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An Inspiring new Commission of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr): CrysAC

The relationship between Crystallography and Art, or more personally crystallographers and artistic expression, has always been very flirtatious based on an immediate attraction between the two partners. We can all remember the tremendous fascination that we felt when we saw the first symmetrical patterns produced by the various planar symmetry operations applied to simple motifs, when we began to read books on crystallography and symmetry. Crystallographers specially, but also earlier scientists like Leonardo and Kepler, are drawn naturally to the fascinating beauty of the structures and patterns that they unveil hidden in the crevices of their unit cells. The attraction seems irresistible!

With those images in our eyes, we might have soon discovered the work of the pioneer Viennese graphic artist Koloman Moser [1](1868-1918) or the work of the better known Dutch graphic artist (M.C. Escher: 1898-1972) and his imaginative excursions into the tiling of the plane; to him it was like a obsession:

“To fit together congruent shapes I attempted to give forms of animals…It remains an extremely absorbing activity, a real mania to which I have become addicted. The silhouettes of birds and fish are the most gratifying shapes of all for use in the game of dividing the plane” [2]

His color plates [3] and those of others (H. Hinterrreiter, 1902-1989) illustrated the concepts of polychromatic symmetry arguably before this notion appeared more widely in the literature. Moreover, Escher’s later works [4] used his amazing artistry and richness in detail to depict imaginary self-reflecting worlds that were braided together with Gödel and Bach in that imaginative, tripartite golden braid written by Douglas Hofstadter entitled GEB [5] inviting all of us to reflect upon the unique threads of the human spirit, upon our own consciousness and who we were [6].

It is well documented that Escher got his inspiration to explore the tiling of the plane from the ceramic tiles that he saw in the magnificent palace of the Alhambra in Spain in 1936 [7] during one of his trips to Andalusia. If this was a window of inspiration for him, it is also a source of study, analysis and exploration for an enlarging group of crystallographers and mathematicians exploring geometric patterns in Islamic art (see for instance www.castera.net). This field of study now encompasses Moorish zillij (tile) patterns including tashjir calligraphic patterns in the Alhambra and in many other places in the Islamic word: Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Kharraqan tomb towers in Iran, decorations at Mihrab, (the inner sanctum of the Islamic Mosques), among others [8,9].

The maturity of this field of study is evident by the existence of an IUCr commission devoted to these topics (MaThCryst: http://www.crystallography.fr/mathcryst) and the multitude of papers that continue to appear on these topics ranging from the description of the decorations, to the detailed mathematical analysis and to the understanding of the artisanal and practical aspects of this artistic manifestations of the human spirit. A significant review of the current work in the field was presented at the satellite meeting of the European Crystallographic Society (ECM24) in Marrakech entitled ‘The Enchanting Crystallography of Moroccan Ornaments’, sponsored by the MaThCryst commission. The satellite symposium was rounded up with a field visit to the Kasbah de Telouet, a site renowned for the richness of its ornaments, led by the scientific director of the symposium Prof. Emil Makovicky (University of Copenhagen), a well known authority in the field [10].

The study of symmetrical patterns in other human artifacts across different cultures such as Javanese Batik cloths [11,12], Pueblo Indian Pottery [13], Japanese feudal emblems (i.e., manji and kamon) [14], Oriental carpets, Indian floor patterns ( kolam) and others is an active area of research. The scope of these investigations is enormous and the detailed studies might unveil unknown cross-pollination and influences between the different cultures in space and time; or it could reveal independent discovery of symmetrical patterns of decorations and motifs by the human mind (see bibliographies and below).

What else is there besides the mathematical theory of ornamentation to attract crystallographers to Art? What can the experimental methods related to crystallography add to the understanding of the relationship between Art and Crystallography or even more encompassing Art and Science? As noted by C.P. Snow, the schism between the two cultures became more significant in the 19th century [15] but there is great impetus to bring these two critical threads of the human spirit together again [16] and crystallography could provide a unique bridge and agglutinant.

There is tremendous amount of academic research on this theme with Art historians, artist, scientists and cultural observers taking sides on a continuous spectrum with two separate poles. Can the relationship between Art and Science be described by the nebulous concept of ‘spirit of the times’ (as embedded in the German word ‘ Zeitgeist’), or is there a real casual link between Art and Science supported by concrete evidence?

