• Fig.1. Engraved ochres from Blombos Cave. Image courtesy: Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa by Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico,Royden Yates, Zenobia Jacobs, Chantal Tribolo, Geoff A. T. Duller, Norbert Mercier, Judith C. Sealy, Helene Valladas, Ian Watts and Ann G. Wintle

  • Fig. 2. The Çatalhöyük map was first brought to attention in a 1964. Image courtesy: “Excavations at Çatal Hüyük, 1963, Third Preliminary Report” by James Mellaart (Anatolian Studies 14 (1964, pp. 39-119).

  • Fig.3. Location of the Çatalhöyük Neolithic site, Hasan Dağı, and other Holocene volcanoes in Anatolia. Overview map with inset showing map of sampling locations (A). Hasan Dağı volcano and sampling location of pumice dated in this study (B). Black-and-white rendering of Çatalhöyük wall painting (“shrine” 14; level VII) interpreted to show the twin-peaks of erupting Hasan Dağı and closely spaced buildings in the lower level. Image courtesy: Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia, Turkey by Axel K. Schmitt, Martin Danišík, Erkan Aydar, Erdal Şen, İnan Ulusoy and Oscar M. Lovera.

  • Fig. 5. Incomplete Stela of artist Userwer, Limestone, 12th Dynasty . Image courtesy: The British Museum, Collection online Fig. 6. Detail: Incomplete Stela of artist Userwer, Limestone, 12th Dynasty . Image courtesy: The British Museum, Collection online

  • Fig 7. The step by step guide above was made by Eric Broug, one of the most active practitioners of Islamic geometric design working today, Image courtesy: Muslim rule and compass: the magic of Islamic geometric design by Alex Bellos. Printed in The Guardian, International Edition. Feb 10, 2015

  • Fig.8. Shalimar Gardens, Lahore. Designed by Ali Mardan Khan in Shah Jahan’s time. 1641-42. Image courtesy: Google Maps.

  • Fig.8. Shalimar Gardens, Lahore. Designed by Ali Mardan Khan in Shah Jahan’s time. 1641-42. Image courtesy: Google Maps.

  • Fig 9. Albrecht Dürer - Draftsman's Net, woodcut, 1525 Image courtesy: MET Museum Website.

  • Fig 12. Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 29.4 in × 25.2 in, Oil on canvas, 1662-65 Image courtesy: Royal Collection

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The Grids before Modernism


A line is a dot that went for a walk, Paul Klee’s definition is probably the most imaginative one that you may have heard about on one of the basic elements of design.[1] Klee’s definition of line emphasises the distance covered by a dot. If the dot is straightforwardly focused to arrive at the destination with the shortest possible distance, the line would be straight, thus, dot discovers a shortcut- in form of a straight line.


When the horizontal and vertical straight lines insect perpendicularly, a grid design is formed. From the perspective of geometry, a grid usually refers to two or more infinite sets of evenly-spaced parallel lines at particular angles to each other in a plane or the intersections of such lines. The two most common types of grids are the orthogonal grid (the square grid), with two sets of intersecting lines perpendicular to each other and isometric grid (the triangular grid), with three sets of lines at 60-degree angles to each other.


The idea of the grid as a design is probably the most, practical and useful in the human history. From the arrangement of the interface of the apps in our cell phones to glass and steel exteriors of skyscrapers, the grid is a common sight of our daily visual experience. American art critic Rosalind Krauss argues that in Europe, the grid structure began to appear in early 20th century and remained emblematic of modernists ambition within the visual arts ever since.[2] It is still the most prevalent strategy in contemporary times. However, this article uses some selective isolated historical findings as examples to discuss the grid structure and it’s persistently implied strategy, which has been part of the human expression even before the recorded history. Therefore, considering the grid only as the emblem of modernism in reference to western art movement of the 20th century will be a misconception.


