The miniatures of Surname-i Vehbi

Dogan Kuban

The festival held on the occasion of the circumcision of the four sons of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III lasted for fifteen days, if we discount the preparations for it. It was the fourth of the extraordinary spectacles held in the history of the Ottoman Empire also the last to be so lavish or to last so long. Like all the other traditional and ceremonial events that took place in the empire, this was in the nature of an animated exhibition presenting the richness of Ottoman life and culture. Surname-i Vehbi was composed for Ahmed III. Vehbi’s text, in which the events of the festival are described in detail, and the illustrations by Levni and his assistants, which accompany the account and virtually transcend the miniature genre to become paintings in the European sense, reveal for us today this last great Ottoman festival like the catalog of an exhibition.

Although Ahmed III had secured a victory over the Russians at Prut, the relentless struggle between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires signaled impending failure and retreat for the Turks. Between 1702 and 1718 the sultan went through no fewer than a dozen grand viziers, eventually finding what he was looking for in Nevşehirli İbrahim Pasha, who was wedded to Princess Fatma, the sultan’s daughter. It is apparent that this grand vizier was the one who directed the course of events, even if only in the cultural sphere, during this period though Ahmed, who was himself a poet and calligrapher, put his stamp of approval on whatever was done. The festival of 1720 took place in the early years of a unique cultural outpouring that is known in Ottoman history as the "Tulip Period", a process of a dozen years or so that incorporated much radical change for the empire. In that respect, it may be regarded as a cultural milestone by virtue of its historical position.

Circumcision feasts and ceremonies were events that fell in line with the traditional festivities of the Ottoman court. Insofar as this is true, the 1720 festival itself cannot be said to have been the product of any personal inclination on the part of the grand vizier. Nevertheless looking at Vehbi’s text and at the illustrating images produced by Levni and his apprentices, it is clear that İbrahim Pasha certainly did have a special place in the circumcision feast and spared no effort in its organization. Strictly speaking it may be inaccurate to regard the 1720 festival as part of the cultural life of the Tulip Period. With the exception of a few performers, foreign participation in the proceedings was markedly less than was the case with earlier festivals of this sort. In Surname there is an absence of foreign influence or of any "winds of change". As for the pictures that embellish it, one senses the art of a transition period in which the spirit and technique of Oriental miniature-painting are being abandoned but the norms of Occidental painting have not yet been assimilated.

The origins of Turkish festivals, their unique features, and their role (common to every society) of being both a show of political power and a device for reducing social tensions are all matters that have been dealt with many times. The point we shall be addressing here therefore will be the pictorial mode of expression revealed in the images executed by Levni and his apprentices. Just as was true for the Byzantines, among the Ottomans every aspect of life that touched upon and was touched by political power could have a ceremonial dimension to it. The point is repeatedly made that these ceremonial activities serve as proof of the durability of political authority and are an expression of the compelling symbolism and relevance of absolute autocracy. Proof that a society’s artistic bent cannot be completely controlled even by such absolutism however and that it will find an outlet in which to reveal its inherently natural structure is to be seen in Levni’s paintings.

In every detail of Ottoman life there exists a syncretic cultural expression and this naturally manifests itself in Ottoman festivals. In these ceremonies one observes a diverse selection of elements from the vast panoply of local and foreign cultures that made up the empire’s material life. The creators of these festivals were Ottoman subjects hailing from every region of the empire as well as foreign artisans and craftsmen from all over Europe and the Mediterranean who had been made captive by the Ottomans. In a sense, these festivals are a reflection both of the nature and of the vastness of the technical and technologcal resources that the Ottoman capital was capable of drawing upon.

