Leila Honari – Reflecting on Proto-Animation Techniques in the Mandalic Forms of Persian Traditional Arts


Histories of cinema as an artform tend to start in the early nineteenth century and consider cinema as the convergence of two different practices that developed in parallel, only coming together at the end of the century. The first is the capture of still photoreal images in a chemical medium, known as photography. The second is the exploration of making graphic images appear to move, encapsulated in a series of amusement devices, which became known as philosophical or optical toys (Wyver, 1989 and Nowell-Smith, 1997). The Daguerrotype and Niepce images (see Figures 1 and 2) depict the way that the formative history of cinema is usually portrayed. However, I argue that concepts of storytelling through the moving image can be seen in art much earlier than the late nineteenth century.







Figure 1: Daguerreotype still life by Louis Daguerre, 1837, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons







Figure 2: The oldest photographic image with Nicephore Niepce 1826, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (The original is at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.)

Animated cinema is a form of filmmaking incorporating the second of these threads yet is often implicitly portrayed as a weaker artform vis-a-vis live action cinema, despite its purity of provenance. Indeed, general histories of cinema and other nineteenth century emerging communication technologies include no reference to animation at all. For example, there is no mention of the word ‘animation’ in the index of books such as InfoCulture written by Steven Lubar, 1993, which is devoted to detailing inventions of the information age. It is the contention of this paper that greater understanding about the pre-history of cinema will negate this downplaying of animation’s importance in moving-image culture.

 There appears to be a constant interplay and intersection of the worlds of the arts and of the sciences that contradicts Chemist and novelist C.P. Snow’s 1959 identification of the “two (Quite Separate) cultures. Snow posits an absolute non-understanding and unbridgeable gap between the apparently opposing worlds of mid-twentieth century science and humanities, as well as between scientists and intellectuals (Snow, 1993). Yet, in the nineteenth century, art and science were hybridized to produce cinema. As I will discuss, scientists of the time were studying phenomena of the persistence of vision and invented multiple philosophical/optical toys around 1830s that exemplified this concept and in turn formed the key steps towards animation and cinema more broadly. Within the other parallel strand of innovation, photographer Eadweard Muybridge used sequential images of captured animals’ movement to answer scientific and veterinary problems in 1860s. Muybridge was also inspired by Plateau’s Phenakistoscope (Prodger, 2003) and created an optical toy called Zoopraxiscope (see figures 3, 4, 5, 6). Later, Thomas Edison, who had developed many devices including a motion picture camera prototype, met Muybridge in 1888 to discuss the possibility of joining his phonograph with Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope to produce simultaneous sound and pictures (Lubar, 1993). These appear to be the seeds of being able to materially capture and manipulate moving images.









Figure 3:  Phenakistoscope disc, 1833






Figure 4: A hand-held, mirror-dependent, phenakistoscope








Figure 5: Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 626, 1887, National Gallery of Art. NGA Images, Open access image in public domain.








Figure 6: Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope-Horse galloping, 1893, By The Library of Congress [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

 Significantly, Muybridge’s objects of study were four-legged animals. It seems the human will and desire to depict and understand the movement of animals evidently lies deep in the human psyche. Arguably it goes back to the very beginning of human art and image making in prehistoric/Paleolithic era, evidenced in the Chauvet cave (Bradshaw Foundation n.d.) and in Aboriginal Australian rock paintings (Parke 2015). Evidence that humans in Persia were going beyond the representation of animals as static beings/objects and towards the systematic representation of movement pre-dates this 19th Century experimentation. In the 1970s, a 5200-year-old Persian goblet was discovered by an Italian team in a grave at the Burnt City in Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran. Several years later Iranian archaeologist, Mansour Sajjadi, discovered that its pictures formed a related series (CAIS, 2008). This is suggestive that humans had for thousands of years been fascinated by animal movement and had put energy into trying to capture a series of sequential images.

Narrative sequential images on carved reliefs and potteries have been seen in many ancient civilizations like Egyptian friezes found in the burial chambers showing wrestlers in action from about 2000 B.C. and on Trajan’s Column in Rome, 106 to 113 AD. However, the Burnt City’s goblet indicates the knowledge of its creator in conceiving a series of images as a movement sequence. This goblet displays the jump cycle of a goat in five images/frames towards a tree to eat leaves, and has incorporated simple but not overt information. I posit that a key underpinning conceptual technology of moving image representation was in humans working out how to systematically represent sequential (animal) movements, and that this was graphic before it was – like cinema – photoreal.

