Two Fragments of Ottoman Silk (nos. 15.125.7 and 2003.519)
The overwhelming majority of surviving early Ottoman silk fabrics are in one of two techniques, what the Ottomans called kemha (known today by the French term lampas) and velvet. Much rarer are Ottoman silk fabrics such as these, woven of metal-wrapped silk thread in an ancient technique called seraser (head-to-head) by the Ottomans and today known by the French term taqueté. Ottoman seraser usually features a silver-colored ground with decorative motifs in two (or rarely three or more) colors. The artists of Ottoman times who designed and wove this particular type of fabric seem to have been highly independent; their works are unusual in that they often do not follow the major stylistic trends in Ottoman art that appear in lampas and velvet fabrics. Most of the relatively few surviving early Ottoman seraser fabrics seem to have been made for ceremonial costumes and feature surprising, sometimes even peculiar designs on an enormous scale; the Metropolitan’s famous kaftan back (no. 52.20.15) with its huge peacock-feather design is typical.
Specimens of Ottoman seraser thought to date from the first half of the sixteenth century, all of which exhibit narrow horizontal bands of small-scale decoration, are extremely rare, and they have survived only in very small vertical fragments. None remain in the Topkapı collections in Istanbul, which is quite exceptional, and no surviving pieces indicate by their cut that they were intended for garments. The characteristic large-scale designs and broad areas of silver ground of most Ottoman seraser, ideal for projecting an image of power in ceremonial robes, make the intended use of these small-scale seraser fabrics all the more enigmatic. The first of the Metropolitan fragments (no. 15.125.7) shows a design of tightly drawn chintamani forms, small crescentlike pearls in groups of three, in alternating rows of red, blue, green, and black on a gold ground. The fabric forming the ground is yellow thread wrapped with extremely thin strips of silver foil, known in Ottoman times as sim, giving it a shiny gold appearance.
The other fragment (no. 2003.519) has a more elaborate design, composed of both broad and narrow horizontal bands. In the broader bands, blue diamondlike rectangles, each bearing eight-petaled silver blossoms, are framed by red borders composed of two intertwined silver ribbonlike forms. These wider bands alternate with narrower white-ground bands containing a blue undulating vine. The overall effect results from the richness of colored silk accented with the silvery sheen of the metal-wrapped thread. Only a few of these banded seraser fabrics exhibit designs showing the impact of the Ottoman floral style after 1550, which suggests that the majority may date from the first half of the sixteenth century.
We may never know why many of the most beautiful surviving sixteenth-century Ottoman fabrics in the Topkapı Palace collections have come down to us in the form of small fragments, the remainder of the bolts of silk from which they originally came having vanished, possibly due to a catastrophic fire. This being the case, the surviving seraser fragments with banded layouts such as those in the Metropolitan constitute both an artistic treasure and an intriguing mystery.
Walter B. Denny in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Silk, Thirteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Treasures from the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar. Exhibition, Sheraton Doha Hotel, Doha, Qatar. Catalogue by Jon Thompson. Doha, 2004, pp. 26–31.
2. See Atasoy et al. 2001, pp. 217–19.
Atasoy, Nurhan, Walter B. Denny, Louise W. Mackie, and Hulya Tezcan. IPEK: imperial Ottoman silks and velvets, edited by Julian Raby, and Alison Effeny. London: Azimuth Editions, 2001. pp. 217–19.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 226A, pp. 317-318, ill. p. 317 (color).