Iznik Ceramics


Iznik 16th - Benaki Islamic Museum Athens Greece

Iznik today is a small typical Turkish town, which lies some sixty miles South-East from Istanbul, across the Bosporus. In earlier times it was an important Byzantine town, the ancient Nicaea, with significant trading activity because of its location on trade routes from East to West (was one of the first centers occupied by the Ottomans in the late 13th century).
Following the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, the name of Iznik became famous throughout the world due to the development of a ceramics industry in the 16th and 17th centuries. Iznik ceramics represent an amazing technical innovation in the history of Turkish pottery. Combining the Ottoman style with external influences from China, Asia, the Balkans and even Europe,
Iznik vessels and tiles reached the peak of Ottoman ceramic art.

The Early Years

Three types of earthenware, sgraffiato, underglaze-painted (known as Miletus ware) and slipware, constitute the older pottery tradition in the region, before the new white fritware makes its appearance towards the end of the15th century. “Miletus ware” is a type of pottery that was produced in İznik before the 15th century. It used red clay as a base, covered with white slip, with simple designs in dark cobalt blue, and sometimes turquoise, green and purple. Many of the pieces are decorated with central rosettes, spiralling leaves, six-pointed stars, stylised patterns and arabesque panels. Miletus ware ceased by about 1520. From the 15th century, Miletus ware was replaced by what is regularly known as “Iznik pottery”.

Development and Growth of Iznik Pottery (1470-1560)

The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror (1451-1481), was one of the turning points of history. The Ottoman state was transformed into an empire. It was also a very important event in the evolution of Ottoman art. Under Mehmed’s Reign the first Court style was developed and transmitted in various crafts. Ottoman arts became more assertive in their decoration and more expressive in their technical skills.
In the city of Iznik, from the late 15th century, red earthenware began to be replaced by a white body made of 80% silica, 10% glass frit and 10% white clay. Lead and sodium compounds were added to reduce the firing temperature. The wares were coated with a very white slip before bisque firing. Decoration was applied underglaze on the bisque wares, the outlines pounced through a stencil. The wares were glazed with a lead-alkaline-tin glaze. Firing was done in an updraft kiln, to about 900° C. The forms included large dishes, bowls, jugs, jars, hanging-lamps and ornaments, candlesticks, etc.
Researchers have categorized 4 stylistic phases, spanning the period from about 1470 to the late 1520s. These phases correspond to four successive reigns: the last decade (1470-81) of Mehmet the Conqueror’s (Mehmet Fatih phase); the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512); the reign of Selim I (1512-20) and the first decade of Süleyman’s.

The earliest group of Iznik ceramics, dated to 1470s and 1480s, were those painted with tightly drawn arabesques and highly stylised floral motifs on a deep blue ground (blue-and-white ware). The dated Iznik ceramics of 1500 indicate that the Sultan Bayezid phase still favored white decoration reserved on a blue ground. During the reign of Bayezid II, floral motifs had changed with more complex shapes and compositional innovations as areas of plain ground between the well and the border, which gave an impression of greater lightness. At the same time new motifs (such as weaves of knots and Chinese-derived cloud bands) made their appearance.

Iznik 16th - Benaki Islamic Museum Greece

The reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) heralds the expansion of the Iznik industry and the massive patronage of all the arts, while allowing the craftsmen to draw on a wide variety of sources for inspiration. The decade of 1520s was a period of experimentation for the potters of Iznik. A wind of innovations brought a new freedom of choice in ceramic decoration and form. Potters feel more independent, to get their design ideas from other sources, or to rely to their imagination. Their choices reflect the Ottoman style, as well as influences from both Europe and the Far East. The introduction of a new color a turquoise-blue was a part of broader trend, to free the potters from the monochrome scheme and the older decorative restrictions.

Among the five stylistic trends in this period, one is the so-called “Golden Horn ware” (named because the first sample were excavated in the Golden Horn area of Istanbul), or Tuğra style, which makes its first appearance in the mid to late 1520s. This type of decoration consists in series of thin concentric spirals adorned with small leaves, in a palette dominated by blue on white background. These designs were inspired from calligraphy, and especially the Tuğra imperial signatures such as that of Süleyman the Magnificent. Although this type of pottery shows a conservative style, reflecting the aesthetic of the Sultan’s Court, it remained popular from 1530s to 1550s.

Iznik 16th - Benaki Islamic Museum Greece

By the late 1520s and the 1530s, the potters developed a new more independent style, simple in its structure and rapid in its painting. Symmetrical flowers (such as tulips, carnations and daisies), often placed in vases or jugs, was the most favorite motif of this style. Also motifs from the real world appeared, such as sailing ships, snakes, lions, trees and even a young man in profile (the latter inspired from Italian maiolica). The painting was mostly in two blues against a white ground. This style, named by Julian Raby as “the potters style” (instead of “blue-and- turquoise” phase as named by other scholars), can be seen as a first step towards the floral naturalism of the second half of the 16th century.