Animation histories may briefly note the Burnt City goblet as an older example of the human desire to represent movement, but its significance has been rejected or diminished by animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi. Mentioning a few historical examples including the Burnt City goblet in the beginning of Animation: A World History, just for the sake of completeness, he dismisses it as useless to the historical studies of animation, stating, a

forerunner is just a runner. He doesn’t – nor does he care to – predict what posterity, with hindsight, will call him. Most of the actions, productions, and inventions that took place before the nineteenth century and look like something we now call animation were produced by forerunners. To what we now call animation, they have no cause-and-effect connection. They are purely anecdotic and thus useless to our historical discourse. (Bendazzi, 2015, p.7).

Bendazzi focuses on what we know today as animation, and it is understandable that he is rejecting an unduly teleological explanation of cinema history. Nothing in early Persian culture would indicate that those ceramic artists knew they presaged the art forms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And yet, I contend that with this quick dismissal, Bendazzi is missing some key understandings, even as I myself work to not fall into the trap of teleology.

 Siegfried Zielinski (2006), in Deep Time of the Media, explains the importance of the archaeology of media, highlighting turning points of media history wherein we see the new in the old. In his foreword to the book, Timothy Druckrey reminds us of the danger of spurious chronological projection:

An anemic and evolutionary model has come to dominate many studies in the so-called media. Trapped in progressive trajectories, their evidence so often retrieves a technological past already incorporated into the staging of the contemporary as the mere outcome of history. These awkward histories have reinforced teleologies that simplify historical research and attempt to expound an evolutionary model unhinged from much more than vague (or eccentric) readings of either the available canon or its most obvious examples (2006, p. vii)

According to Druckrey, history is fundamentally an act of searching – not just of facts, but of the displaced, the forgotten, and the disregarded. This paper seeks to suggest that whilst there was nothing automatic or predestined about the impact of Persian culture on the development of animation, nevertheless there are intriguing connections. From my own perspective I suggest that there is not just correlation of artistic intent over many many centuries, but that the correspondences are too great to be merely coincidences.

That said, my own context, background and history has informed my interest in whether or not there are connections between Persian pottery and nineteenth century artistic and scientific developments. I was born in Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran, in a city around 100 miles from the Burnt City. I am a carpet designer, schooled in Persian traditional arts, I did a Bachelor of Handicrafts at the Alzahra University of Tehran in 1995-1999, majoring in Carpet Design with teaching experiences in analysing Persian carpet patterns in Alzahra University as well as Sistan- Baluchistan University of Zahedan. I am also, a Sufi dancer and Setar player (which are my heritage from my childhood); currently lecturing and convening animation subjects at the Film School of Griffith university of Brisbane, Australia, where I am undertaking my PhD in animation with a focus on Proto-Animation techniques related to mandalic structures in Persian traditional arts. My doctorate frames my animation practice, which is an animated mandalic carpet based on twelfth century Persian literature of Farid al-Din Attar that has – at its core – the representation of the movement of animals (in this case birds).

Consequently, this paper explores links between nineteenth century European animation devices such as the Zoetrope and Phenakistoscope and two selected Persian historical artefacts which have been chosen based on their similarities to each other in geometrical structure and placement of images, to answer the questions regarding how Persian art traditions of the mandala reflect the circle and the centre of the universe and how may possibly be related to early animation techniques. Further, are the aesthetic links between Persian art and early-animated experiments coincidental, or the result of a continuous historical trajectory? As such, there are two ‘key elements’ to this research, early animation devices and Persian traditional arts.

Key Elements

To be able to analyse the mentioned key elements (Early animation devices and Persian traditional arts) and to link them together visually and conceptually necessitates identifying ‘key patterns’ that can act as tools in the analytical process. They are sacred geometry, the circle, and the mandala. Tracking these relationships is fundamental to the answering my research questions.

Early Animation Techniques

The first experiments in animation were the most popular forms of entertainment before the invention of cinema. In fact, the film industry found its first steps here. Hahtamo describes them as the “missing medium” in his book: Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (2013).

Coinciding with its emphasis on industrial expansion, the nineteenth century saw scholars, physicists, and scientists study and quantify physical phenomena such as the persistence of vision (the retention of a visual image for a short period after the removal of the stimulus that produces it) and the wheel phenomenon (the effect of viewing something going forward that seems as though it is moving backwards). This movement began with the invention of the Thaumatrope in 1826 by John Ayrton in Paris, which demonstrated phenomenon of the persistence of vision. At the time, this generated question such as “why the spokes of a rapidly spinning wheel seem to turn backward or forward or seem to stand still at different times?” This led nineteenth-century scientists to invent additional optical toys (Solomon, 1989). Among those who were investigating these optical effects was Peter Mark Roget, who published Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects in 1824. Charles Solomon, who is historian of animation and author of The History of Animation: Enchanted Drawing, criticises that “not all of Roget’s conclusions were correct, he did describe the important fact that the human eye will blend a series of sequential images into a single motion if the images are presented rapidly, with sufficient illumination, and interrupted regularly” (1989, p. 7). Raget’s studies subsequently influenced other scientists such as Joseph Plateau, who invented the Phenakistoscope, and William Horner, who invented the Zoetrope. These devices afforded the opportunity for the first time that inventors created an object that made one think or consider scientific phenomena as well as be entertained (Rossaak, ed. 2011, p. 31).

