Sunday, November 25, 2012

Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III - Imperial Imagery

att. George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I, 1588
(National Portrait Gallery, London) 
This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted in honor of the biggest victory of her reign over the Spanish Armada of 1588 brings back a distant memory of standing in the middle of the National Portrait Gallery, listening to my niece relaying the story of having to count the pearls on the queen's dress for a school assignment. While we stood before the life-size portrait of 'Bess', admiring the elaborate treatment of the surfaces and observing her intrinsic features, I realized we did not have any equivalent to this, from our own history except for the one portrait, The Sultan Mehmed II, by Gentile Bellini.  In an earlier post, I had discussed the mobility of artists, influences and ideas as well as works of art in the fifteenth-century in regards to Mehmed II.  However, after Mehmed's death, commissions for portraiture in the Italian Quattrocento tradition seems to completely disappear from the Ottoman court.  The common belief that this was due to the religious inclinations of Bayezid II seems to be unanimous.  As a consequence of this, instead of portrait galleries full of life-size, oil on canvas likenesses of the Ottoman Sultans, Topkapi Palace museum contains folios full of manuscript illuminations with depictions in the Ottoman tradition.  What I want to discuss here is where the images for the Sultan portraits in these manuscripts came from if no known likenesses existed?

Siblizade Ahmed, Mehmed II Smelling a Rose, 1480
(Topkapi Palace Museum)

The first series of Sultan portraits was part of an illuminated history of the Ottoman empire that  was commissioned by Murad III (r.1574-1595) in 1578.  Sema'ilname, written in Ottoman Turkish by Seyyid Lokman was to be illustrated by Nakkas (illuminator) Osman and contain detailed biographic information about each of the twelve sultans including their victories, conquests as well as patronage. 1   The portrait of Mehmed II by Siblizade Ahmed, where the artist combined the Timurid miniature tradition with the slight modeling and light and shadow effects of the Italian masters, was already in the Topkapi Palace collection at this time.  Capturing the images of the other sultans must have proved to be challenging since the Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasa requested the aid of the Venetian bailo, Niccolo Barbarigo in locating the collection of Sultan portraits they had heard existed in Venice.

Haydar Reis (Nigari), Sultan Selim II, 1561-62
(Topkapi Palace Museum)
Haydar Reis (Nigari), Admiral of the Fleet Hizir Hayrettin Pasa (Barbarossa) 
(Topkapi Palace Museum) 

The Sultan portraits series in the Venetian collection is thought to derive from a set produced by Haydar Reis, otherwise known as Nakkas Nigari.  There is a hypothesis that Paulo Giovio, Italian biographer, historian who collected portraits of the rulers and notables of his generation had acquired a set of  Sultan portraits made by Nigari in the middle of sixteenth-century and these had been used to make the engravings for Giovio's book on the lives of famous men, which were also the models for a variety of artists including followers of Veronese who wanted to produce portraits of the Ottoman Sultans.  These were the oil on canvas paintings that Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasa was requesting from Venice. 

Ottoman Sultan Selim I, 1578
(Vitae Illustrium Virorum) 
Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I (The Magnificent), 1578
(Vitae Illustrium Virorum)

School of Veronese, Sultan Murad III, 16th c.
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich)
School of Veronese, Sultan Selim II, 16th c.

In The Sultan's Portrait:  Picturing the House of Osman, a very comprehensive and magnificent book/exhibition catalog for an exhibit that took place in 2000 at the Topkapi Palace, the different types of conveyed images and their sources of inspiration are discussed in great length.  For the most part, these images are not considered to be true likenesses of the Sultans but European skewed interpretations instead.   Nevertheless, they must have provided a model for Nakkas Osman to create his pioneering work that was to be a formula to be used for many centuries to come.

Nakkas Osman, Semailname- Orhan Gazi
Nakkas Osman, Semailname- Osman Gazi

Nakkas Osman,Semailname, Sultan Mehmed I

Nakkas Osman, Semailname,
Sultan Mehmed II

As can be observed quite clearly, Nakkas Osman's portraits recall Siblizade Ahmed's portrait of Mehmed II where the Sultan is depicted sitting three quarter view smelling a rose in one hand and holding a handkerchief in the other. Osman also had a precedent in the uniquely naturalistic depictions of Nakkas Nigari from the middle of the sixteenth century - upon closer inspection the features of Selim II (see below) by Osman are very similar to Nigari's depiction of Selim shown holding a bow and an attendant  with an arrow(see above).  It is known that the deceased Sultan's kaftans, turbans and other accessories were taken out of storage and used to create a more realistic image.

Nakkas Osman,
Semailname, Sultan Selim I
Nakkas Osman, Semailname,
Suleiman I
(the Magnificent)

Nakkas Osman, Semailname
Sultan Selim II
Nakkas Osman, Semailname,
Sultan Murad III

Even though Sema'ilname may have been commissioned simply to display dynastic imagery similar to its European counterparts, with its many sources of inspiration and attribution, it can also be regarded as a vital link in connecting not only the Eastern and the Western traditions but also the past and the future as well.  Sultan Murad III's reign coincided with Queen Elizabeth I's and there were an exchange of letters and gifts between the two courts; the unexpected route of imperial imagery in the Ottoman court, I think begs the question of what they would have thought of each other had they actually exchanged portraits as was the custom between other European dynasties...


1 Selmin Kangal and Priscilla Mary Isin, The Sultan's Portrait:  Picturing the House of Osman, Istanbul, Isbank, 2000

2 -Images 


  1. Hi Sedef -

    I love how you start this post, with your niece having to count the pearls on that dress. Seems silly, but maybe it helped them to look at it more closely? Does "The Sultan's Portrait" have images of the sultans in it? Are facsimiles or some other kind of copy of the Sema'ilname accessible somehow? Sounds like it would be an interesting read!

    Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking post that makes me want to know more!


    1. Hi Karen,

      Do you think there will be one in that class who will not remember what Queen Elizabeth looked like? I think it is a perfect way to get the kids to engage with the work of art and their history (although I am sure there were some among them who did not appreciate it as we do today)

      "The Sultan's Portrait" is an amazing book with all the portraits in it. It is out of print and very expensive, priceless resource.

      Although there are some manuscripts that are being printed or digitally available, I have not heard anything about the Sema'ilname. And I am really frustrated about not being able to find all the portraits to post them here. So much more to do in this field.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. This is fascinating Sedef! A wonderfully presented and engaging post as always.

    I am always intrigued to see the connections between Italy and the Ottoman Court. Lining the halls of the Uffizi you will see quite a few portraits of the Sultans. Also, on checking into my hotel on my recent visit there I saw a large print of of the Sultans - which appeared 17C, but I am unsure of its source.

    I am pleased you are revealing these intriguing elements of Turkish culture to a wider audience. Keep up the wonderful work.


  3. Hasan,

    I was quite surprised the first time I saw the portraits from the European collections as well. There was a lot of curiosity and exchange between Europe and the Ottomans. Ottoman Empire was a major force in Europe and Europeans were very curious about this culture and people so different from their own. What I find fascinating is that the likenesses of the Sultans is in some way a western constructed image. It is just another example of how we cannot draw straight lines to create clear cut classifications between the cultures and history of different nations. When we study a certain period we have to look at not just what came before or after but also the confluence of the different cultures of the time. This is becoming more clear to me everyday as I research the Byzantine Empire as well as the Ottoman Empire.

    As always Thanks for the encouraging words...



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