Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Three: Geometric Design in Islamic Art/ Featured Works of Art: Images 12–15/ Image 15

Image 15

Jali (screen)
Second half of the 16th century
Red sandstone; pierced, carved
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1993 (1993.67.2)

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Mughal dynasty (India), geometric, architecture, sandstone

This carved screen, called a jali, illustrates the kind of intricate and complex geometric designs that can be created with the simplest of elements—the line and the circle. This screen exhibits three distinct geometric patterns—the star-based pattern in the interior of the arch, the interlace design above the arch, and the simple geometric border that frames the entire rectangular screen.

Screens like this, typical of Mughal Indian architecture, were used as windows or interior room dividers, allowing light and air to enter the room while screening the inhabitants from the glare of the sun and the gazes of passersby. The intricately carved design would have created a subtle play of shadow and light in the interior, emphasizing the characteristics of symmetry and the illusion of infinity inherent in geometric design (fig. 18).

The innermost pattern is based on the eight-pointed star shape; each star is circumscribed within octagons in even rows. Between the octagons is a field of five-pointed stars within interlocking pentagons. Although displaying the basic characteristics common to geometric design, this screen is also unique in that its design makes use of the possibilities of positive and negative space. The work was created through openwork carving, a subtractive sculptural process. The remaining stone forms the jali's design, while the holes (or negative space), create supplemental patterns. (See activity.)

Screens like this are a hallmark of Mughal architecture. The Mughals were a Muslim dynasty of Central Asian origin who ruled the north of India from 1526 to 1858 (see The Mughal Court and the Art of Observation). Screens similar to this can be seen in their original settings in many Mughal palaces and mausoleums, like Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal. The weathered condition of this screen suggests that it was probably part of a series of similar screens used as windows set in an exterior wall.

Fig. 18. Jali from the Khwabgah (royal bedroom) of the Lal Qil'a (Red Fort), Delhi, India, 1638–48

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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Navina Haidar: Stop here a have a close look at this screen. It's carved from one huge, heavy piece of stone. Does the busy pattern make your eyes a little bit dizzy? First, do you see the shapes that look like circles, with flattened sides? Inside each one is a star with eight points. Then, in between each of these shapes, there are compartments with smaller stars. It's very complicated geometry.

This a window screen for a very splendid building in India. In India, it can get very hot. This kind of screen, called jali, would have cut the harsh sunlight coming into a room. It made it cooler inside, and also gave the people inside some privacy. But jalis do something else: they create beautiful shadows. Imagine this jali making a carpet of star-shadow patterns on the floor of a room. Jalis do something that seems impossible: they turn stone into light.