This is How Ottoman Miniature Art Had a Great Influence on Documenting History

About a year ago, I visited an exhibition on Ottoman miniature art, namely ‘an illumination of time’. Generally, the manuscripts that describe events in books by means of illustrations or drawings are called miniatures. The word miniature is derived from western languages. During the Ottoman period this word has been replaced by ‘imagining’ or ’embroidery’. It was really very odd to see that illustrations of humans were seen as Islamic art. Apparently in the Islamic culture “monumental painting” was only found in the Umayyad period. During that period it was a centuries-old tradition to paint and make mosaics on the walls of religious and civil buildings in a naturalistic style. Then came a change: In response to a number of traditions about the prohibition of realistic drawings, the people then decided to stop with these paintings and instead they made drawings in books. Islamic miniatures lack perspective, therefore, they have no proper anatomical proportions and they also lack any light-shadow effect. This style is later on associated with the classical identity.

Decorating books with Ottoman miniature art had a very different place because of its documentary value, but it was most useful for historical approaches. This classical style was used in literature on the history of science, history of the prophets, sociology and cultural history. The portraits of the Ottoman sultans were also an important theme for the miniature art. This art form only began after the conquest of Istanbul. I therefore visited the historical museum in Istanbul. Within the Historical Museum from 1453 you can see an enormous panoramic painting depicting the capture of the city by the Ottoman Empire.

The basics of the Ottoman Empire are located in faith. Islam played a major role in the daily life of people and the values of Islam were the basic principles in society. This submission to God meant that everyone put the interests of the empire above their individual interests. The Ottoman state was a just state and its rise was due to the fact that science and education were at a high level. Only the most skilled people got tasks because they had the ability, faith and ethics. Due to those rules there was no corruption, power abuse, irresponsible spending or oppression. Because of this the Ottoman state made great progress in a short period of time. This rising period of the Ottoman Empire began in 1453 with Fatih Sultan Mehmet and ended with the death of the successful grand vizier Mehmet Pasha in 1579.

This is why the year 1453 makes everyone think of Fatih Sultan Mehmet. Fatih means ‘the Conqueror’. He is an important figure for many Muslims, since he was only 21 years old when he captured Constantinople, the ‘Queen of Cities’. The city was home to the emperor and thus the symbolic centre of the world. Many Muslim conquerors were keen to take Constantinople. According to a hadith (tradition) of the Prophet, he himself would have given the command for this: Verily, Constantinople Shall Be Conquered, its commander shall be the best commander ever and his army shall be the best army ever. Several times it was tried to conquer the city, but the honour was for Fatih Sultan Mehmet to achieve this at such a young age. He has made all of his conquests in the context of Islamic law. Fatih Sultan Mehmed has converted the Haghia Sophia, the largest and most sacred building of the city, into a mosque and he has kept it well preserved. Furthermore he left all the churches and temples unharmed.

Fatih was a great leader who had great goals. He had full confidence in himself and his people. Nothing could hinder his way to success. He had a lot of knowledge and had high communicative skills. What made him an especially fascinating leader is that he opened an interaction between East and West after the conquest of Istanbul. He invited many Western artists to his palace. At his court there resided Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Italian artists and scholars. The miniature art was strongly influenced by this, and this led to a new tradition within this artform. One of the Western artists was the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. He came to Istanbul to create an oil painting of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. This portrait has had a lot of impact on local artists, including Sinan Bey and Nakkas Osman. Both have made portraits of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. Nakkas Osman has made page-sized portraits where the sultan is depicted with crossing legs or kneeling on one leg. The place where the sultan sits symbolizes the Saltair throne. On many of these portraits the sultans are seated with one hand on the knee in which they hold a handkerchief. Only Celebi Mehmed and Fatih Sultan Mehmed were illustrated with a rose in their hand, because a rose represents the love for our prophet.

Written by Sumeyye Copoglu

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Sumeyye Copoglu is an artist with a big interest in psychology, culture and history. Besides that she wants to continue making art — having it been a huge part of her life — she wants to contribute to a healthy mind and soul by offering Art Therapy in the near future.