Ottoman Art (part 2)
Trade and Commerce:
The rich textiles, metal wares, and fine ceramics that were first produced for the use of the sultan, the court, and imperial mosques, later became a major source of income as export goods. High quality textiles of Ottoman workmanship found their way into European churches and wealthy foreign homes. Iznik ceramics were purchased by the Lord Mayor of London and the Hungarian princes of Transylvania. In this way, designs originated by Ottoman court artists became familiar outside the empire.
Ottoman ceramics continued the traditions of previous Islamic traditions, but they were heavily influenced by imported Chinese ceramics that came via Iran and by sea. Chinese porcelains in particular were highly sought after for their beauty and strength.
Muslim potters could not replicate the Chinese wares because they did not have access to some of the essential ingredients such as kaolin clay. They also did not use the high firing temperatures required to make porcelain. Rather than compete directly with Chinese wares, the Ottoman potters produced their own cheaper versions using different materials and designs. They used a lower- firing clay called earthenware, covered it with a white slip and then decorated under the glaze.
Ottoman imperial kilns were located at Iznik in western Anatolia. Vessels and tiles used for the decoration of buildings were made here for almost three centuries. At first, potters were interested in the Chinese blue and white color schemes, but by the 1500s, they had expanded their palette to include blue, green, black, and a distinct shade of red. Typical designs included bouquets of stylized foliage, surrounded on the edges by Chinese-inspired wave or cloud patterns. When court patronage of ceramic tiles declined in the 1600s, ceramic production at Iznik also declined.
Carpets are perhaps the best-known form of Islamic art in the West, because of their long history as trade items, and their practical use as floor coverings. Carpets were originally made by nomadic peoples who raised sheep. Dyed wool was hand-knotted on to a framework of threads (warp and weft) placed at right angles to each other. A wide range of patterns and designs could be arranged within a square or rectangular shaped border. The density of knots determined the value of the carpet as well as the amount of detail in the design. Large carpets were produced in urban settings or court workshops, since large looms could not be accommodated in nomadic tents or village houses. Carpet designs allowed for a rich vocabulary of images—overflowing vases, floral patterns, trees, and animals, as well as a host of geometric and abstract shapes. These designs enlivened the living environment, and they also had the advantage of being transportable. This meant that they were ideal for use as prayer rugs. They could be unrolled wherever prayer took place, providing a comfortable surface on which to bow down. In the Ottoman period as well, carpets were used in large tent enclosures that accompanied the sultan and his army on military campaigns. Such carpets beautified the interior of the tents, and also provided warmth underfoot.
Very few carpets survive from before the 1400s through the 1500s. However they appear in European paintings of the time, indicating that they were already being traded in areas outside the Ottoman empire. According to Islamic art historians Sheila Blair and Jonathon Bloom, “by the middle of the 15th century Anatolian (Turkish) weavers were producing large-pattern ‘Holbein”’ carpets, many intended for export to Europe. The typical example, knotted in brightly colored wool in a variety of colors, primarily brick-red with white, yellow, blue, green, brown and black, has a rectangular field containing several large octagons inscribed in square frames. These are usually decorated with strap-work patterns and separated and enclosed by bands of smaller octagons.
Several borders of varying width usually include an elegant band of pseudo-inscription in which the stems of the letters appear to be twisted together. These carpets get their name because many are depicted in paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) such as his Ambassadors of the year 1533 in the National Gallery, London. They first appear in European paintings dated to the 1450s, where they are shown on floors in patrician settings or as luxury table coverings.”
The central and most venerated art of Islam is calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. Because the word of God, received as revelations by the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted and written down in Arabic in the Koran, the language and alphabet itself became sanctified. The training of a scribe was strenuous. It involved not only learning to form the letters and words with the proper proportions for a particular style, but also developing the muscular control of the arm and shoulder necessary for the writing of monumental scripts.
As part of their training, students of calligraphy copied works by acclaimed masters of the art. In copying, they were taught to eliminate personal idiosyncrasies in their writing so that the particular qualities of the master’s hand could be more easily recognized. Once a great calligrapher established his reputation, he was able to demonstrate his creativity in an individual style of his own without losing the character of the copied work.
In Ottoman Turkey, the calligraphic tradition of Seyh Hamdullah, the renowned scribe of the 1500s, was most influential. The tradition of his style, renewed in the 1600s by Hafiz Osman, was continued in an unbroken chain by the calligraphers of the 1700s and 1800s. Works by the renowned calligraphers—whether completed products, fragments, or practice exercises— were prized items. One of a scribe’s highest aspirations, even at the end of the Ottoman period, was to copy the work of a great master of the past to preserve it forever. Works executed on finely webbed leaves and in paper cutouts represented a further demonstration of calligraphy skills.