From the late 1520s Iznik potters began to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was highly prized by the Ottoman sultans. Chinese ceramics had long been admired, collected and emulated in the Islamic world. The potters used Chinese dishes and vessels (which were in the Sultan’s Court) as models for their production. The most popular Chinese models were dishes with three brunches of grapes, lotus bouquets and flower scroll dishes. On the other hand, the Iznik potters were not limited to an exact imitation of the Chinese designs, but they broadened their decorative repertoire under the influence of Ottoman Court styles and expanded the under-glaze palette including new colors. Although these new polychrome Ottoman styles, gradually dominated the production of Iznik ceramics, imitations of Chinese porcelains continued to be produced until the late 16th century, while some individual motifs, such as the “lotus panels” and the “wave and rock” border, survived in the decorative vocabulary of Iznik until the late 17th century.

In this period, of about 1525-40, there was a significant increase in the production of ceramic tiles of Iznik. These were mostly hexagonal, with patterns of radiating arabesques, cloud scrolls and feathery leaves on interlaced stems. The coloring is most attractive, with its bright warm blue and small touches of vivid turquoise.

By the late 1540s, the Iznik potters had developed an underglaze palette of many colors, more than any previous ceramic tradition. The potters used for the first time green, grey, purple and black for outlines, in addition to cobalt blue and turquoise. According to John Carswell “the designs are exuberant and imaginative, based on intersecting arabesques, saz leaves and flowers which may one have been lotuses and peonies but are now transformed into hybrids unknown to nature. There are also curious artichoke-like globes on thick stems, elegant tulips with slender curling petals, and more naturalistic sprays of hyacinth, pomegranates and pale pink roses. On the dishes, many of the bouquets spring from a leafy tuft, providing vertical orientation for the design”.

Arthur Lane claims that the vessels painted in polychrome between about 1540 and 1555 are the finest ever made at Iznik. This phase of Iznik production is widely known as “Damascus ware” (mistakenly labeled after some were found in Damascus, Syria, but were later understood to be derived from Iznik). Other researchers like Julian Raby, claim that this label fails to distinguish the diversity of wares to which it is applied. According to J. Raby “The first half of the 16th century had seen a move from blue-and-white to lavish polychromy. The greater richness in coloring was matched by a more exuberant floral style whose sweeping leaves and bold asymmetry contrasted with the structured and tightly-woven formation of the Baba Nakkas style. The Ottomans were not content, however, with these successes. In the mid-1550s the ceramic industry was to undergo significant changes. As Sultan Süleyman’s long reign drew to a close, the potteries in Iznik embarked on a new phase”.

Maturity and Decline of Iznik pottery (1560 – 1650)

Iznik 16th - Benaki Islamic Museum Greece

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman sultans started a huge building program. In these buildings, especially those commissioned by Süleyman, his wife Hürrem (Roxelana) and his Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha, large quantities of tiles were used. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (the “Blue Mosque”) alone contains 20,000 tiles. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque is more densely tiled and tiles were used extensively in the Topkapı Palace. As a result of this demand, the whole character of the Iznik ceramic industry changed. From the early 1550s, the emphasis of production shifted from vessels to tilework. As a result of these changes, the forms of the ceramics were increasingly standardized and the general sizes diminished. Dishes gradually lost their foliated rims and ambitious shapes, such as the deep footed basins, were abandoned.

The 1550s was a decade of changes. In tilework the hexagonical shape was abandoned in favour of the square format. Imperial patronage introduced more ambitious designs into Iznik tilework, in order to decorate the interiors of mosques, especially the Mihrab and the Gibla walls. The quality of underglaze tilework was improved significantly, while in its color palette green and purple were added. But the most significant aesthetic change was the introduction of the red as an underglaze color for tile work. In parallel, this was a technical triumph, as red is one of the most intractable underglaze colors in pottery.

All these technical achievements and aesthetic changes in the production of ceramic tiles had an inevitable impact on producing of vessels, especially in their color scheme. More and more potters substitute red for purple. In the mid-1560s a new emerald green was added to the color palette of Iznik. The painters were experimenting with ways of enriching their decorative repertoire with combinations of colors and new compositions. The most characteristic and popular designs are dishes painted with compositions of tulips, carnations, roses and other flowers, emerging from a leafy tuft on the lower inner margin of the rim. Also dishes with arabesque medallions were very popular in the fourth quarter of the 16th century. Another motif which is favored in Iznik pottery from the 1570s is the sickle-shaped saz-leaf. Other dishes have painted with central single rosette designs, or have a central cypress tree surrounded with tulips and other flowers. Although the polychrome phase was flourishing, the craftsmen continued to produce blue-and-white ware, preserving this way an older conservative style.

