The Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, dating from the 13th to the 15th century, represent a high point in the cultural expressions of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, and of classical Islamic civilizations more generally. The building complex contains an extraordinary variety of designs rendered in stone, stucco, wood and tiles. Many are unique, and they have inspired artists from around the world. Among them was early 20th-century Dutch artist M. C. Escher, who sketched the tile design presented here and drew much geometric inspiration from the Alhambra.
For the first of the six pattern designs in this series, we chose a lively, curvilinear alicatado, as a cut-tile design is called in Spanish. (In Arabic it is called zillij.) This pattern appears on large panels of tiles glazed in blues, greens, ochres, blacks and whites set along the lower parts of the walls of the Alhambra’s renowned Court of the Myrtles. As a central motif of the pattern, the three-point swirl is today known in Spanish as pajarita (little bird).
Looking at the pattern of hundreds of tiles on the wall, the structure of the design is not immediately apparent. However, its geometry turns out to be relatively simple: It is a six-fold radial symmetry. Once this is understood, it’s not that difficult to reproduce it, step by step.
Six-fold radial symmetry patterns are, with their three-fold counterparts, one of the three most commonly used families of patterns within traditional Islamic geometric art. The other pattern families are four- and eight-fold symmetries and five- and 10-fold symmetries. Although other combinations appear throughout the Islamic world across centuries, these three pattern families have been used most frequently. For anyone beginning to learn about the patterns in the traditional arts of Islamic cultures, the six-fold symmetry is a good place to start.
The pattern instructions that follow work in two phases. The first follows steps 1–12 to build a single pajarita motif. It starts with a central circle on a line and builds six circles of equal radius around it. This forms the motif’s foundation, a particular construction that has been referred to as a “Creation Diagram,” a name that relates the pattern to the six days that God created the world, as told in both the Qur’an and the Bible. This Creation Diagram leads to the three-tipped pajarita swirl. The second phase follows steps 13–18. This phase arranges, around the Creation Diagram’s ring of seven circles, rings of 12 and then 18 circles. From this a tessellated trio of pajaritas can be produced. Like all Islamic geometric patterns, the pattern can be extended further—as the artisans of the Alhambra alicatado did—by repeating the steps or, more easily, by using tracing paper to transfer key points.
1. Start from a horizontal line. Draw a circle with Radius R1, approximately 1/6 the width of page.
2. Draw a second circle with the same radius to the right, on the circumference of the first circle.
3. Draw a third circle with the same radius to the left, also on the circumference of first circle.
4. Add four additional circles, evenly arranged around the first circle, as shown.
5. This is a classic Creation Diagram of six circles around one.
6. Again using Radius R1, but with a bolder line, find the six points shown and use them to draw the contours of the curvilinear pajarita motif. This can be filled with a solid color, as shown in step 10.
7. To produce pajaritas with inset hexagons or six-pointed stars, sketch in the three-fold radial axes and add a new proportioning circle in the center, Radius R2.
8. Place a hexagon in the center proportioning circle from step 7.
9. Alternatively or using a second parjarita (tracing paper can be used now), connect each point in the proportioning circle from step 7 with two points on either side. This forms a hexagram, or a six-pointed star. Outline its contour as shown.
10, 11, 12: Solid, hexagon and hexagram variations of a finished pajarita motif that can be colored or cut out.
13. Build the Creation Diagram per step 5.
14. Add an expansion ring of circles, each Radius R1, using center points as shown.
15. Add a second expansion ring using Radius R1, using center points as shown.
16. Refer to step 6 to outline three pajarita motifs. Note their relationship to the expanded Creation Diagram.
17. Using a central proportioning circle, Radius R2, as in step 7, add radial divisions to produce hexagrams and/or hexagons both within and between the pajaritas.
18. Finish the tessellation with optional tones. Remember that the choices of colors are up to the artist! Note how the pattern is now ready to be expanded further—infinitely—on six sides.