One observes that these spectacles, which we may regard as a great fair, are the result of the bringing together of several different elements: a distinctive spatial and architectural setting, a ceremonial hierarchy, entertaining performances, and guild parades. Of these four, the development of an architectural setting is one of the most outstanding features of Ottoman culture. In that respect, the great role played by tents, carpeting, coverings, awnings, and draperies reveals that textiles were no less important in Ottoman culture, including life in its palaces and courts, than they were in Turkish nomadic tradition–notwithstanding the lack of any surviving "racial" elements in the ethnic structure of the imperial family. Nomadism can scarcely be said to have been an element of the cultural structure of Ottoman society by this date; certainly neither the members of the imperial family nor the people who made up the sultan’s court or the military establishment would have regarded themselves as nomads. There certainly was a desire for transient spaces in the life of the Ottoman palace and it is true that tents and pavilions were employed by it with a degree of frequency that was all but equal to that of permanent architecture but this cannot be considered a consequence of social disposition for the nomadic. It would also be difficult to say that a nomadic psychology prevailed in court circles. The basic element here is not the tent but rather a partiality for impermanence in the constitution of one’s physical surroundings. The use of these materials was a manifestation of conscious architectural design decisions that were informed by more than concerns for layout. This attitude is not only evident in festivals but survives as a subtext in all Ottoman architectural applications. One may posit the existence, at the conceptual level of Ottoman architecture, of a spatiality that incorporates both the permanent and the impermanent. This is not to imply that this architecture was semitransient / semipermanent and should instead be understood as a continued architectural search for a spatial design inspired by such elements as tents, coverings, carpeting, and draperies. In a sense, the inability or unwillingness to forgo wooden construction may also be interpreted in the same context. What is at issue here is not a society’s nomadic nature but rather a persistence of cultural elements that reach far, far into the past.

As must be the case with virtually all Ottoman-period artists, we know next to nothing about Levni’s life. Painter Abdülcelil Levni Çelebi (the name Levni is related to the Arabic word levn (color) and was given to the artist because of the colorful nature of his paintings) was a nakkaş–a decorator employed in the court studios–and not a portraitist. There is nothing romantic about his style and he cannot even be said to have preferred to do illustration. An order was given to the court studios to illustrate the circumcision feast and Levni Çelebi (the latter term meaning something like "gentleman"), with the help of his apprentices, carried it out. It has been frequently emphasized that his work can be said to be infused with a sort of "realism". But this realism is a consequence of the task that was assigned to him. The continuous sequence of events required that there be continuity in the illustration of them. Every painting in the sequence relates an event that brings the previous scene to completion. These images reveal to us an Ottoman world; the discrepancies between the textual and visual accounts of events are useful in making an assessment of the artist’s style.

The text of Surname was composed in a eulogistic style that is sometimes difficult for modern readers to understand. It is written in a bombastic sort of prose in which praise for the well-known historical details and personages of the period are set like gems into the text. In a sense, we can read two parallel texts in Vehbi’s Surname: the first is a chronological, day-by-day account of all the details of the events related to the celebration of the circumcision of Sultan Ahmed III’s four sons–a sort of journal; the second is a text in which the people, creatures, and objects intimately associated with those events are presented within a seemingly unbounded laudatory allegory. A single example will suffice to reveal this structure and the difference between the two texts:

The first of that the grand vizier, whose generosity is as vast as that of Hatim, presented to the sultan, whose hand is as open and whose heart is munificent as the sea, was a sash fashioned from the most precious of diamonds, sparkling and pure, and decorated with fine embellishments.

That was the realistic part; now comes the glorification:

More limpidly pure than a hundred-petalled rose bedecked with dew and brighter and more resplendent than the crystal ball of the moon suspended like a chandelier from the vault of the firmament, the sash’s world-illuminating effulgence transformed the festival-ground into a sea of light. To accurately assess its value, the assayer of the mind would need to empty the purse of his consciousness.

Levni illustrated the realistic text with his images; but in doing so, he made not the slightest reference to any of the allegorical elements or lofty language employed in the glorifying sections. As another example, here is Vehbi’s description of horses that the grand vizier presented to the sultan:

Two perfectly-equipped, matchless, awe-inspiring saddle horses of Anatolian and Egyptian breed... Each one was worthy of being saddled with the crescent moon and fitted with the golden wheel of the sun as its stirrups. Their swaggering walk and flirtatious trot would have given lessons in gait to Chinese and Tartar antelopes. They could have served as models for full-length portraits by the artists of China.