The nineteenth century was thus considered a great era of ‘philosophical’ optical toys that combined science with entertainment (Solomon, 1989). “They were designed to examine phenomena experimentally, rather than by naturalistic observation alone” (Wade 2012). Concurrently, Simon von Stampfer, an Austrian geologist, mathematician and inventor, after reading an article about Michael Faraday’s experiments concerning the optical illusion caused by rapidly rotating gears in the Journal of Physics and Mathematics, conducted and developed experiments for a quite similar device, calling it the “stroboscope.” A year later, William Horner, a Bristol-born mathematician, invented the Deadalum (“Wheel of the Devil”), which was renamed the Zoetrope (“Wheel of Life”) in 1960 (Solomon, 1989). The Zoetrope’s mechanism of movement, similar to the Phenakistoscope, is based on persistence of vision. A round drum, with slits in its body, is lined with a long strip of paper containing sequential images that when aligned with the number of viewing slits, affects a sense of movement as it spins. Lastly, Eadward Muybridge, who was studying the dynamics of biological motion with the aid of sequenced photographs, modified Plateau’s phenakistoscope (to view the sequences of photographs) and combined it with magic lantern (to project the images onto a screen) to create his “Zoopraxiscope” (Wade 2004). He “coined the term Zoopraxsiscope from the Greek words meaning animal action viewing device” (Prodger 2003).

Each of these philosophical toys has a complex Latin or Greek name. The reason underlying their composite names may be traced to their inventors wanting to give their inventions more credibility (NCSSM 1996), or possibly tracking back to their philosophical base. Interestingly the meanings of these names are expressive. For example, Thaumatrope means “turning marvel or wonder turner;” Phenakistoscope means “spindle viewer;” and as noted, Zoetrope means “wheel of life” or alternately “Daedalum” (“wheel of the devil”). Even the verb animation also expresses a philosophical concept. It describes the act of imparting a soul, spirit or life upon an object. Both describe a “state of being,” a “state that currently exists,” or “a state that already exists, or has already existed.” Although the word animation first appeared in the 1590s, it was not commonly used to refer to graphic moving images until 1912 (Online Etymology Dictionary and Wells 2011). Nineteenth century optical toys received philosophical names not only for their involvement in experimenting with natural phenomena, but also for the philosophical concepts that they offered; and those concepts could be linked with the notion of traditional arts.

Persian Traditional Arts

Speaking about Persian traditional arts is critical and requires some clarifications regarding Iran’s history of arts and cultural creeds, as well as the geographical location of Iran. However, these additional detailed analyses are beyond the scope of this paper to address. Yet, clarifying the difference in using the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ is essential here. Persia refers to Iran before 1935. Iran is the name chosen by intellectual leaders in the time of the first Pahlavi dynasty, and refers to the cultural tribe known as Arians. Both words (Persia and Iran) have deep roots in literature. In this paper, the word ‘Persian’ has been used more in referring to cultural and historical themes.

Persian Traditional arts include: architecture, handicrafts, literature, music and theatre. Each of these fields has its subset that also cross-references other subsets or fields. For example, handicrafts include carpet design, pottery, textiles, and calligraphy. They are considered sacred because they come from traditions. To understand what is Persian traditional art it is essential to understand what “tradition” means in this context. For the Iranian traditionalist, tradition is not custom or habit, nor is it the temporary style of a passing age. It considers a core message, relevant across all time. In the foreword to The Sense of Unity, Hossein Nasr references a Persian traditionalists view:

To speak of tradition is to speak of immutable principles of heavenly origin and of their application to different moments of time and space. It is also to speak of the continuity of certain doctrines and of the sacred forms, which are the means whereby these doctrines are conveyed to men and whereby the teachings of the tradition are actualized within men (Ardalan and Bakhtiar 1979).

Thus, traditions promoted only through the arts could thus also be called sacred art or traditional art. In other words, traditional art is the effort of humanity to understand, feel and use the immutable principles of heavenly or spiritual origin. Traditional art reincarnates the divine in everyday life by making useful objects and tools. For example, an Iranian carpet embodies a world of wisdom that, “when laid underfoot, seemingly takes man to the sky and brings the sky to the earth.” The aim of traditional arts is to show the beauty of an intelligent system of existence, which has a beautiful map (Rahnavard, 2002).

Detailed characteristics of these traditional arts are imbued with certain qualities, which include repetition by reflection and rotation of a pattern; symmetry; unity; importance of negative space as well as positive space; abstraction; spiral narration; timelessness and non-materiality, and suggest some fundamental patterns.

