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Art of the Ottomans (before 1600)

At the time of its foundation in the early fourteenth century, the Osmanli or Ottoman state was one among many small principalities that emerged as a result of the disintegration of the Seljuq sultanate in Anatolia and subsequent instability caused by Mongol rule. This embryonic Ottoman state, located on the frontiers of the Islamic world, gradually absorbed former Byzantine territories in Anatolia and the Balkans. In 1453, this expansion culminated in the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, the great capital of Eastern Christendom. With the conquest of the Mamluk empire in 1517, the Ottomans ruled over the most powerful state in the Islamic world. By the middle of the sixteenth century, continued military success in an area extending from Central Europe to the Indian Ocean gave the Ottomans the status of a world power.

With the conquest of the Mamluk empire in 1517, the Ottomans ruled over the most powerful state in the Islamic world.

Tile panel, dated 1591–2; Ottoman Syria Composite body with underglaze paint.
Tile panel, dated 1591–2; Ottoman Syria Composite body with underglaze paint. This is a good example of the continuation of the Mamluk ceramic tradition after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and Syria. Its inscription reads: “The weak servant Kayun ibn cAbdallah, the sinful, the one in need of God’s mercy, founded this blessed mosque. It was built in the year 1000 [A.D. 1591–92

In the arts, there is a paucity of extant objects from the early Ottoman period, but it is apparent from surviving buildings that Byzantine, Mamluk, and Persian traditions were integrated to form a distinctly Ottoman artistic vocabulary. Significant changes came about with the establishment of the new capital in former Byzantine Constantinople. After the conquest, Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church, was transformed into an imperial mosque and became a source of inspiration for Ottoman architects. Mehmed II (“the Conqueror,” r. 1444–46, 1451–81) envisaged the city as the center of his growing world empire and began an ambitious rebuilding program. He commissioned two palaces (the Old and the New, later Topkapi, palaces) as well as a mosque complex (the Mehmediye, later Fatih complex), which combined religious, educational, social, and commercial functions. In his commissions, Mehmed drew from Turkic, Perso-Islamic, and Byzantine artistic repertoires. He was also interested in developments in western Europe. Ottoman, Iranian, and European artists and scholars flocked to Mehmed’s court, making him one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of his time.

Under Mehmed’s successors, his eclectic style, reflective of the mixed heritage of the Ottomans, was gradually integrated into a uniquely Ottoman artistic vocabulary. Further geographic expansion brought additions to this vocabulary. Most significantly, the victory against theSafavids at a battle in eastern Anatolia (1514) and the addition of Mamluk Syria, Egypt, and the Holy Cities of Islam (Mecca and Medina) to the Ottoman realm under Selim I (“the Grim,” r. 1512–20), led to the increased presence of Iranian and Arab artists and intellectuals at the Ottoman court.

The reign of Süleyman (popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawmaker”), often regarded as a “Golden Age,” was defined by geographic expansion, trade, and economic growth, as well as cultural and artistic activity. The age of Süleyman (r. 1520–66) witnessed the zenith of Ottoman art and culture. Among the most outstanding achievements of this period were the mosques and religious complexes built by Sinan (1539–1588), one of the most celebrated Islamic architects. Hundreds of public buildings were designed and constructed throughout the Ottoman empire, contributing to the dissemination of Ottoman culture. In the period following Süleyman’s death, architectural and artistic activity resumed under patrons from the imperial family and the ruling elite. Commissions continued outside the imperial capital, with many pious foundations established across the realm.

During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, developments occurred in every artistic field, with those in architecture, calligraphy, manuscript painting, textiles, and ceramics being particularly significant. Apart from Istanbul, various cities in the provinces were also recognized as major artistic and commercial centers: Iznik was renowned for ceramics, Bursa for silks and textiles, Cairo for the production of carpets, and Baghdad for the arts of the book. Ottoman visual culture had an impact in the different regions it ruled. Despite local variations, the legacy of the sixteenth-century Ottoman artistic tradition can still be seen in monuments from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Algeria to Baghdad, and from Crimea to Yemen, that incorporate signature elements such as hemispherical domes, slender pencil-shaped minarets, and enclosed courts with domed porticoes.

 

Tile with arabesque decoration, early 15th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Bursa) Carved, glaze-painted, and gilded earthenware.

