Ottoman calligraphers mastered certain kinds of designs that came to characterize the Ottoman school of calligraphy from the 16th century onward.[i] They also practiced naskh and nastacliq scripts and, like their Persian counterparts, transcribed the Qur’an, produced single sheets of calligraphic exercises (karalama),[ii] and compiled albums of calligraphies. Some of their favored calligraphic formats included single panels (levhalar) containing a description (hilya or hilye) of the Prophet Muhammad, découpage work, and mirror-work calligraphy. Furthermore, beautiful handwriting (hüsn-i hatt) was practiced by calligraphers in their personal albums of letter exercises (mufradat) and appeared in diplomas (ijaza or icâzet) granting them permission to sign their own works.
One of the most prevalent Ottoman calligraphic forms is the hilya panel, in which the Prophet Muhammad’s physical and moral qualities are described.[iii] The text, typically attributed to the Prophet’s son-in-law, cAli, tends to appear on a large single sheet of paper in a format devised by the celebrated Ottoman calligrapher Hafiz Osman (d. 1698). Some hilyas, however, draw upon Byzantine traditions of icon-making because they are produced as wooden triptychs with lateral wings that can be opened or shut. Hilyas applied to wooden panels, such as one signed by Dihya Salim al-Fahim and dated 1718 (1-88-154.13), typically hung on the walls of private residences and served as devotional and imaginative “aniconic icons” of the Prophet Muhammad.[iv]
Ottoman calligraphers experimented with the boundaries of their chosen medium at the same time that they tackled the intricacies of design and form. They mastered the art of découpage, in which a piece of paper forms a pattern through cutting and thus is linked to the procedures of creating stencils and pounces (a fine powder used in creating stenciled patterns). This type of work was not new to Ottoman calligraphers, as subtractive methods were employed for calligraphy pages and book doublures— the ornamental lining, often of leather, on the inside of a book-cover—during the Timurid period (1370-1506).[v] One of the best known Timurid découpage projects existed in the now dispersed Divan (Compendium of Poems) of Sultan Husayn Mirza calligraphed by Sultan cAli al-Mashhadi in 1492 (1-87-154.152).
Ottoman calligraphers took découpage a step further by creating intricate cutouts sometimes shaped like a mosque niche (mihrab) containing mirror-work inscriptions (1-84-154.6). Inscriptions reflecting one another (mütenâzir)— as if they were mirror images— demonstrated a particular kind of expertise. A calligrapher specializing in this technique, such as Muhammad Ibrahim, active ca. 1720-30, might even include his holograph seal impression (1-85-154.93 and 1-86-154.130). Like hilyas, these mütenâzir panels probably served as wall decorations in homes or dervish lodges (tekkes). The latter demonstrates how a variety of Ottoman calligraphic pieces could be viewed in relatively public places.
Other Ottoman examples of calligraphy obviously belonged to the personal appurtenances of calligraphers. For example, a diploma (ijaza or icâzet) of competence in calligraphy, although originally restricted in usage, could be so beautifully executed that it was considered a work of art and therefore worthy of collection and display. An ijaza includes a calligrapher’s chain of teachers and is testament to the tutorial system of master-pupil and the transmission of calligraphic knowledge in the Islamic world. Many items, such as one executed by cAli Ra’if Efendi in 1791 (1-88-154.129), include a selected text, for example, a saying (hadith) of the Prophet written by the calligrapher seeking his diploma, as well as the approval of his teacher(s) and colleagues.
[i] On Ottoman Turkish calligraphers, see Ali Alparslan,Osmanlı Hat Sanatı Tarihi, 2nd ed. (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2004); and Mühittin Serin, Hat Sanatı ve Meşhur Hattatlar, 2nd ed. (Istanbul: Kubbealtı Neşriyatı, 2003).
[ii] Like the Persian term siyah mashq, the Turkish term karalama literally means a “blackening” of the page with calligraphic exercises. On karalama, see Ferit Edgü, Turkish Calligraphic Art: Karalama/Meşk (Istanbul: Ada Press Publishers, 1980); and Nabil Safwat, The Art of the Pen: Calligraphy of the 14th to 20th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 5, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1996), 32.
[iii] For a translation of the hilya text and a further discussion of the genre, see Safwat (1996), 46.
[iv] Ibid., (1996), 46-50.
[v] Ibid., 194.