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Style in Islamic Art – 1500-1700 A.D.

Ottoman style

Interior view of Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey © Peter M. Wilson/Axiom

A distinctive Ottoman style in the decorative arts had developed by the 1550s, when the Ottoman empire was at the height of its power and prosperity. The Ottomans promoted themselves as the defenders of Islam, and this explains why their public art includes a rich variety of ornamental designs but no human figures. Plant- and flower-based patterns were the most common, while calligraphic and linear geometric designs were mostly restricted to architectural decoration. This style flourished until about 1700.

Garden flowers

A novel and distinctive feature of Ottoman art is the use of recognisable garden flowers – tulips, roses, hyacinths, carnations and others. Previously, floral motifs had been highly stylised and arranged in formalised patterns. By contrast, the flowers on this vase were painted almost as if they were growing from the ground and swaying in a spring breeze. On the velvet, though, they were arranged in flat, entirely artificial patterns.

Big cats

A popular Ottoman decorative motif was a group of three spots arranged in a triangle. Another was a pair of wavy lines. For centuries these patterns had been used across Asia to represent leopard spots and tiger stripes, as seen on live animals or on the skins that served as clothing or rugs. Since animal and human figures were not common in Ottoman art, the spots and stripes became purely decorative patterns. They were often used in combination, or mixed with other designs.

Floral fantasies

The Ottomans continued the Islamic tradition of using plant-based decoration that was only vaguely connected with reality. One type of spiralling scrollwork is set with enormous composite flowers, smaller rosettes and long, serrated ‘saz’ leaves. This is often called the ‘saz’ style. The leaves are the most distinctively Ottoman element, but the Ottomans themselves associated them with China. Here the leaves are interwoven with another ‘Chinese’ motif, an elongated cloud band.


Safavid style

Courtyard of Masjid-i Shah, Isfahan, Iran © Oliver Salway

The Safavid style developed in Iran from 1500, when the country was re-united under the dynasty of this name. Unlike their Ottoman neighbours, the Safavids had no qualms about depicting human beings in all forms of art. These figures became an unusually prominent feature of the Safavid style, but floral scrollwork was also important. When the capital moved to Isfahan about 1600, both underwent a change in style. The Safavid state collapsed in 1722.

Early Safavid figures

The human figure became an important element soon after the Safavids establised their rule in 1500. Depictions of elegant young men and women, often shown in outdoor settings, adorned many objects, from clothing to the bindings of manuscripts. The men usually wear the distinctive Safavid headgear. This was a felt hat with a very tall, thin extension at the crown, which projected like a baton above the turban that was wrapped round it.

The Isfahan style

When the court moved to Isfahan around 1600, the figures in Safavid art changed to reflect the influence of Riza ‘Abbasi, a leading court artist of the period. The slim, erect figures of the early Safavid period were replaced by stouter figures, often with an S-shaped posture. The felt hat with a projecting ‘baton’ also disappeared, to be replaced by looser turbans and fur hats with the brim turned up.

Floral fantasies

Like the Ottomans, the Safavids inherited a tradition of symmetrical scrollwork designs set with fantastic blossoms. They used them with impressive skill. On the Ardabil carpet, two designs of this type, one laid over the other, cover the vast, dark-blue field of the carpet. A simpler example is offered by the central design on the blue silk hanging. The flowerheads in the borders show the new floral motifs that were imported from India after 1600.

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