Tile with arabesque decoration, early 15th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Bursa) Carved, glaze-painted, and gilded earthenware. This tile matches a border frieze adorning the portal of the tomb of Sultan Mehmed I (r. 1403–21) in Bursa, where monuments were badly damaged in an 1855 earthquake. It has a deeply carved pattern of lattices formed by pairs of undulating vine scrolls that meet at regular intervals along the centerline. The interlacing of the arabesque lattices is complex, but clarity is achieved through the use of different colored glazes. The tile predates the period, later in the fifteenth century, of widespread Chinese influence on Ottoman Turkish ceramics. In its deep relief and choice of colors, it exhibits similarities to tiles of Timurid Central Asia dating from the late fourteenth century, a resemblance probably explained by the documented presence of Persian tileworkers in Bursa at that time.

Velvet fragment, late 15th–early 16th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Bursa) Silk and metallic thread.

Velvet fragment, late 15th–early 16th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Bursa) Silk and metallic thread.A popular pattern in Turkish decorative arts, particularly textiles, was the cintamani ("auspicious jewel"). Of Buddhist origin, it consists of three balls or circles, originally representing pearls, and a pair of wavy bands, representing flames or waves of the sea. In Ottoman Turkey, the meaning had evolved into a token of good luck, with a suggestion of strength and courage through association with tiger stripes and leopard spots. Perhaps this is the type of fabric called pelengi ("leopard-like") in early Ottoman sources.

 

Khusrau Hunting: Page from a manuscript of the Khusrau and Shirin of Hatifi, dated 1498; Ottoman Turkey (probably Istanbul).

Khusrau Hunting: Page from a manuscript of the Khusrau and Shirin of Hatifi, dated 1498; Ottoman Turkey (probably Istanbul). The Persian poet Hatifi (died 1521), nephew of the fifteenth-century Herat poet Jami, wrote a Khamsa (Quintet), like other ambitious poets, in emulation of the great Nizami. Persian literature and culture were much admired at the Ottoman court, and Persian was considered the prime language for poetry. This manuscript of Khusrau and Shirin, one of the books of the Khamsa, was transcribed in Persian during the author's lifetime. This painting, one of seven in the manuscript, shows the Iranian prince Khusrau hunting with his companions. Ottoman painting during the reign of Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512), who was a great patron of the arts, was still in a formative state, with influences coming from both East and West. In this case, the style derives basically from the Turkman style of southern Iran, as seen in such conventions as the organization of spatial planes and the distinctive rendition of vegetation in the first two phases. But the liveliness of the figures and variety of flying birds hint at the interest in realism that would become a hallmark of Turkish painting in the sixteenth century.

Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), ca. 1555; Ottoman Turkey (Istanbul).

Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), ca. 1555; Ottoman Turkey (Istanbul). The Ottoman tughra is a calligraphic emblem of the sultan's authority that was included in all official documents, such as firmans (royal decrees), endowment papers, correspondence, and coins. Used by the first Ottoman sultan in 1324, it later developed into a more complex form that included three vertical shafts and two concentric oval loops on the left. It consists of the name of the reigning sultan, his father's name, his title, and the phrase "the eternally victorious." This unique calligraphic emblem was not easily read or copied. Therefore, a specific court artist was designated to draw the undecorated, standard tughra. A court illuminator assisted him in the exquisite decoration of the tughra on certain imperial documents. The illuminator's delicate scroll design and naturalistic flowers enhance the harmonious lines of calligraphy, creating a colorful voluminous effect.

Hungarian-style Shield, ca. 1500–1550 Eastern European Wood, leather, gesso, polychromy.

Hungarian-style Shield, ca. 1500–1550 Eastern European Wood, leather, gesso, polychromy. Wing-shaped shields, with the distinctive upward-sweeping back edge, were the characteristic light-cavalry shields of Hungary. During the sixteenth century, the style was adopted across much of eastern Europe by both Christian and Islamic horsemen. The shield's elongated upper edge was designed to defend the back of the head and neck against cuts from the saber, the preferred cavalry weapon in that region. This shield is painted on its exterior with the double-bladed sword of the Prophet Muhammad and on its interior with the Crucifix and instruments of the Passion. This unusual mix of Islamic and Christian symbols suggests that the shield was used in a tournament by a Christian warrior dressed in oriental fashion. In these "Hungarian-style" tournaments, the participants wore Hungarian and Turkish costumes and used sabers to strike off feathers attached to their opponents' helmets and to the apex of their painted shields. Even at a time when Turkish armies were a constant threat to eastern Europe, their costumes and tactics were imitated by their Christian foes.

.” During this period in Turkey, pottery continued to imitate metalwork in shape as well as in design. This lamp, however, is one of a number made at this time that have a glass prototype.”]Mosque lamp, first quarter of 16th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Iznik) Composite body, opaque white glaze, underglaze painted.