Key Patterns in Persian Traditional Art

The geometrical base of the early animation devices and Persian traditional arts are connected by key patterns. Both function through basic properties such as a centre, symmetry and cardinal points, which are essential in designing mandalas or other concentric designs. Brief explanations of sacred geometry, the mandala and the circle show how they are combinant in both early animation devices and Persian traditional arts.

 Sacred Geometry

Geometry means “measure of the earth” (Lawlor 1082), and is perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of nascent civilisation. The concept of sacred geometry dates back to ancient times, when it seemed inseparable from magic. Nigel Pennick in Sacred Geometry: Symbolism and Purpose in Religious Structure notes that geometry “developed out of an even earlier skill – the handling of measure, which in ancient times was considered to be a branch of magic. At that early period, magic, science and religion were in fact in separable, being part of the corpus of skills possessed by the priesthood” (1980, p. 7).

An Islamic manuscript from the tenth century, the Rasail al-Ikhwan al Safa, reveals geometry as the structure of creation. Interpreted in the mid 1970s, the authors of the translation explain that one of their aims is “demonstrating clearly that the whole world is composed in conformity with arithmetical, geometrical, and musical relations. There, we have explained in detail the reality of universal harmony” (Nasr 1978, p. 45).

Geometric ratios and proportions can be seen in all ancient civilisations, from their architecture to their knowledge of astronomy. Robert Lawlor (1982) in his book Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice presents sacred geometry as a metaphor of universal order in the shape of a mandala (see Figure 7). For instance, the

ratio of the sacred mean can be seen in the rotations of Venus and the Earth around the Sun in that for each five years that the Earth rotates the Sun, the Venus rotates around it eight times. The connection between 5 and 8, both of which are Fibonacci numbers, is the golden mean proportion (8/5 = 1.6). The result of this motion is that the Venus draws “a pentagon around the sun every eight years. (Dabbour 2012)

There is a pentagram motif under the dome of Taj-Al-Mulk in the north side of the Jameh mosque of Isfahan, Iran, built in 1088 (see Figure 8). In this geometric motif, the traditional artist used the science of geometry as a powerful tool to measure the proportions of perceived heaven and create a sample of that on the earth reflecting the universal order. Comparing this motif with the path of Venus plate (see Figure 7), which was created by James Ferguson based on Sir Isaac Newton’s Astronomy Principles (Ferguson, 1772, p. 66), shows patterns of concentric pentagrams that could repeat in an infinite number by connecting their edges and vertices. This pattern is what might be called a representation of the cosmos. It demonstrates the concentric forms of mandala that reflects the circle and the centre of the universe begin from the centre; extend in different fractal shapes and back to the centre symbolizing unity and wholeness.






Figure 7: The path of Venus from James Ferguson’s Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles.







Figure 8: Taj-al-Molk North Dome, Jameh mosque, Isfahan, Built 1088, [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Cogently, the role of geometry in the mechanical structure of optical toys is clear. Everything in those instruments is based on the circle, from the scientific phenomenon of the persistence of vision and the wheel phenomenon, to the arrangement of a number of sequential images painted around the edge of a disc or on a strip of paper. It seems that the inventors of the philosophical toys wanted to create a prototype of the universe. Even the names of their inventions (Zoetrope/wheel of life, Deadalum/wheel of devil, Thaumatrope/turning marvel, Phenakistoscope/spindle viewer) function as metaphors or referents to the cosmos, and to the mandala as a representation of the cosmos.

 The Mandala

Mandala is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “sacred circle that protects the soul.” It also refers to the sacred cosmograms, or circular maps of the universe, that serve as core symbols for all cultures. In English language dictionaries such as The Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Britannica, a mandala is defined as a synonym for sacred space and a spiritual symbol that represents the universe by geometric designs. According to Leidy and Thurman,

mandala means any circle or discoid object such as the sun or moon. In etymological studies, it is something divided into manda- cream, best part, highest point- and la- signpost or completion. The combination is explained as a place or point, which contains an essence. (1997, p. 17)

The mandala can also be interpreted as a space between conscious realms, as Jose and Miriam Arguelles posit. As they frame it, a mandala “consists of a series of concentric forms, suggestive of a passage between different dimensions. In its essence, it pertains not only to the earth but to the Macrocosm and Microcosm, the larger structural processes as well as the smallest. It is the gatepost between the two” (1995, p. 12).

As noted, a mandala has three basic properties: a centre, symmetry and cardinal points, therefore it has a geometrical structure that could be very simple or very complicated. One example is the simplest form depicted in a seventeenth-century Rajasthani prayer mandala (see Figure 9) and similarly a cosmographical diagram from the 18th C (see Figure 10).









Figure 9: A simple yet potent symbol of the cosmos, Rajasthan, Seventeenth century.









Figure 10: Right, Cosmographical diagram, Eighteenth century, Brooklyn Museum Collection.

