Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Geometry in ornament: On the history, theory and science about the presumed universality of geometrical patterns and its cognitive foundation

Knowledge and culture subproject 3: "Visual arts and geometry" of Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

2013 - 2017
Johan Rooryck
NWO Horizon Grant NWO Horizon Grant

Subproject implementation


Since the late-18th century a number of studies on ornament and decorative patterns such as the famous Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones from 1856, have appeared. Many could be regarded as encyclopedia or as a taxonomy of forms, which were arranged in accordance with specific properties within corresponding categories such as geometrical, floral, Moorish, Hindu or Renaissance. These catalogues and descriptions of the development of ornament brought similarities from different cultures to the surface. Geometrical patterns in ornament and decoration for instance, were found to exist in cultures all over the world. As a result geometry was soon to be regarded a universal feature.


From an art historical perspective it is important to look afresh at the history of ornament and re-establish an understanding of how geometry as a repertoire of forms functioned within different cultures, domains and contexts. Besides, it is important to understand how thought about ornament, decoration and geometry developed within different cultures and different times. This requires a comparison of a number of important treatises on architecture and ornament that have appeared since antiquity in different places such as Italy, India and the Middle East. Such views on the role of ornament may shed further light on how geometry as a repertoire of forms might have been deliberately used to convey meaning, by which geometry potentially becomes able to mediate between the decorated object and the beholder. This study might therefore also touches on the possibility of geometrical forms to exert agency. The processes by which subjects attribute agency and meaning to ornament are highly cognitive. This approach will make it possible to extend the notions on the cognitive aspects of ornament beyond aesthetic preferences and innate geometrical knowledge.

Expected outcome

The expectation is that this extension of the cognitive aspects that are involved in the production and perception of ornament and geometrical shapes in ornament will be informative for the other disciplines involved in research on ornament such as cognitive psychology. It can enable a further and broader investigation of the presumed underlying mechanisms on the psychological or maybe even on the neurological level. A more advanced understanding of the nature of geometrical patterns is also required to determine in a fruitful way, the possibilities and limitations of cognitive research on the perception, production and reception of cultural artefacts containing such patterns. Above all it is required to ascertain ways in which it is possible to unravel results from empirical experiments which are not only quantitative but also meaningful.

Research questions

  • How has ornament, decoration, pattern and geometry been defined within the fields of rhetoric, (aesthetic) philosophy and art history and against which historical, cultural and scientific backgrounds were these definitions established?
  • In what discourse do we have to situate the conviction that cultures have universal features that are traceable within the properties of artifacts?
  • How to organize a methodology for an empirical research to investigate whether geometrical shapes and patterns in ornament are truly universal and relate to underlying cognitive structures?

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