In his illustration of this scene, Levni does devote more space to these horses, whose trappings are also executed in magnificent detail. In doing so, the artist has depicted–spatially and decoratively–the ceremonial status of the horses presented by the grand vizier; but in terms of their dimensions and their forms, the horses are no different from any other horses.

This is a reductionist style of realism. More than that, it also reveals a methodology. All the elements of these images–inanimate objects, horses, and human beings (including the sultan, grand vizier, and other well-known individuals)–are depicted according to pre-established models with but minor variations. Differentiation, such as there is, is achieved by having some figures facing right and others facing left (and for this purpose, the pupils of the figures’ eyes are shifted to the left or right as circumstances require), by positioning the figures in space, and by means of their costume. At the social level, these people are anonymous beings identified not in terms of their intellectual, psychological, or personal attributes but by means of their headgear, their furs, and the places into which they have been set within the ceremonial mechanism. Levni’s visual tale does not record individuals for us–not even the person of the sultan himself; instead, it reveals social status and rank. The spatial geometry of the paintings themselves is even divided up so as to achieve this. In these images, individuals are ceremonial extras (in the cinematic sense of that word) who happen to be the sultan’s subjects. Curiously enough, the sultan himself is treated as a ceremonial extra. The fact that Levni abstained completely from representing any of the symbolism of the text in his illustrations deprives us of one dimension that might have been expected of them. Had he reflected in these images the fantastic language that Vehbi employed in his descriptions not just of human beings but also of animals, "candy-gardens", artificial trees, and presented to the sovereign, we undoubtedly would have found ourselves confronted by quite a different sort of art.

What is the source of this curious distinction that the artist made? Why didn’t he emphasize the social status of the sultan or grand vizier by employing a pictorial language? Why is the overblown praise of the text not reflected in Levni’s pictures? Why is the sovereign always depicted with the same cliched typology? And for that matter, why isn’t he depicted on a larger scale, as is the practice in many Islamic miniatures? Why wasn’t the elevated style that was permitted in textual expression–indeed, which was considered a natural part of it–translated into painting?

The answers to these questions can only be found by examining the different standings that the literary and visual arts had in Ottoman culture. The respect given to oral and written expression was not the same as that given to drawing. Praise and exaltation through visual imagery was not regarded as commendable. Indeed, making images at all constituted an infraction of perceived religious prohibitions. And while it is an infraction that has been tolerated since the earliest days of Islam, the extent of that tolerance should not be overestimated. That Levni or any other artist for that matter should have refrained from taking–or have been unable to take–a theatrical, exalted approach even in a book that was only for the eyes of the sultan himself must surely be because their culture would not have condoned it and not because they were less laudatory than any poet. In a religous community in which the reduction of God to a personal dimension in any way whatsoever is regarded as sinful and in which not even the Prophet’s face can be shown, a countenance that establishes a sovereign’s identity might be taken as a recognition of his lower status; but a pictorial methodology that sought to exalt that status would be a contradiction of the same logic. There may also have been other reasons of course. In the event, the pictorial exaltation of religious art that was common among Christians in their depictions of Jesus, the prophets, and the saints was to remain something that the practitioners of Ottoman art never had recourse to.

The schematization of all human figures–including those of the sovereign and his family–may well be the result of a reticence whose origin is religious. To have invested the sultan with a distinctive pictorial status and depicted him and the princes as being different from other people, employing richer modes of expression for them, would have come dangerously close to sinfulness. The sultan, no less than any other figure shown, must appear to be aware of and to be acknowledging his submission to God. In literature, achieving this is not a serious problem because language, even the most fulsomely eulogistic language, can reduce the sovereign to normal human status with respect to God with the addition of a single, short adjective. That is a flexibility that painting does not enjoy. Another factor sharply delineating the approach of anonymizing the sultan was the continued existence of Christian artistic traditions in the Ottoman Empire. To put it another way, an Ottoman Muslim artist could scarcely have been expected to produce an image of his sovereign such that it resembled a Christian saint. If this assessment is correct then the "realism" of Levni’s painting may be said to be the result of the fact that certain avenues of expression were closed to the artist. Thus confined, a somewhat ascetic mode of expression would have had to suffice for the images.