Incorporating a design that symbolizes the cosmic structure and consciousness, mandalas are a mortal’s imagination of spirituality or immortality. Based on the essence associated with sacred art, they are found in the structure of religious and traditional arts of many different cultures such as Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, Medieval Christianity and Native American shamanist beliefs, as well as geometric Islamic patterns. In all, the purpose is to encourage the striving towards perfection and self-discovery by meditating, which opens the realm of peace, balance and harmony to its observers.

Two main shapes of the mandala are the circle and the square. The circle is endless and represents sky and the square by expressing the cardinal points, represents the Earth. This can be seen in the structure of mosques where transformations of the square by making triangular subsets into the circle create a dome. In geometry, this transformation has been called “squaring the circle.” An example can be seen in Taj-al-Molk dome of Isfahan Jameh mosque (see Figure 8 above). The initial records of that idea date back to the Sassanid era (224-651 AD) in a kind of architectural structure known as Chahar taq, which was the Zoroastrians place of worship of the sacred fire.

The Circle

Underpinning all the key elements and patterns of this research of both animation and Persian designs is the circle. As Azzam describes, the circle “is traditionally regarded as the shape of perfection and symbol of Unity and wholeness. It is the primary plan and container of every possible form, and the basis for all patterns and proportional grids. The circle’s boundary, or circumference, can be traced through an infinite number of points connected by an infinite number of radii to its centre” (2013, p. 23). From a philosophical point of view the circle is a symbol of unification, the eternal code and the indivisible point. Plato in particular considered the soul of the world to be spherical, while other alchemists believed that the spirit and oneness are connatural with the circle (Copper, 1993). Circular sacred geometry reinforces the visual and conceptual designs of the mandala of several ancient cultures, including Persia, where it is known as the cosmogram (map of the cosmos). Persian traditional arts, share similarities with many early animation devices, which not only depend upon circular delivery systems, but rely on the images to be drawn on a circle to create the illusion of motion. When viewed from above and laid out flat these take the form of a cosmogram.

In Persian traditional arts, the circle is the main element for drawing and design. Drawing is the basis for the patterns of all traditional designs, and the circle is the main geometrical element that is needed to draw all different Persian motifs such as the Arabesque, floral patterns and geometrical designs. One of the main elements in traditional drawing is the spiral, which is a dynamic form showing an illusion of motion. When motion is depicted, time becomes another element. In this framework, motion is a sign of time. In sacred arts, time has a circular essence like recurring seasonal changes (Franz 1992). In visualising physics, when a spiral form moves to the left on a graph, a secondary movement upwards or on a Z-axis is shaped, and vice versa when the spiral moves to right, a downward movement appears. It can be seen that a virtual rising and falling motion (ascent and descent) can be created in the two-dimensional spiral forms of Persian patterns (Mousavilar 2001).

For optical toys, the circle is the major shape that contains the whole idea – from the actual form of those devices to their scientific functions – and in the timing and the cyclic nature of the looping actions. Moreover, the circle connects these optical toys with the key characteristics of traditional Persian arts, and to their repetitive and cyclic images that simulate a narrative concept in a cyclic and non-linear narrative way.

Persian Historical Artefacts that Suggest Animation

Narrative sequential images that mimic a story can be seen in artefacts from ancient civilizations, mostly on carved reliefs and potteries, such as Trajan’s Column in Rome, and ancient Greek ceramics. These repetitive images were usually carved along a citadel wall or painted around the edge of an earthenware bowl. They express many messages and provide valuable information about their era, even if those images simply show a repetitive, decorative pattern. Numerous earthenware dishes and containers with these characteristics have been discovered over fifty years of excavation (since 1967) in the Burnt City, which is an archaeological site of the Bronze Age and located in Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran. Mostly they have geometrical patterns, but some of them have animal and floral patterns that express the natural environment of the locale. As mentioned in the introduction of this paper, among the objects discovered in a 5,200-year-old grave was a goblet containing a pattern of a wild goat (CAIS 2008). An article titled “First Animation of the World Found in Burnt City” published by the Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency announced and described the Burnt City Goblet: “On this ancient piece […] the artist has portrayed a goat that jumps toward a tree and eats its leaves [. …] On this goblet, with a diameter of 8 cm and height of 10 cm, the images show movement in an intricate way that is an unprecedented discovery” (2004).

The iconographic image of the wild goat (Capra Aegagrus, also known as Persian desert Ibex), an indigenous animal of the region, is one of the key symbols of this civilisation and appears in most of the Burnt City’s earthenware. When the wild goat appears with a tree it is thought to be a representation of the mother goddess Murkum, who was worshiped by all the Indo-Iranian women of the Haramosh Valley (in today’s Pakistan) close to the Baluchistan region of Iran (CAIS, 2008). Might this be the point of inspiration for the ancient potter who made this piece as her (or his) faithfulness to the goddess Murkum?

