here is one photo I took at the museum that is very reminiscent of this style:

I bought a whole card set with similar images, but have used them all up so don’t have those examples anymore.


JBL 12.05.18 at 9:28 pm

Thank you, this is wonderful. I do not have any interesting art history student stories to tell, but I have always been attracted to Islamic art — I think that it tickles the same part of my brain as mathematics (my vocation).
[Apologies if this posts twice, in which case please delete one!]


Doug 12.06.18 at 8:47 am

My college still offers a two-semester introductory survey. Nowadays it is explicitly tagged as “Western,” and there is a third 100-level course that is a survey of Asian art. I recall people doing a lot of memorization, but I did not take the courses myself.


Eszter Hargittai 12.06.18 at 3:03 pm

JBL, glad you like it! The link to mathematics makes sense.

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