Universiteit Leiden

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The meaning of art decorations

Geometrical patterns serving as decorations do more than just that; they always have a meaning, according to art historian Arthur Crucq. Doctoral defence 17 May.

You’ve been looking at geometrical patterns. What are they?

‘Geometrical patterns are regular sequences of one or more geometrical motifs, such as a repetition of circles, stars, or a combination of all these. You find these patterns all over the world: in carpets, murals, painted objects or clothes. An accepted theory states that these decorations, as opposed to landscapes, portraits and other naturalistic images, don’t really add anything to the meaning. They’re not reallt representations. I disagree with this. Geometrical patterns always refer to something. In fact, they are used specifically in order to refer to something.’

What do patterns refer to?

‘The exact meaning differs according to culture. The interpretation of decorative geometrical patterns also allows some freedom. They focus the attention on the decorated object, such as a vase or building. They refer implicitly to a creator with an intention. Patterns can also represent something in a more literal sense. The geometrical patterns on woven baskets of the native North Americans could for example represent animals, weather, trees, people and ancestors. In many cultures, patterns keep recurring over time.’

Can you give an example of a frequent pattern?

‘A pattern that’s known today as the ‘flower of life’; a pattern in which flowers are formed by placing circles on top of each other. I came across this pattern on the remnants of a doorframe of Assurbanipal’s temple at the Louvre, but I’ve also seen it on medieval church floors in Italy. In the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, I stumbled upon the pattern on the aprons of Javanese gatekeepers. The New Age movement also used the flower of life pattern. For them it symbolises the unity of life and  creation. You can find it today on everyday doormats.’

Do we attribute meanings to the patterns?

'Yes, we do; it's something we do automatically. One good example that dates back a long way is how we look at the sky. For as long as mankind has existed, we have been assigning meaning to particular stellar constellations. We think that if we see a particular structure, it must mean something and that there must be a maker and an intention behind it. Even if the pattern is purely coincidental, as with constellations. This shows how universal recognising patterns as bearers of meaning is.’

What does this knowledge mean for the world of art?

‘If you know what cognitive capabilities are needed to make and recognise patterns, that sheds new light on how making objects, decorations and buildings is anchored in human mature. Modes of representation which were thought to be typically western, such as those of linear perspective, are apparently based on the same cognitive capabilities as those from other cultures. This raises new questions about how Western art history is related to that of, for exmple, Africa and America. These are questions that we will be looking at in more detail in follow-up research.' 

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