From an animator’s point of view, the movement of the goat on the Burnt City goblet is not far from contemporary animating skills. It consists of a jump cycle done in five images/frames, which are essentially the least frames that are needed for a four-legged creature jump cycle. In this sequence, the goat is standing, steps toward a tree, climbs up it, eats the leaves and comes down. Although there are no in-between frames in this movement, the ancient potter created ‘key frames’ that contain a very basic level of now-classic animation principals such as squash and stretch, anticipation and even timing and spacing. If the trunk of the tree is considered as the edges of each frame, different sizes are seen in the length of each frame that could change or create the timing (Fig. 13). These results must be the result of years and years of trial and error experiments. It shows the possibility of knowledge in visual theory in that particular civilization. This early/historic suggestion of animated or sequential images shows a similar structure to early western-style animation experiments particularly the Zoetrope (Figures 11 and 12). If the concept of the wheel led nineteenth century scientists to invent animation devices, perhaps it could have inspired the ancient potters as well, given that their operating apparatus is also a wheel.








Figure 11: Earthen goblet of Burnt City, 3000 BC Tehran, National Museum of Iran. Wikimedia Commons.








Figure 12: The Zoetrope, invented in 1834 by William Horner.




Figure 13: The ‘rolled-out’ image of a wild goat on the Burnt City Goblet

Figure 14: Animated test of five images of the goat [clickable here]

The “Bowl with Astronomical and Royal Figures” from the late 12th century (see Figure 15 below), corresponds to the medieval period in Europe and is another document of historical forms of sequential images. It is from Central or Northern Iran and is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) collection in New York. A sun symbol sits at the centre, and six circular medallions with figures representing the moon, and the planets Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn appear around the sun. The surrounding bands contain riding horsemen and birds, seated courtiers, musicians, two enthroned figures, and an Arabic inscription. The presence of a mandala as a cosmogram on the bowl is obvious. Figure 16 is my analysis of the hidden mandalic structure of this artefact in geometric shapes. In the centre of the bowl there is a circle/sun image, and from this point other concentric shapes (such as pentagrams), expand.









Figure 15: Bowl with Astronomical and Royal Figures, Central or Northern Iran, late 12th–early 13th century. Material: Stonepaste; polychrome inglaze and overglaze painted and gilded on opaque monochrome glaze (mina’i) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.









Figure 16: Visual analysis of the Astronomical bowl in geometrical shapes, Honari, 2014.

The bowl in Figure 15 bodes well for analysis in this context, as its images are laid out in the much the same fashion as a Phenakistoscope template. The series of images of the riding horseman and his horse’s legs depict a simple walk cycle. The bowl shows astronomical signs with exact cosmogram/mandalic divisions, while the horseman has been trapped in a cyclic movement representing the “wheel of life.”

Figure 17 depicts the extracted analysis process of this bowl that I have done to see how it relates to the nineteenth century optical toys. I discovered that the major subject of this historical bowl, similar to many phenakistoscope discs and Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope (Figure 6) is a horseman and his horse, which shows a cognate structure with these optical toys as well (Figures 15, 18, 19).






Figure 17: Analysis of the walk cycle of horseman in the Astronomical Bowl, Honari, 2014.










Figure 18: Phenakistoscope discs










Figure 19: Phenakistoscope discs

Whilst it is not clear whether the sequence of images from the ancient Persian artefacts was ever actually viewed to create the illusion of movement, the interest in human visual perception and exploration of the persistence of vision became arguably central to eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy, which later through the invention of optical toys made the first steps for development of cinematic animation. If there was at least a nascent awareness of the principle of the “persistence of vision” to create the illusion of motion in the fifth century BCE ‘Burnt City’ pottery,what happens between the fifth and eighteenth centuries?

Historical Links Indicating Connections

Although it is very unlikely that we can fill in all the gaps, this paper considers some tantalizing possibilities.

As I discuss above, those researching optical toys were also researching persistence of vision, including Dr. John A. Paris and Peter Mark Roget in England, and Joseph Plateau in Belgium. Plateau in particular is often considered to be the “Father of Film,” having devised the earliest form of moving picture by inventing of the Phenakistoscope (Neupert 2011; Robinson 1991).

Plateau’s scientific focus was on the topic of vision. He published his first article in this field in 1828 before submitting his doctorate on perceptions of colour by the human eye in Liege University. Although his dissertation only had 27 pages, it included fundamental results in vision theory. In 1830, he received more credit via his recognition of the principle that underlies all viewing of moving pictures. As Robertson, notes, Plateau “discovered that by observing a periodically moving object through a hole in a rotating disk, it was possible to make the object appear stationary by rotating the disk at a suitable speed” (2006) .