What links all these anonymized figures to one another is a ceremonial structure and that ceremony was an imperial phenomenon, every element of which was arranged to be an expression of the abstract structure of the imperial system. What emphasize the identities of the living figures and lifeless objects are the patterns and colors of the textiles that serve as pictorial elements: garments, coverings, tents, carpets, and tapestries are what introduce excitement into this abstract, mechanistic world. The emotional power of which figures have been deprived is to be found in their forms and colors, which reflect not a reality but rather an equally abstract and decorative vision.

Painter Levni Çelebi had no style that invested his work with his own personality. Though we may know his name, his art is no less anonymous for our knowledge of it. There are reasons for thinking that he did not do or complete all the paintings himself. Nevertheless we can say that, through great discipline, he imposed the decorative structure and the typology of Surname on all the studio artists in his charge and that he was fully aware that such a huge illustration project as this one demanded, exactly like a feature-length animated film today, a well-defined system to pull it off successfully. Although the human typology in these images is rather diverse, the pictorial context itself has the appearance of having been purged of emotion.

Nowadays we regard Surname as a work of art and a social document. It was in fact an album intended for the privacy of the sultan and his family: one of the things it reveals is the internal organization of the home of the sovereign for example. At the same time, the vehicles of the technological potential that the sultan’s subjects placed at his disposal are depicted as an animated catalogue in the parade of the guilds. A point that should draw our attention here is that the festivities of a circumcision feast have been transformed into a procession of accomplishments rather than simply a series of entertaining scenes. In other words, this procession is something more than a festival. Looking at the images illustrating Surname one gets the feeling that all the participants in the proceedings, save for the buffoons and acrobats etc, are witnessing a serious event rather than having a lot of fun. The life of pleasure that was to become characteristic of the Tulip Period is not reflected in these images; were it not for the droll actions of the buffoons and for a few details scattered here and there, we might not guess that that anybody was supposed to be enjoying himself at all.

The story of this festival, which Levni and his apprentices have distilled here to a cartoon-like mode of expression, cannot be correctly assessed on the basis of Western-inspired aesthetic, expository, subjective, or discursive criteria. The aesthetic aims of this art are not those of Europe; but neither are they those of the "mysterious Orient". The Ottomans did not regard the beauties that the world of objects offered for human beings as the aesthetic point of departure of an objective world system; but neither did they identify with anything like the pagan traditions of the worlds of Persian, Indian, or Chinese fables in which those beauties are perceived as powerful entities. The almost abstract political system that invested the Ottoman order with its vital power was reflected in Ottoman painting as an abstracted form of expression, even when its aim was to expound upon reality.

At this point in our assessment, there is a problem of cultural context that needs to be addressed. How could Ottoman culture, dwelling in the center of the Old World, have possibly disregarded the experiences of lifetimes lived by Turks who had controlled a vast region from the furthest reaches of Asia to Central Europe and everywhere in the Near East? Could it have disremembered China, Central Asia, Iran, or Byzantium? Could it have turned its back on what the Mediterranean brought to it? The answer to these questions is complex. The day-to-day pragmatism that prevailed when the empire was first being formed meant that every door and avenue of approach was open: even if the variety of options on offer was not infinite, the potential for selection among them was. By the time the Ottoman system found itself in the person of Mehmed II, the eclecticism of the early years came to an end in the face of the extraordinarily multifaceted character of that sultan. With and after Mehmed’s reign, Ottoman culture still had the appearance of a culture whose doors were open to influences coming from every direction; but in fact it had become a culture that had reached a level of self-definition and self-sufficiency. That sense of self-sufficiency may be said to have continued until the end of the reign of Ahmed III and Levni may be numbered among the last artists of that cultural world. Despite the hints of new beginnings in his work, he was the representative of a culture that was still thoroughly sure of itself. That culture was the culture of a political milieu which subscribed to unmitigated absolutism and which supposed that it would be able to continue to do so forever.