The Grid as a Paleolithic Ochre


One of the earliest traces of the grid, are found in the caves of Blombos (300 km east of Cape Town) on some engraved ochres dated between 100,000 -70,000 BCE. An ochre is red or yellow colored iron-rich mineral usually found at stone age sites of southern Africa. There were about 1500 of these ochres found in variable sizes, the smallest ones are 10mm long. These ochres are (arguably) considered one of the earliest examples of objects bearing abstract symbolic engravings by the homo sapiens. One of such ochres bears an isometric grid pattern with straight and semi-straight lines (Fig.1). Interestingly, these marks are not on the cave wall or any other surface but on the crayon like medium itself, as the ochres were used for mark making on the surface of cave walls. Professor Christopher Henshilwood, an archeologist, believes that ochre was one of the earliest prehistoric found pigments along with the charcoal.[3] On the nature of these marks Henshilwood writes:


“The pattern was created by first engraving the long parallel lines, then the oblique lines, and finally, the superficial single line that crosses the latter perpendicularly. Each line was engraved using probably a lithic tool in a single stroke. The presence of at least two superimposed sets of parallel lines suggests these incisions are the remnants of a complex design.”[4]


These cross perpendicular lines are in fact evidence of (angular) grid pattern which is found at a place where color from the natural pigment is processed or produced. One wonders what is the use of such abstract isometric grid pattern as early as 100,000-70,000 BCE?


Was it meant for any utilitarian purpose such as counting? an embellishment? a doodle to divert boredom? and many more such questions on its purpose such drawing.


The Grid as a Neolithic Map


Another example of the use of the grid is found in Çatalhöyük (southern Anatolia) – a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement dating back to 7500 to 5700 BCE.[5] [6] The excavations of the site provides a unique insight into the living conditions of humans at the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture societies. It shows clusters of houses planned in a loose grid plan (Fig.2). However, the most interesting reference to the grid is on the murals map of Çatalhöyük. British archaeologist James Mellaart who discovered the mural (Fig.3) in the 1960s, states that:


…the Çatalhöyük “mural map” is approximately 3 m wide painting on the North and East wall of ‘‘shrine’’14 dated 6430–6790 BCE. Shrines were initially identified as cultic spaces, now viewed to represent domestic areas with more-or-less cultic or ritual significance. The lower register of the mural (Fig. 2) contains, 80 square shaped patterns tightly arranged like cells in a honeycomb, and its upper register depicts an object that was initially identified either as a rendering of a mountain with two peaks with the cell-like patterns representing a plan view of a village with a general layout of the houses similar to that of Çatalhöyük and other nearby Neolithic settlements… [7]


Such representation of community houses quite clearly establishes that the inhabitants defined their collective map of dwellings through grid pattern. However, looking at the aforementioned examples, one learns that the sensibility of using the grid to plan and organize housing was used since pre-historic times. Furthermore, one must not forget the strict grid planning found in later Bronze age civilizations including Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt. I posit that following the footsteps of ancestors, the urban planning in present time uses grid planning as a collective plan to bring together communities.


The Grid as Canonical Proportions


Similarly, in the stylized human representation, ancient Egyptians used a set of fixed principles abiding a certain ‘canon of proportions’ – considered orderly, fit to the local taste and idealize depiction of a person.


According to the art historian, Gay Robins, Egyptian artists first drew horizontal and vertical guidelines on the surface so the proportions of the figures would be consistent with the established canon.[8] The result of such measured proportions and relationships was an art of remarkable order and uniformity that maintains the same balance whether in a colossal statue or a figure in hieroglyphic script (Fig. 4). The underneath guidelines also helped to arrange rows and groups of figures in a unified manner, as seen in artist’s Userwer’s own incomplete autobiographical stela (Fig.5) (Fig.6). In Egyptian canon of proportions, different parts of the human body corresponded to different squares in the grid. Hence, the unit of the grid was developed according to the parts of the body. The grid layout is not used here to simply copy particular image on any chosen scale but to follow proportional grid for the idealized human figure.