Was Joseph Plateau aware of Persian physics and science? Might such knowledge, book or scientific manuscript from East have formed part of his classical education in Liege University in Belgium in the early nineteenth century? Answering these questions spurred me to review the history of the persistence of vision phenomena in both the West and East. This knowledge, being the foundation of the invention of animation, could be a key to finding historical links. According Nicholas J. Wade (2012), visual persistence “was one of the first spatio-temporal phenomena to be subjected to quantification. Although this took place in the eighteenth century, the basic procedure was initially described by Claudius Ptolemy (ca 100-170), and in more detail by Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen (ca965-1039)” (p. 904).

Persian born Ibn al-Haytham/Alhazen’s optical writings influenced many Western intellectuals such as Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, Witelo, and Johannes Kepler (Bala 2006, p.85). His Book of Optic (Ketab al Manazer), written in 1021, has seven volumes and deals with his theories of light, colour, vision, theory of visual perception, concept of reflection, basic optics instruments, lenses, mirrors and the phenomenon of pinhole cameras. It was translated into Latin in the twelfth or early thirteenth century and had a profound influence on European optics (Bala 2006). A printed version of this book in Latin from 1572 can be found in the Leiden University Library of Netherlands (Hog 2008). It is entirely possible that more printed versions of the Book of Optic were housed at other European universities, including Liege University where Plateau studied. According to historian Rosanna Gorini,

Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method. With his “Book of Optic” he changed the meaning of the term “Optic,” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field. His investigations were based not on abstract theories, but on experimental evidences. His experiments were systematic and repeatable. (2003, p.55)

This very possibly drew the attention of Europeans to the art and science of the East. Rediscovering ancient knowledge prompted the Neo-classical movement in arts that began in late eighteenth-century Europe, which was stimulated by classical art and the culture of classical antiquity.


To find the links between Persian traditional arts and early animation techniques, I studied the key elements of the research in both textual and visual processes. Gathering data about these subjects was not challenging, as there was much historical material for both of these themes in particular. I have found, however, that not much attention has been paid to date to early animation devices in history books of cinema (as I argue in my introduction), and also not many studies regarding sequential images on Persian ancient artefacts. Both of them required more archaeological investigations. By linking these two strands together, I used the visualisation method to compare, correlate and evaluate them in their historical essence. Conducting this comparison, I have found that geometrical structure of both these subjects suggests a core shape – the circle – that provides the potential for producing textual data. For example, from the circle as a main shape in sacred geometry, the concept of mandala emerges. The mandalas models helps to dig into the structure of the key subjects. The mandala as cosmogram reflects the circle and centre of the universe through reference to numbers and geometry. It begins from the centre, extends in concentric patterns and moves through multiplicity back to the centre. This concept of unity of existence shaped the essentials of Persian traditional designs that are identifiable in Iranian traditional art forms such as carpets, pottery, music and dance. Also, using circle as a tool in nineteenth century optical toys demonstrates both their wheel mechanism, as well as their underlying philosophical themes (like the Zoetrope, or “the wheel of life”) that itself could show a mandala in movement.

This research revealed the essence of animations behind a selection of Persian historical artefacts and identified them as suggestive animation to evidence the idea of mandalic arrangement in traditional Persian arts.

Likewise, the possibility of a theory of vision in the Burnt City civilization directed this research towards considering the lengthy gap between fifth century Burnt City pottery and nineteenth century optical toys, and attempted to identify some links along that timeline. One link that shows the awareness of nineteenth century European inventors of Persia’s science is an exact written evidence about the theory of vision from the eleventh century (Abbasid era), Alhazan’s Book of Optic, which was an important source from the thirteenth century (when it was translated into Latin), in the optical science in Europe. This research will hope to further uncover crucial links in historical arts, artefacts and writings, to present the fascinating correspondences between traditional Persian arts and the early animation toys so central to the emergence of cinema.


I would like to thank my supervisors Prof. Trish FitzSimons and Assoc. Prof. Andi Spark and also the referees for their constructive comments. Also, I gratefully acknowledge the use of reference material held by the Metropolitan Museum (New York), and the National Museum of Iran, along with the support of the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Leila Honari is a PhD Candidate, Lecturer and Concept Design Convenor at Griffith Film School, Griffith University.


Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L. (1979) The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Arguelles, J. & Arguelles, M. (1995) Mandala, Boston: Shambhala.

Azzam, K. (2013) Arts and Crafts of the Islamic Lands, London: Thames and Hudson.

Bala, A. 2006. The dialogue of civilizations in the birth of modern science, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bendazzi, G. (2015) Animation: A World History, London: CRC Press.

Bradshaw Foundation n.d., ‘The Art of the Chauvet Cave’, viewed 26 Nov 2017, < http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/>

Brauen, M. (1997) The Mandala Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism, London: Serindia.

Cooper, J. C. (1993) An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, London: Thames & Hudson.

