Interpreting Iznik floral motifs

The floral motifs of the dish typify the Kara Memi floral style, named after the chief painter (fl.1545-66) of Süleyman the Magnificent’s court. This floral style was an artistic move towards realism in depicting garden flowers. It is also often called the ‘Quatre Fleurs’ style because it used four principal flowers: the tulip, carnation, rose and hyacinth.

The dish has many references that make it not only an object of great beauty but also a complex cultural document.For the scholars Atasoy and Raby: ‘the popularity of the [Kara Memi floral] style might be attributed to symbolism’.[1]

The floral patterns on The Courtauld Iznik dish could give rise to stereotypes about the merely decorative quality of Islamic floral art. Because of the debate within Islam regarding the status of figurative imagery, and the view of some that Islam should be intolerant of figurative representation, the merely decorative use of flowers has been argued for.

However, this conception is misleading when employed to interpret 16th-century Ottoman art.[2] The floral motifs were used on Ottoman prayer books, Qur’an frontispieces, tobacco pouches, kaftans, imperial tents, and decorative mattress covers. The presence of flowers on all kinds of objects could suggest that floral motifs transcended their merely decorative function to reflect spiritual, cultural and literary connotations.

[1] Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby (1989). Iznik: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey (London: Alexandria Press) p.223.
[2] David James (1974). Islamic Art: An Introduction (London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group), pp.56-76.

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