If Levni’s painting reflects the concessions of such a milieu, then to the degree to which it does so he was fulfilling what was expected of him. To have discovered an Antoine Watteau in these paintings would be an incongruity nothing short of bizarre; nor should we expect a Grand Canal carnival scene such as an Antonio Canaletto or a Francesco Guardi might have produced. Even if all of this cannot be directly associated with a culture controlled by dogmatic Islam, Levni cannot be held at fault for not conceiving of something lying outside that culture. Even if painting–especially figurative painting–has the appearance in Islamic culture of being the expression of a rebellion against the most dogmatic attitudes of the religion, it still remains within the boundaries of its confessional system.

What is the content of these paintings and what are the criteria by which we are to judge that content? We have elements that relate a story, that are set in an arrangement and chronology, and that incorporate references to a text but the images themselves are lacking in any psychological details. It is possible to think of them as the visual elements of a puppet theater–more precisely, the traditional shadow-puppet theater in which the puppet figures appear two-dimensional on a two-dimensional stage. But without reading the text, it is all but impossible to understand the flow of events or read anything into the identities of the figures beyond recognizing a few figural types or objects. There is no question that Surname was intended to be a monumental work that passed on to the future an account, which incorporated visual documents as well, of a festival. But when the book’s images are the subject of a publication nowadays as works of art, they are treated as compositions that we can appreciate from the standpoint of their aesthetics and color harmonies. Like smaller miniatures, these paintings define their own pictorial spaces as plates that are not part of a written text but are independent of it. In other words, we look at each image as an independent "painting". To be sure there also exist older miniature-illustrated manuscripts in which the images appear as large, independent compositions; the difference in approach and attitude that we see here is a penchant for figurative conception that transcends the nature of miniatures.

Representing the continuity of parades in independent images was a compositional problem that the artist had to solve. In some paintings there is indeed an effort to represent an overarching compositional unity of space or arrangement but in most cases it is not matched by any continuity in the drawing of figures. The artist did not completely sever the contingents of the parades from one another but neither is there any instance of a figure spanning two images. Levni made do with an expository continuity rather than a visual one. Even though the artists did include a number of elements in some images to suggest that one was the continuation of another taking the continuity of a particular subject into account, the basic approach is one of independent plates. In the case of some images (50b-51a is a good example), there are architectural elements that link the two frames together. Sometimes the backgrounds create the impression that one is observing the proceedings through two separate windows set near one another in the same wall (6b-7a, 22b-23a, 34b-35a, 89b-90a, and others).

Some instances of continuity among the images are achieved by taking advantage of the rules of hierarchy and protocol. The siting of the pavilions of the sultan and his sons for example are such that the grand vizier is in a position to be at the command of the sultan wherever the sovereign may be. The pavilions are placed diagonally in the upper part of each page and on the opposite page there are activities that spill over into the page containing the sultan’s pavilion. Curious is the absence however of any suggestion that either the sultan or the grand vizier are observing what is going on: in some cases, they are even depicted as looking in a direction quite the opposite from what should be the focal-point of interest. Spectators do appear in these paintings but only some of them are watching the performances; others seem to have been used as "fill" for the composition. In other words, the participants in events are depicted but the relationship among them appears to be one of fulfilling the requirements of ceremony rather than achieving any sort of organic unity congregating around a particular event.

There is another feature of the text and illustrations to which attention needs to be called: in both, one has to look hard to find the common-folk for whom all these festivities are allegedly being conducted. With the exception of a few clusters in a handful of images, the entire population of İstanbul is represented by a mere fifteen to twenty people. To be sure this does not necessarily mean that the festival wasn’t held for the people; but the text and the pictures certainly were made for the sultan. The fact that commoners were not treated by the artist as a subject worthy of attention shows that–and this was also true of the authors who composed journals–the work was specially done for the sultan but without any special attempt to capture the atmosphere of the festival itself. The peripheral elements of the ceremony do not interest the sovereign. To be sure the marching guildsmen also represent the common-folk but they are here not as spectators but as components of the ceremony. We must regard these paintings as parts of the sultan’s official life. For this reason, the "reality" of an Ottoman artist is not the "realism" of Western art. This observation tells us that, in the selection of content, the objective of the Ottoman artist was not to represent reality as it really was but rather to illustrate a book in a way required by his sovereign, his milieu, and his culture. If the artist depicting all these parades had felt either a representational or artistic need to present reality, he certainly could have included the ordinary people in his pictorial exposition.