Grid and Progression of Design


The expansion and development of geometry in Islamic art and architecture can be related to the rapid growth of science and technology in the Middle East, Iran, and Central Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries; such progress was prompted by translations of ancient Greek and Sanskrit texts.[9] By the 10th century, contributions of Muslim scientists became quite significant. Khwarizmi …. was the author of the earliest research on geometry in the Islamic history of science in the early 9th century.[10] [11]


The geometric designs vary in nature and developed with a step-by-step progression and variation. Through repetition and the rotation of basic shapes like squares, circles, and triangles a simple design transforms into more complex shapes like hexagon, octagon, and decagon (Fig. 7). These strategies of overlapping, rotation and interlacing transform a design into an apex of complexity. Starting from the base of a single unit of design till the end at multiplicity, the grid is used as a margin of a single pattern to its endless repetition to create a spectacular aura of Islamic geometric design.


The Grid in the Earthly Paradise


In Islam, the concept of paradise is manifested through the idea of Chahar or Char Bagh (quadrilateral – four gardens of Paradise mentioned in Qur’an).[12] The quadrilateral garden is divided by central walkways and/or flowing water into four smaller parts.[13] Besides the Islamic concept of Char Bagh, the earliest evidence of quadrilateral gardens was recorded in 600 B.C. at the palace area in Pasargadae, dating back to the final years of the reign of Cyrus the Great (559-30 B.C.)in Iran. The garden was based on the Zoroastrian division of the universe into four parts, four seasons or the four elements; water, wind, soil, and fire. [14] However, in the Islamic context, Chahar-Bagh is a metaphor of the cosmos. In this sense, it is considered as universe whose architect is God and the human is a seedling planted and created by God.[15]


Based on the simple Persian quadrilateral grid, Indian Mughals also designed several gardens including Bagh -e- Babur in Kabul, Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, Jahangir’s tomb in Lahore, Taj Mahal in Agra and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore (Fig. 8) and many more on the same idea Chahar Bagh.


Grid as a Draughtman’s Net


In early 16th century Europe, the development of linear perspective was the result of the mathematical construction of space. In 1506 the German artist Albrecht Dürer interested in Italian Renaissance theories wrote “Treatise of Measurement” that included illustrations of perspective devices called “Draughtsman’s Net” (Fig. 9), based on da Vinci’s similar device and Leon Battista Alberti Alberti ’s grid called Alberti’s Veil.[16] The draftsman’s net consisted of a square wooden frame with a net of black threads forming a grid structure. The artist’s viewpoint was fixed by the use of an eyepiece set at a distance twice the height of the grid. The artist looks through the frame and copies the outlines of what he sees onto a piece of paper with a similar grid marked on it. Although the outcome of the seeing through draughtsman’s grid was a drawing of the subject, however, the grid served as a catalyst for observation of the artist. The grid frame here served as a see-through viewfinder, which is in fact still present in its simpler form within the viewfinders of latest DSLR or cell phone cameras (Fig.10).


Grid as Illusion


During the 17th century, many Dutch painters such as Pieter de Hooch, Emanuel de Witt, Johannes Vermeer and many other depicted grid based black and white patterned marble floors in their paintings (Fig.11) (Fig.12). Art historian C. Wilemijn Fock argues that although marble floors did exist in the houses of Dutch middle class, but such floors were not as widespread as one sees in the 17th century paintings.[17] She argues that with an exception, such fancy looking checkered marble floors were used in formal areas such as living room and certainly not in halls and corridors. Even in the most luxurious houses of the elites, marble floors were not the obvious choice to impress the guests. Space where one had to dwell over a long periods of time, with as much comfort as possible, spectacular effects of the rich marbles did not compensate their evident drawback in the chilly and damp Dutch climate. Such marbles inside common areas of the house were usually not too busy but fairly simple patterns or no color patterns, but simple grid. So one wonders, what was the reason for the overrepresentation of elaborately two color patterned marble floors in these paintings? According to Fock, in most cases, artists must have introduced checkered grid pattern to construct or emphasize the pictorial perspective with Chiaroscuro, as an artistic device.[18] This point is also supported by a 17th century manuscript of mathematics which contains about twenty drawing explaining how to construct grid-based floor patterns in linear perspective.