Mosque lamp, first quarter of 16th century; Ottoman Anatolia (Iznik) Composite body, opaque white glaze, underglaze painted. Earthenware ceramics were made in Iznik as early as the second half of the fourteenth century, but it was not until about one hundred years later that this center began to manufacture pottery with a composite body. The earliest composite-bodied ware made in Iznik was distinguished by an underglaze-painted blue decoration on a white ground. Among the principal characteristics of this ware, known as Abraham of Kutahya (after the artist whose signature appeared on only one piece), are ornately contoured panels with small, highly detailed vegetal patterns. A variant of the Abraham of Kutahya type, represented by this small mosque lamp, is characterized by a ground completely covered with delicate spiraling stems bearing small flowers. This motif serves as a backdrop for two beautifully executed Arabic inscriptions: "Power belongs to God, the One" (repeated three times on the body of the object) and (on the flaring upper section) "there is no hero except cAli; no sword except dhu-l-faqar [cAli's sword

Mirror, second quarter of 16th century; Ottoman Turkey Iron, ivory, and gold.

Mirror, second quarter of 16th century; Ottoman Turkey Iron, ivory, and gold. The handled mirror has been made for millennia in the Near East, and many examples exist from the Islamic period. The polished, reflecting side of this mirror has traces of gold inlay along the edges. On the back, dense spiral scrolls sprinkled with blossoms, leaves, and arabesques revolve from the six-pointed star placed in the center of the polylobed medallion. The handle shaft has a gold chevron pattern and two ivory plaques. A gold-inlaid steel mirror in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, is somewhat more deluxe, with a jade handle and inset ruby and turquoise, but the similarity of ornamentation suggests production in the same workshop.

Plate, second half of 16th century Iznik, Turkey Fritware, polychrome-painted under transparent glaze.

Plate, second half of 16th century Iznik, Turkey Fritware, polychrome-painted under transparent glaze. This type of polychrome underglaze-painted pottery, often referred to as the "Rhodian type," was produced in Iznik (the Byzantine city of Nicea). This small town in northwestern Turkey was the chief center for the production of ceramic vessels and tiles in the Ottoman empire. Ceramics of the Rhodian type constitute the third and final phase of Iznik ceramics, lasting from ca. 1570 to 1700. They are characterized by the use of a thickly applied "sealing-wax" red glaze, which enriches the palette and stands out in relief, providing the work with rich texture. This plate features two birds resting on gently swaying plants bearing carnations, tulips, and hyacinths. The motif of the flowering plants is a decorative element that is pervasive in Iznik pottery of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the birds are unusual; depictions of birds and animals are rare in Iznik ceramics of this period. A highly conventionalized wave-and-rock pattern circumscribes the broad foliate rim of the plate. Such designs, which were inspired by fifteenth-century Chinese Ming ceramics, enjoyed much popularity in this phase of Iznik production.

Textile fragment, second half of 16th century; Ottoman Turkey, Bursa or Istanbul Silk and metal thread; a compound weave (satin and twill).

Textile fragment, second half of 16th century; Ottoman Turkey, Bursa or Istanbul Silk and metal thread; a compound weave (satin and twill). Ottoman textiles illustrate the taste of the period for splendid floral silks, used for garments and furnishings. This vertical pattern, formed by wavy stems, flowers, and leaves, appeared during the second half of the sixteenth century and is stylistically comparable to the ceramic wall tiles in buildings of the period. Swinging in rhythm from right to left on the undulating stalk are composite tulips and peonies, alternating within the curve of the stems. The flowers and leaves are further enhanced with miniature tulips and carnations, both favorite Ottoman motifs, and other naturalistic flowers.

 

A Dragon in Broken Leaves, second half of 16th century Turkey (Ottoman) Ink on paper (main composition); gold, ink, and colors on paper (borders)

A Dragon in Broken Leaves, second half of 16th century Turkey (Ottoman) Ink on paper (main composition); gold, ink, and colors on paper (borders). The drawing is executed in black ink on tan paper and represents stylized broken leaves around which a dragon is entwined. An outer border with pale marbling surrounds this inner composition. A further outer border executed in gold and black is filled with a repeating decorative pattern of scrolling vines bearing blossoms, leaves, and birds. Two seal impressions may be seen on the object. The first is just below the drawing and appears to read 'Abd Muhammad Sadiq. The second, on the outermost border, is too damaged to be read but appears to be a tughra-style cipher. The reverse of the composition reveals a modern illustrated and printed backing page. This ink drawing is a fine representative of the much admired genre of saz-style compositions. Such compositions gained popularity in the second half of the sixteenth century, giving rise to virtuosic displays of technique, and also relating to patterns and designs in other mediums. Produced at the height of Turkey's celebrated Ottoman age, this calligraphic drawing combines two potent symbols, the serrated leaf and the dragon, which occur in many works of art in the period, and are here expressed in a stark and elegant exercise.