At this point we must ask the question of what is the artistic content of Levni’s art. Even though the pictorial content of a miniature must change because it serves as a decorative vehicle for a book, we know enough about the history of miniature painting to say that this constraint never completely deprived the miniatures of their status as paintings or destroyed the dimensions of their aesthetic considerations. One need only recall the extraordinary aesthetic quality of a Tahmasp şahname or of a padişahname created for a Turkish-Mongol court. Being dependent upon the content and dimensions of a book is certainly a limitation on one’s freedom; but people have been painting pictures subject to the dictates of religious narrative and of spatial constraints for a long, long time. Levni’s work has great documentary value but it is not to be compared with such sublime examples of Islamic miniatures.

Among the Surname images there are some that show that the artists did give consideration to the problems of pictorial composition that went beyond the need to tell a story. This pictorial character is packed into the design of the compositions. A few invariable elements serve as a shorthand for landscape. There is a skillful–even elegant–clarity of line. The execution of figures suggests studio work done on the basis of prototypes created, most likely, by the studio master. As chief artist, Levni’s real duty was to establish a figurative order, identify the content and composition for each plates, and determine the decorative and coloristic characters of paintings. More than the cross-section of life in 18th century İstanbul that they present , what really impresses the modern viewer about the Surname images is their approach to their fundamental aesthetic theme through the decorative and colorful use especially of textiles and tents.

Telling a story in pictures was a routine activity in the Middle Ages in which color was an independent parameter. Levni’s paintings are certainly not medieval: in them there is nothing of legend, symbolization of people, divine atmosphere, romance, or a stylized way of life. What we have here are a number of carefully chose, unadulterated–one could even say abstracted–elements of a real world. The reductionist attitude is in line with miniature-painting traditions. In a sense, Surname bears something of the nature of a photograph-illustrated document. This is why the story that it relates is the basic theme that inspires excitement in the viewer. The tradition of the Ottoman court studios reveals itself in these images with a self-assured mastery. The sack-wielding buffoons who appear in every scene serve to balance the empty parts of the pictorial space: they are employed like brushstrokes completing a coloristic composition. Avoiding an analysis of the details of the images’ content and stripping them of their narrative nature, the fundamental aesthetic value of Levni’s art is the compositional approach he takes to the relationship between color and surface.

In these paintings, Levni and his apprentices did not depart greatly from the tradition of Ottoman miniature painting; nevertheless, these paintings are no longer "miniatures". Had these severely simplified figures been executed on a huge wall surface–on one say the size of a Diego Rivera fresco–they might well be perceived as frescoes notwithstanding their style. Of course the pictorial concerns and volition of a Rivera composition were certainly of a nature different from those of Levni; but Levni’s pictures mimic monumentality and here and there they even exhibit its power. In attempting to assess all this quite uncommon pictorial effort, there can be no question of drawing parallels between it and European art: what we do find in it is a compositional volition and inclination to transform the miniature into a full-sized painting, earlier instances of which are to be found, for example, in the miniatures by Hasan Nakkas that illustrate an account of Mehmed III’s conquest of Eğer (Erlau) in 1596.

From the 16th century onward, Ottoman miniature-painting was characterized by a preference for a realism that eschewed the abstract story-telling and romanticism of classical (especially Persian) miniatures and the effort to achieve this led Ottoman miniaturists to force the limits of their art. The 18th century is a time when Ottoman art broke out of those limits and learned about perspective. Levni is a landmark at the beginning of this transformation and that is the context in which the Surname images need to be considered. The world that they relate points to a brand-new period that is stirred into action by memories of past greatness but in which instances of that greatness are hard to find any longer.

Return to Surname-i Vehbi index

Return to Kanyak's Doghouse