A large number of books (the most famous being probably Shubnikov & Koptsik text on Symmetry in Science and Art [17]) and research papers published in professional Journals ( ArtHistory, Art Journal, Art Quarterly, Leonardo, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, besides of course Acta Crystallographica Section A) by the leaders in the field (S. Brush, S. Y. Edgerton, L. D. Henderson, M. Kemp, M. Reis, M. Topper and J. H. Holloway among others) present their individual work or review that of others and address this question in various ways. The range of studies is enormous and we can only list a few connections to give the reader a flavor of the wide influence of scientific issues in the world of Art: a link between A. Dürer and Kepler has been documented; Baroque Scientists seemed to have concealed their support of the Copernican view of the solar system in artistic illustrations; weather forecast and Art; cartography and Flemish art; the new physics and the impact of the Modernist artists; Art and human anatomy; Art and the depiction of water; Botany and artistic depiction of plants; using the correct depiction of the geological formations in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks to distinguish the authentic vs. the copy; chemicals and painting and so many others (see http://www.leonardo.info/isast/spec.projects/artsciencebib.html for a non exhaustive but annotated bibliography).

Crystallographic and related techniques

Crystallographic and related techniques (diffraction, spectroscopy, microanalysis and microimaging) applied to the microanalysis of samples (both crystalline and amorphous) originating from ancient paints, pottery, cosmetics, unguents, archeological materials, preserving materials and many others can provide critical information on the composition, origin, production technology, authenticity, physical and cultural migration, historical development and other related issues. Thus, it can provide unambiguous evidence to Art scholars and historians, critics, archeologists and anthropologists battling with questions that cannot be answered by more traditional methods. What branch of science or technology can claim such a wide range of ‘artistic’ leanings and applications with direct impact in the Art-Science interface?

A few brief examples can show the power of these methods. It was in Amsterdam in the lab of Prof. Schenk that art-historian Joris Dik performed an investigation of Naples Yellow (lead antimonate yellow pigment) for his PhD using X-ray powder diffractometry. One of the aims of this research was to describe different manufacturing methods which resulted in different forms of lead antimonate used over time, thus enabling the dating of lead antimonate paint samples of unknown origin [18]. Because X-ray diffraction analysis is non-destructive and sometimes also non-invasive, it is particularly useful in the study of museum objects. It is also the only method to identify some materials. Neither chemical analysis alone nor more sophisticated techniques such as inductively-coupled plasma/mass spectrometry (ICP/MS), X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS), which provide information on elemental composition, can determine if white inlays on ancient brooches are limestone (calcite) or shell (aragonite), since both consist chemically of calcium carbonate. The situation is similar with certain pigments: lead tin yellow type I (Pb2 SnO4) and type II (PbSnO3)[19]; chrome oxide green (Cr2 O3) and viridian green (Cr2O3 .H2O) or malachite CuCO3. Cu(OH)2 and verdigris (Cu(CH3COO)2.nCu(OH)2 .mH2O) [20]. In the domain of painting, powder diffraction analysis can unveil unforeseen discoveries. Using this technique, it was found that the white pigment in the painting Aspring landscape near Arles (attributed to Van Gogh:1853-1890) is the synthetic pigment rutile (a polymorph of TiO2) that was used in art only after 1938; thus demonstrating that the work could not have been done by the famous Dutch artist who had died much earlier [19].

In response to the growing interest and developments in the use of crystallographic methods to analyze historical, cultural and archaeological artefacts (among others) the Executive committee of the IUCr at its meeting in Osaka (August 2008) approved the formation of a new commission appropriately named ‘Crystallography, Art and Cultural Heritage (CrysAC)’ devoted to the support and expansion of all of those lines of enquiry. The decision followed the request presented by Dr. E. Dooryhée (CNRS, France) who has been the leading force behind a proposal drafted by a group of crystallographer colleagues interested in this area of research [21]. The terms of governance, objectives and vision of this new commission as well as its current membership and group of supporting consultants can be found at www.visual-chemistry.net/crysac. A satellite symposium organized jointly by the MaThCryst and CrysAC commissions will be held at the next meeting of the European Crystallographic Association (ECM25) in Istanbul (Turkey, August 2009) devoted to the theme of Symmetry and Crystallography in Turkish Art and Culture [22]

Any person interested in pursuing the scientific problems that this branch of crystallography is trying to address should always keep in mind three cardinal points as beacons to guide her or his interests in the areas of research that this commission seeks to explore at the interface of Art and Science. First, the analysis, explanations and insights into the artifacts/samples do not destroy the beauty and uniqueness of the objects under study no matter how aseptic the language of mineral names, textures, chemical formulae and space groups might sound. Second, the scientific and technological aspects represented and underlying in any form of Art (graphic, decorative, architectural or other) are a part of the culture heritage of the societies and people of the Earth who created them. Finally, it is through the wise and intelligent usage of the findings, explanations and concepts expressed above that we can make our work and our discoveries more accessible to the lay people so that the discoveries enrich their lives as much as they enrich ours; our findings can illuminate Art in unique ways for the specialist and for our fellow humans. We feel that the new commission created by the IUCr provides an inspiring opportunity to achieve all these goals in future years.