To determine the origin of an idea in art history and archeology is subject to change as it is continuously informed by new researches and discoveries. To find out for sure, the exact origin of grid is not in question here. While retracing the early examples of grid, one is compelled to think about the context of isometric grids, Çatalhöyük grid based dwellings, the mural at the site of Hasan Dagi, the Egyptian Canon of Proportions, the Islamic Geometry, Persian Chahar Bagh, The 16th century invention of perspective and 17th century checkered patterns in Dutch paintings all culminates to the idea that the grid serves as a device that connects the human beings beyond any time and geography. Its appearance in different times and region has something to do with the human psyche. By nature the quadrilateral grid structure is two-dimensional, it maps the space easily while dividing it at the same time. By look, it is anti-nature, man-made structure to build an idea like a scaffolding- used to construct a building. With straight lines, it is a base for human thinking that may start from a doodle and culminate into an ideal well-organized image. It is however based on a structure that represents what I call “shortcut psyche” same as in a straight line that a dot invented by his walk from point one to the other, was the shortest possible distance.





[1] Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was a Swiss German artist. He was influenced by movements in art that included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism


[2] Krauss Rosalind E. “Grids” from The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985


[3] Henshilwood Christopher S., d’Errico, F. & Watts, I. Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, (2009), 24-27, 219, 222.


[4] ibid., 334.


[5] The Chalcolithic or Copper Age, was a period in the development of human technology, before it was discovered that adding tin to copper formed the harder bronze, leading to the Bronze Age


[6] Çatal Höyük; from Turkish çatal “fork” and höyük”mound” . Anatolia is often considered to be synonymous with Asian Turkey, which comprises almost the 95% of the country; its eastern and southeastern borders are widely taken to be the Turkish borders with neighboring Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, in clockwise direction.


[7] British archaeologist James Mellaart discovered it in 1960s. Upon excavation, the wall-painting was photographed in-situ and subsequently publicized as a graphical reconstruction. The original has since then been removed from the excavation site and it is presently curated in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara (Turkey). A reproduction is on display in lieu of the original at the excavation location. Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia, Turkey, Axel K. Schmitt, Martin Danišík, Erkan Aydar, Erdal Şen, İnan Ulusoy, Oscar M. Lovera. PLoS One.  e84711.  2014; 9(1): (Published online Jan 8, 2014 , http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0084711)


[8] Robins Gay.,The Art of Ancient EGYPT: A RESOURCE FOR EDUCATORS The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/the-art-of-ancient-egypt)

[9] Turner H.R., Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction. University of Texas, 1997.


[10] Al-Khwārizmī, in full Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, (born c. 780—died c. 850), Muslim mathematician and astronomer whose major works introduced Hindu- Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. Latinized versions of his name and of his most famous book title live on in the terms algorithm and algebra. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/al-Khwarizmi)


[11] Mohamed M., Great Muslim Mathematicians. University of Technology, Malaysia, 2000.

[12] The quadrilateral Charbagh concept is based on the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in Chapter (Surah) 55, Ar-Rahman “The Beneficient”, in the Qur’an.


[13] Lehrman, Jonas Benzion, Earthly paradise: garden and Courtyard in Islam, University of California Press, (1980).  


[14] Karimi-Hakkak, A., Iranica heirloom: Persian literature. Iranian Studies 31, 1998, 527-542

[15] Farahani, Motamed, Jamei. Persian Gardens: Meanings, Symbolism, and Design


[16] Leon Battista Alberti (February 14, 1404 – April 25, 1472) was an Italian humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leon-Battista-Alberti)


[17] Fock,Willemijin. “Semblance or Reality? The Domestic Interior in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting.” Art & Home: Dutch interiors in age of Rembrandt. Newark: Denver Art Museum, Newark Museum, Wannders, 2001


[18] Chiaroscuro (from Italian: chiaro, “light,” and scuro, “dark”) technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects. 17th c. Dutch painters were fascinated with this technique, resulted in an exaggeration of the pattern of light and dark through white and black marble tiles in linear perspective over the floors of interior painting. REFERENCE












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