x0x SPRING IN OTTOMAN ART
By Dr Yildiz Demiriz
The mid-16th century saw a return to naturalism in the Ottoman
decorative arts, and one of the most popular motifs was fruit trees in
blossom. This symbol of spring was often combined with tulips, roses
and other flowers, and depicted sometimes as an entire tree and
sometimes as branches alone. Another form was blossoming branches
arranged like bouquet in a vase, or encircling a medallion like a
It is difficult to identify the species with certainty, although the
presence or absence of leaves, or the position of the blossom on the
branch gives clues as to whether it might be plum, cherry or apple.
Trees in blossom appeared in almost every sphere of decoration at this
period, and like many other innovations, originated in the arts of the
book. The finest miniature paintings and illumination were executed by
artists working in the palace workshops, and the new motifs and
compositions which they created inspired other craftsmen producing
objects of beauty in many different techniques and materials for the
Karamemi, an artist who began working at the palace in the middle of
the 16th century, used the spring blossom motif in a manuscript book
of poetry, the Muhibbi Divani (Istanbul University Library T. 5467),
whose illumination bears his signature. Blossom appears in the
frontispiece, marginal decoration in gold halaria work, and the tiny
illuminated panels separating sections of text in this manuscrip.
The composition of the frontispiece was repeated by the same artist in
a Koran (Topkapi Palace Library Y. 999) and in the Suleymanname (H.
1517). In another manuscript in the Suleymaniye Library (Laleli 16)
there is a superb composition of spring motifs executed in gold and
The compositions on the endleafs of a manuscript of Forty Traditions
of the Prophet (Topkapi Palace Library EH 2851) seem to carry us into
a beautiful garden on a spring day.
Here the trees in blossom are worked in lacquer. Although there is no
signature, we know beyond any trace of doubt that this is the work of
Karamemi. The compositions on the endleafs of a manuscript of Forty
Traditions of the Prophet (Topkapi Palace Library EH 2851) seem to
carry us into a beautiful garden on a spring day. Here the trees in
blossom are worked in lacquer. Although there is no signature, we know
beyond any trace of doubt that this is the work of Karamemi.
Blossom also appears on textiles of many kinds. The campaign tents
abandoned after the Siege of Vienna at the end of the 17th century by
grand vizier Kara Mustafa Pasa, and which have been carefully
preserved at the Wavel Museum in the Polish city of Cracow, have
several examples of blossom worked on felt amongst their designs.
A multiple prayer mat in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in
Istanbul has a tree in blossom as the main motif in each of the
panels. Again we find this motif on a caftan worn by Sultan Ahmed I as
Best known, perhaps, of all blossom designs are those on iznik ware
tiles, and examples of these are so numerous that it would take pages
to list them in full. Finest of all are the 16th and 17th century
tiles in Topkapi Palace Harem, and others which come first to mind can
be seen in Rustem Pasa Mosque, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Haghia Sophia
Library, the Imperial Kasir of Yeni Mosque, the Mausoleum of Hurrem
Sultan, Eski Valide Mosque in Uskudar, and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.
Once upon a time Istanbul was a city filled with gardens, and those
gardens with fruit trees. Today when there are increasingly fewer
fruit trees, we miss seeing trees in blossom, but we can take
consolation in the beautiful works of art which they inspired.
* Prof Dr Yildiz Demiriz is an art historian