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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Ottomans before 1600

At the time of its foundation in the early fourteenth century, the Osmanli or Ottoman state was one among many small principalities that emerged as a result of the disintegration of the Seljuq sultanate in Anatolia and subsequent instability caused by Mongol rule. This embryonic Ottoman state, located on the frontiers of the Islamic world, gradually absorbed former Byzantine territories in Anatolia and the Balkans. In 1453, this expansion culminated in the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, the great capital of Eastern Christendom. With the conquest of the Mamluk empire in 1517, the Ottomans ruled over the most powerful state in the Islamic world. By the middle of the sixteenth century, continued military success in an area extending from Central Europe to the Indian Ocean gave the Ottomans the status of a world power.

In the arts, there is a paucity of extant objects from the early Ottoman period, but it is apparent from surviving buildings that Byzantine, Mamluk, and Persian traditions were integrated to form a distinctly Ottoman artistic vocabulary. Significant changes came about with the establishment of the new capital in former Byzantine Constantinople. After the conquest, Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church, was transformed into an imperial mosque and became a source of inspiration for Ottoman architects. Mehmet II (“the Conqueror,” r. 1444–46, 1451–81) envisaged the city as the center of his growing world empire and began an ambitious rebuilding program. He commissioned two palaces (the Old and the New, later Topkapi, palaces) as well as a mosque complex (the Mehmetiye, later Fatih complex), which combined religious, educational, social, and commercial functions. In his commissions, Mehmet drew from Turkic, Perso-Islamic, and Byzantine artistic repertoires. He was also interested in developments in western Europe. Ottoman, Iranian, and European artists and scholars flocked to Mehmet’s court, making him one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of his time.

Under Mehmet’s successors, his eclectic style, reflective of the mixed heritage of the Ottomans, was gradually integrated into a uniquely Ottoman artistic vocabulary. Further geographic expansion brought additions to this vocabulary. Most significantly, the victory against the Safavids at a battle in eastern Anatolia (1514) and the addition of Mamluk Syria, Egypt, and the Holy Cities of Islam (Mecca and Medina) to the Ottoman realm under Selim I (“the Grim,” r. 1512–20), led to the increased presence of Iranian and Arab artists and intellectuals at the Ottoman court.

The reign of Süleyman (popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawmaker”), often regarded as a “Golden Age,” was defined by geographic expansion, trade, and economic growth, as well as cultural and artistic activity. The age of Süleyman (r. 1520–66) witnessed the zenith of Ottoman art and culture. Among the most outstanding achievements of this period were the mosques and religious complexes built by Sinan (ca. 1500–1588), one of the most celebrated Islamic architects. Hundreds of public buildings were designed and constructed throughout the Ottoman empire, contributing to the dissemination of Ottoman culture. In the period following Süleyman’s death, architectural and artistic activity resumed under patrons from the imperial family and the ruling elite. Commissions continued outside the imperial capital, with many pious foundations established across the realm.

During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, developments occurred in every artistic field, with those in architecture, calligraphy, manuscript painting, textiles, and ceramics being particularly significant. Apart from Istanbul, various cities in the provinces were also recognized as major artistic and commercial centers: Iznik was renowned for ceramics, Bursa for silks and textiles, Cairo for the production of carpets, and Baghdad for the arts of the book. Ottoman visual culture had an impact in the different regions it ruled. Despite local variations, the legacy of the sixteenth-century Ottoman artistic tradition can still be seen in monuments from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Algeria to Baghdad, and from Crimea to Yemen, that incorporate signature elements such as hemispherical domes, slender pencil-shaped minarets, and enclosed courts with domed porticoes.