During the reign of Murad III’s (1574-1595), due to the reduction of architectural activity, the orders for tiles gradually fell and so did their size. This decline in tile production resulted in a decline in the quality of the tiles. Making vessels became again more profitable than tilework. Another floral polychrome style appeared, with new decorative designs on dishes and other vessels. For the first time a tulip overlaps the central rib of the saz leaf. The motif of prunus tree (a genus of trees and shrubs, which includes the plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds) becomes very popular in the last quarter of the 16th century.

Iznik 16th - V&A Museum UK

Another distinctive group of Iznik pottery includes vessels with sailing ships, fantastic birds and animals, first depicted on Iznik fritware in the 1520s and 1530s. The production of such themes was increased in the late 16th and during the 17th century. Hunting dogs, deers, rabbits, ducks, monkeys, lions, snakes, horses and confronted harpies, are painted over emerald green or turquoise green grounds, which was sometimes replaced by a blue or white ground in the early 17th century. Apart from this “teratological” repertoire and their interest in floral designs, according to J. Raby “the Iznik potters also employed a wide variety of abstract decorative schemes. Several of these, such as fish-scale ground, cintamani, s-clouds, and arabesques, had already been developed in the first half of the century, but the majority of surviving examples date from the reign of Murad III.”

As the 17th century progressed, more human figures are depicted on Iznik pottery, while earlier figural depiction was rare to nonexistent. The cause of the human repertoire in the Iznik ceramics is probably due to the limited involvement of the Court in pottery design by the last quarter of the 16th century. In the period from 1560 until about 1675, the craftsmen of Iznik paint on their plates, women in flowery gardens, kneeling ladies playing lute or tambourine, men holding letters, arms, smoking pipes, young couples in love, horsemen with spears referring to Saint George of Christianity, people with zoomorphic features and many other similar scenes.

Later Years, the End of the Iznik Pottery

The decline of Iznik pottery has been linked with the decay of the Ottoman Empire. The withdrawal of Sultan’s official patronage and the reduction in imperial demand inevitably affected the Iznik economy and by the mid-17th century only ten to twenty kilns remained and knowledge had been lost. Without the support of Court (on artistic and financial level) the Iznik potteries could not survive as a high-class industry.

The potters tried to respond to the economic problems of the late 16th and early 17th century by reducing the quality and standardizing the ceramic production. As a result of all these seems to be the decline of quality in ceramic production. The vessels made between about 1620 and 1700 can be recognized by their poor drawing and inferior colors; the red has a brownish yone, while the blue and green run badly in the glaze. The design of later Iznik wares is generally regarded as weak.

During the same period potters were seeking new markets inside the Ottoman Empire and abroad. Exports of Iznik ceramics have been recorded to Cairo in the mid-17th century and Europe where the Iznik pottery had a high reputation. Also were commissions from the Tatar princes of the Crimea, as well as from Hungary and Moldavia. At times, many Christian monasteries on Mount Athos (Holly Mountain) supplied tiles from Iznik potteries to decorate their churches, as happened in 1678 when Greek inscribed tiles were commissioned for the monastery of the Great Lavra.

As the 17th century progressed, the economic rise of the middle classes inside the Ottoman Empire, contributed to an increase in the demand for Iznik ceramics from individual customers, even non-Muslims. A number of Iznik dishes with Greek inscriptions on the rim, and a variety of dates from 1640 to 1678, is clear evidence of Iznik ceramic orders for Christians. Also, apart from European travelers, Greek captains and sailors were constantly purchasing Iznik ceramics (with preference to the sailing-ship motifs) from the markets at Canakkale and Istanbul. A great number of 17th century Iznik dishes were preserved until the 19th century, in many houses in the Greek islands and especially in Rhodes. Because of this, dealers and collectors from all over the world gave them the name Rhodian style, mistakenly believing that they had made in Rhodes.

By the late 17th century Iznik pottery fades into obscurity. The potters were tried to react to economic difficulties, but the stagnation and poor quality in the production, the lack of new designs and the superiority of imported Chinese ceramics, gradually led them into disrepute.

The year 1719 marks the end of production at Iznik. A great ceramic tradition came to an end.-

1. İznik, N.Atasoy and J.Raby (London, Alexandria Press, 1989)
2. Iznik Pottery, J.Carswell (London, British Museum Press, 1998)
3. Later Islamic Pottery, Arthur Lane (London, Faber & Faber, 2nd edition 1971)
4. Iznik, L’ aventure d’une collection, Les ceramiques ottomanes du musee national de la Renaissance Chateau d’ Ecouen, Frederic Hitzel and Mireille Jacotin (Paris, Editions de la Reunion des musees nationaux, 2005)
5. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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