The Art of Metalwork During the Ottomans Era

In their different arts, the Ottomans benefited much from the artistic heritage of the Seljuk. The Seljuk dynasty, founded in the mid 11th century, settled in the Near East taking Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia briefly under its hegemony. When it came to an end in 1157, its cultural and political traditions were sustained by the principalities that succeeded it.

As the Ottomans enriched their already existing metalwork tradition with new forms and processes, they did not ignore the traditions of the Islamic peoples with whom they were coming into contact. In their new creations, however, it was necessary to strike a harmonious balance between these new influences and the culture they already possessed. According to a hadith of Prophet Mohammed, use of such materials as gold, silver and silk is to be avoided by male Muslims. Therefore, gold, silver and silk were used little in the Ottoman's arts. However, parallel with the prosperity of the Empire, the use of gold, silver, silk and precious stones increased, especially in the Palace. The Ottoman sultans, viziers and high-ranking statesmen showed a lively interest in jewelry made of these materials both for gift items and, less often, for their own use.

Differences in the interpretation of Islam also emerge in another aspect of the art of metalwork. Like the use of precious metals, the depiction of humans and animals was also prohibited under Islam, a ban more frequently observed in the Ottoman period and less frequently under the Seljuks, on whose metal objects we see a large number of human and animal figures.

Beginning with inscriptions of Islamic prayers and verses from the Quran on vessels in the 12th century, this tradition, continued to develop culminating in the creation of highly ornamental and masterfully executed calligraphic inscriptions. Another important and innovative development was the use of calligraphic inscriptions of Islamic prayers and expressions on metal objects. A salient feature of such inscriptions was that they were often used in compositions incorporating human and animal figures and vegetal motifs. Because the words are often abbreviated, such inscriptions, which most frequently employ the Kufic or Naskhi scripts, may be difficult to read. Sometimes, the name of the artist and the place and date the object was made are also inscribed.

The bulk of Seljuk metalwork preserved today in museums and private collections came from Iran and northern Mesopotamia (Iraq). Khorasan in particular was a major center of metalwork in the 11th and 12th centuries. Under the Zangid principality the region around Mosul and Artuklu was regarded as the center of metalwork in southeastern Anatolia.

Style, Decoration and Form:

The abundance of human and animal figures on the metal objects produced in the Seljuk period has already been pointed out. These motifs, which derive in general from the Central Asian animal style, are based on certain shamanistic beliefs and notions. Through reconciliation with Islamic practices, such beliefs were kept alive for a long time in works of art. Motifs employed included symbols of gold and of the moon, figures and symbols representing power and good fortune, and certain mythological and heraldic animal figures. Among these, the most frequently depicted were harpies, griffins, double-headed eagles, sphinxes and dragons.

However, we lack in-depth information about the famous metalworkers of the Ottoman period owing to the small number of signed objects.

The art of the jeweler underwent extensive development during the reigns of Selim and Suleyman the Magnificent, a phenomenon in which the importance of a factor like the existence of silver mines on Ottoman territory, in the Balkans, must not be overlooked. Under the Ottomans, the use of precious metals did not face any serious obstacles from the religious side. Istanbul was the major center for metalwork, as in many branches of art. The other cities of the Empire were able to follow the Istanbul style in proportion to their proximity to the capital.

It is to be mentioned that the traditional Seljuk and Ottoman style is more in evidence on objects produced in the Asian territory of the Empire. Regions such as Damascus, Aleppo and Diyarbakir emerged as important centers in their own right. Damascus work, for example, was known in Istanbul. Damascus masters worked in the capital and a distinct Damascus school even developed


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