Dabbour, L. M. (2012) ‘Geometric properties: The underlying structure of design process for Islamic geometric patterns’, Frontiers of Architectural Research, 1(4), pp. 380-391.

Ferguson, J. (1772) Astronomy: Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles. Fifth ed. London.

Franz, M.L. (1992) Time: Rhythm and Repose, Great Britain, Thames and Hudson.

Gorini, R. (2003) ‘Al-Haytham the Man of Experience, First Steps in the Science of Vision’, Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine (JISHIM), 2 (4), pp. 55. Available at: https://www.ishim.net/ishimj/4/10.pdf

Hahtamo, E. (2013) Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles, USA, London: MIT Press.

Henry, R. (2007) ‘Pattern, Cognition and Contemplation: Exploring the Geometric Art of Iran.’ Journal of the Iran Society.

Hejazi, M. (2005) ’Geometry in Nature and Persian Architecture’, ELSEVIER, 41 (10), pp. 1413-1427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2004.11.007

Høg, E. (2008) ‘650 Years of Optics: From Alhazen to Fermat and Rømer’, Contribution to the Symposium: “400 Years of Telescopes”. Available at: http://www.astro.ku.dk/~erik/HoegAlhazen.pdf

Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency (2004) First Animation of the World Found in Burnt City, Available at: http://www.payvand.com/news/04/dec/1249.html [Accessed].

Lawlor, R. (1982) Sacred Geometry: Philosophy & Practice, London, Thames & Hudson.

Leidy, D. P. and Thurman, R. (1997) Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment, New York: Asia Society Galleries & Tibet House.

Lubar, S. (1993) InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Michell, J. and Brown, A. (2009) How the world is made: The story of creation according to Sacred Geometry, United Kingdom: Thomas & Hudson.

Mousavilar, A. (2001) ‘Old Arabesque, A Sacred and Beautiful Symbol in the Visual Discourse among Religions’, Journal of Art 48, pp. 101-111.

Mousavinia, Z. (2008) ‘Circle, a religious symbol in Mesopotamia, Iran & India’, The Arts, a specialized informative & critical monthly book review 131, pp.108-113.

Nasr, S.H. (1978) An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Thomas and Hudson, UK, p. 45.

NCSSM (1996) Optical Toys Exhibit at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Available at: http://courses.ncssm.edu/gallery/collections/toys/exhibitinfo.htm

Neupert, R. (2011) French Animation History, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nowell-Smith, G. ed. (1996) The Oxford History of World Cinema, New York: Oxford University Press.

Online Etymology Dictionary n.d., Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/animation

Parke, E. (2015) ‘Aboriginal artwork in the Kimbereley could be among oldest in the world, scientists say’, ABC News. 3 Nov. 2015, Available at:


Pennick, N. (1980) Sacred Geometry: Symbolism and Purpose in Religious Structure, Great Britain: Turnstone Press Limited.

Prodger, P. (2003) Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement, New York, Oxford University Press.

Rahnavard, Z. (2002) ‘Principles of Traditional Arts’, Ketab-e. Mah Book of the Month: The Arts, a specialized informative & critical monthly book review, 45-46, pp. 1-4.

Robertson, E. F. and O’Connor, J.J. (2006) ‘Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau’ [Online]. MacTutor History of Mathematics. Available at: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Plateau.html [Accessed].

Robinson, D. (1991) ‘Introduction’, Griffithiana, 43, pp. 8-18.

Rossaak, E. (ed.) (2011) Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms, Amsterdam University Press.

Snow, C.P. (1993) The Two Cultures, Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Solomon, C. (1989) Enchanted Drawings, The History of Animation, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, CAIS (2008) CHTHO’s Cultural Blunder and Documentary Production on World’s Oldest Animation, Available at: http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/March2008/04-03.htm [Accessed 4 March 2008].

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bowl with Astronomical and Royal Figures. Available at: http://metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/451379?rpp=50&pg=1&rndkey=20120229&high=on&ft=*&when=A.D.+1000-1400&img=0 [Accessed].

Wade, N. J. (2004) ‘Philosophical Instruments and Toys: Optical Devices Extending the Art of Seeing’, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 13, pp. 102-124.

Wade, N. J. (2012) ‘Wheatstone and the origins of moving stereoscopic images’, Perception, 41, pp. 901-924.

Wells, B. (2011) ‘Frame of reference: tward a definition of animation’, Animation Practice, Process & Production, 1(1), pp. 11-32.

Wyver, J. (1989) The moving image: an international history of film, television, and video, Oxford: Blackewell Pub.

Yarshater, E. (1962) ‘Some common characteristics of Persian poetry and art’, Studia Islamica, 16, pp. 61-71.

Zielinski, S. (2006) Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, Translated by Gloria Custance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

© Leila Honari

Edited by Amy Ratelle