Prayer carpet, late 16th century; Ottoman Attributed to Bursa or Istanbul, Turkey Pile weave, wool and cotton pile on silk foundation, 288 asymmetrical knots per square inch

Prayer carpet, late 16th century; Ottoman Attributed to Bursa or Istanbul, Turkey Pile weave, wool and cotton pile on silk foundation, 288 asymmetrical knots per square inch. This rare rug is one of a small group of Ottoman court prayer rugs featuring a prayer niche, or mihrab, with architectural elements such as columns and capitals. It is one of the earliest examples of the triple-arched prayer niche. With its paired or coupled columns, undecorated field, split palmettes in the spandrels, and horizontal panel containing crenelated forms, it is also the classical prototype for later rugs. Characteristically Ottoman are the carnations and tulips at the base of the arches as well as the feathery lanceolate leaves, hyacinths, and other flowers in the curvilinear border pattern. The harmonious design, skillful weaving, and luxury materials reflect court taste.

 

Plate, ca. 1580 Iznik, Turkey Fritware, polychrome painted under a transparent glaze

Plate, ca. 1580 Iznik, Turkey Fritware, polychrome painted under a transparent glaze. This dyamically decorated sixteenth-century dish in cobalt blue was produced at the famous kilns at Iznik, in western Anatolia. Stylized variations of lotus petals, ultimately of Chinese inspiration but geometrically patterned into a radiating sunburst of powerful Islamic design, bear witness to one of the most fruitful cultural exchanges in history: the mutual influences flourishing for centuries between the artists, especially potters, of eastern and western Asia. Chinese influences on Islamic art peaked in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when nearly all Asia came under the sway of the Great Khans, the Mongol overlords ruling from Beijing. The Mongol Ilkhans who governed the Near East from their capital at Tabriz, in modern northwestern Iran, imported precious Chinese wares, commanding local Muslim artists to study Chinese technique and design. The sixteenth-century potters of the Ottoman court, though set at the westernmost limit of the Asian world, still pursued—and creatively renewed with great flair and pride—the traditions of the Tabriz school.

 

The Shaikh al-Islam Discoursing to an Audience: Page from a dispersed Divan of Mahmud cAbd al-Baki, 1590–95; Ottoman Iraq (Baghdad)

The Shaikh al-Islam Discoursing to an Audience: Page from a dispersed Divan of Mahmud cAbd al-Baki, 1590–95; Ottoman Iraq (Baghdad). Mahmud cAbd al-Baki (1526/7–1600) was a Turkish judge and poet whose most important work is his Divan, or collection of poetical works, which reflects the pleasures of courtly life in Istanbul in the sixteenth century. This is a page from one of the four known illustrated copies of this manuscript. It shows the Shaikh al-Islam (chief theologian) of that time, Abu al-Sacud (1490–1574), engaged in discussions with other theologians, and accompanies a qasida, or laudatory poem, about him.

Carpet, first half of 17th century; Ottoman Ushak, Anatolia Wool warp and weft, wool pile

Carpet, first half of 17th century; Ottoman Ushak, Anatolia Wool warp and weft, wool pile. This carpet is known as a Star Ushak, from the star shape of its medallions and the weaving center from which it originates. In the use of a primary star-shaped medallion on a field containing a secondary floral scroll, the Anatolians no doubt were influenced by northwest Persian book design, as seen in buildings or illumination, or by Persian medallion carpets. Unlike the Ottoman medallion carpets of Cairo and Bursa, the ground scroll here is secondary to the medallion scheme. The blue medallions on the red ground are the traditional colors of these carpets. Star Ushaks, extremely popular in the West and copied there, are portrayed in European paintings as early as the second quarter of the sixteenth century.

 

Suzan Yalman (Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Former Doctoral Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University ). Based on original work by Linda Komaroff , curator of Islamic art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and author/editor of numerous books and articles on aspects of Islamic art.

  • illuminated tughra of sultan suleyman
  • ottoman empire art
  • ottoman empire art and architecture
  • iznik pottery

About the Author
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded on April 13, 1870, in the City of New York. The Museum's collection of Islamic art ranges in date from the seventh to the nineteenth century. Its nearly twelve thousand objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions of Islam, with works from as far westward as Spain and Morocco and as far eastward as Central Asia and India. Comprising sacred and secular objects, the collection reveals the mutual influence of artistic practices such as calligraphy, and the exchange of motifs such as vegetal ornament (the arabesque) and geometric patterning in both realms.
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