Spectacular, large‑pattern silks were favored materials for luxury garments among the courtly elite of sixteenth-century Istanbul, and were often used for the bold, richly colored caftans of the Ottoman sultans. The weave here, referred to in Turkish as kemha, incorporates metal‑wrapped thread into a lampas, or multiweave fabric. Ottoman kemha fabrics typically combine a satin ground with a design executed in twill and highlighted with gold. Catching the light, their glittering patterns appear to float above a shimmering background.
One of the more popular layouts with Ottoman textile artists, and one that eventually found its way into other media such as ceramic tile decoration, the pattern on this fabric fragment features parallel undulating vines adorned with leaves and flowers. This example, almost certainly from the later 1560s and deservedly among the most famous Islamic textiles in the Metropolitan Museum, is a beautiful and early demonstration of Ottoman kemha, a complex brocaded silk weave. The design, featuring compound floral palmettes and leaves decorated with the newly invented motifs of stylized flowers—tulips and carnations (see detail)—as well as traditional stencil-effect lotus blossoms, is executed in gold twill on a brilliant red satin ground. The combination of superb drawing, the impression of animated movement, and the simplicity of color palette typifies the very best of Ottoman textile design at a time when the classical brilliance of the Ottoman floral style was at its peak, before it evolved into the more individualistic and often mannered style of the 1580s and beyond.
Several artistic decisions have resulted in the aesthetic success of this loom-width panel. The first involved visual texture: the decision to decorate the wide bands of swaying vines with a small pattern of zigzag lines (rather than executing them in white) makes them the basic structure of the design without overwhelming the two different kinds of palmettes growing from them. The second decision concerned scale: the new motifs, the stylized tulips and carnations, are subordinated to the large-scale palmettes that they decorate, with a single small tulip making a periodic solo appearance on the red ground. The third artistic decision was one of layout: how to make a horizontal connection between the vertical vines only once in every repetition of the design. This was accomplished by making a left-leaning leaf decorated with a single carnation and tulip overlap the adjacent vine. The result is the epitome of the Ottoman classical style: a combination of richness and simplicity, large-scale grandeur and subtle detail.
Walter B. Denny in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. On the layout, and this textile, see Atasoy et al. 2001, pp. 282–85, and pl. 42
Dikran G. Kelekian, New York (by 1926–d. 1951; his estate, New York, 1951–52;sold to MMA)
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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. 228, pp. 287, 320-321, ill. p. 320-1 (color).
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