Visit the website of this new CrysAC commission of the IUCr (http://www.visual-chemistry.net/crysac) or join the open mailing list at http://listes.uhp-nancy.fr/wws/info/crysac. We welcome your comments, suggestions and insight as to the goals, objectives, directions and strategies of this new commission to make this new initiative of the IUCr a complete success for all of us and for society at large.

Written by Cele Abad-Zapatero on behalf of the members of the Commission on Crystallography, Art and Cultural Heritage of the IUCr. The comments and suggestions from the commission members are greatly appreciated.


  1. Moser, K. Specially the art magazine Ver Sacrum that he founded (1899) and his varied Art portfolio Die Qelle(The Source, 1902) that included tapestries, fabrics and wallpaper designs among other.
  2. Escher, M. C. and Locher J. L. (eds). M.C. Escher: his Life and complete graphic work.1982. NY.
  3. MacGillavry, C. H. Fantasy and Symmetry. The Periodic Drawings of M. C. Escher. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers. New York, 1976. Copyright 1965 and 1976 by the International Union of Crystallography. Geneva. Switzerland.
  4. M.C. Escher. The Graphic Work. Introduced and explained by the artist. Taschen. 2001. Koln.
  5. Hofstadter, D. R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.Vintage Books. A Division of Random House. New York. First Vintage Books Edition. 1980.
  6. Hofstadter, D. R. I am a Strange Loop. Basic Books. New York. 2007.
  7. Escher, M. C. Escher on Escher. Exploring the Infinite. Translated from the Dutch by Karin Ford. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers. New York, 1989.
  8. Bourgoin, J. Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design. 1973. Translated from Les elements de l’Art Arabe. Firmin-Didot, Paris, 1879.
  9. Castéra, J-M. ‘Arabesques: Art decorative au Maroc’
  10. Castéra, J.M., Makovicky, E., Matsumoto, T. Benatia, J. MathCryst Satellite Meeting. The Enchanting Crystallography of Moroccan ornaments, ECM2007.
  11. Haake, A. Manufacture of textile handcrafts using crystallographic patterns. IUCr 1990. Bordeaux and ECM2007 Marrakech.
  12. Haake, A. Computers Math. Application. (1989) 17, 815-826.
  13. Campbell, P.J. Math. Applications 1989.
  14. Makovicky, E. Teaching Crystallography Workshop at the IUCr2008, Osaka.
  15. Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 1962.
  16. Barash, C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide. The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2005) 52(4), B10.
  17. Shubnikov A.V, Koptsik V.A. Symmetry in Science and Art,Plenum Press, NY 1974.
  18. Schenk, H. Dik, J. Peschar, R. The Production History of Naples Yellow and the Discoloration of the Blue Pigment Smalt. (2005). XX Congress of the International Union of Crystallography, Florence.
  19. Sirois, J. X-ray Diffraction at CCI, Canadian Conservation Institute – CCI in Action. CCI Newsletter 8, October 1991, 4-6.
  20. Hahn. O., Oltrogge, H. Bevers., Archaeometry46, 1(2004), 273-282.
  21. During the Microsymposium ‘Crystallography and Understanding of Cultural Heritage’ chaired by Profs. H. Schenk and S. Siano (XX Congress of IUCr, 2005, Florence), the concept of a new IUCr commission emerged. Eric Dooryhée, who presented a lecture – ‘Powder diffraction in art and archaeology’ there and who had experience in the investigation of objects from art and archaeology, gave substance and body to the proposal with input from interested colleagues.
  22. www.crystallography.fr/mathcryst/istanbul2009.php

CrysAC News:


> The International Year of Crystallography 2014


> Photographs of the opening in Paris

Next Events:

CrysAC meetings

5th Meeting X-ray and other techniques in investigations of the objects of cultural heritage

Jagiellonian University
Krakow, Poland
14-17 May 2014
Deadline for submitting abstracts: 1 MARCH 2014

23rd IUCr Congress and General Assembly of the International Union of Crystallography
Monréal, Québec, Canada
August 5-12, 2014
Deadline for submitting abstracts:
18. February 2014

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Useful link:

IUCr Online Dictionary of Crystallography

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    Last update: February 17, 2014 | Website: Anke Zürn  


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