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Painting of the Week: Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent

Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Detail.

Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent

The Ottoman Empire was an exotic realm filled with sheikhs, silks, and saffron. During the 16th and 17th centuries, it reached the height of its powers and extended into several continents, crossing nations and languages. It encompassed the northern shore of Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe. Ruling at the pinnacle of this vast and wealthy empire was the sultan, and its most famous sultan was Süleiman the Magnificent. He was a fabulous patron of the arts, and Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent is one of his many examples. Let us explore this Ottoman image. Let us explore this Ottoman painting.

Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

A tughra is a sultan’s official emblem used on all official documents, such as royal decrees, grants, and correspondence. It blends the pictorial nature of a royal seal with the written nature of a royal signature. The tughra is the symbol of the sultan’s authority just as a crown or throne is the symbol of a European monarch. However, unlike a European crown or throne that may remain constant through many successive reigns, the tughra was personalized for each Ottoman sultan. The Ottoman sultan would design his own version of the tughra on his ascension and would use this personal tughra consistently throughout his reign. The tughra featured here is the Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent and it is truly magnificent in its design!

Tughra of Sultan Orhan Gazi, 1324-62, Topkapi Palace Museum Archives, Istanbul.
Tughra of Sultan Orhan Gazi, 1324-62, Topkapi Palace Museum Archives, Istanbul.

Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. The tughra featured in today’s article dates late in his reign from circa 1555 to 1560. Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent has a mature style with the boldness of its lines, colours, and complexity. Süleiman’s tughra is not the simplistic tughras of earlier and less sophisticated reigns. The first tughra was invented by Süleiman’s ancestor, Sultan Orhan Gazi, in 1324. Sultan Orhan Gazi’s tughra is simplistic in comparison with its single use of black ink. It has a more utilitarian feel like a modern signature compared to the floral and gilt beauty of Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent.

Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Enlarged Detail.
Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Enlarged Detail.

The elaborate design of Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent is developed through the use of cobalt blue ink; watercolours of cerulean blue, rose pink, and moss green; and gold leaf. Horror vacui, or fear of the empty, is used throughout the composition as every space is filled with flowers, leaves, and spirals. There is barely any negative space within the tughra. However, the organic motifs do not render the tughra as too busy or jarring to the eyes. Actually, the delicate blossoms and fronds contrast nicely with the bold strokes of the ink brush. They add a sense of scale to the work allowing the blue lines to seem bolder and more powerful when compared to the dainty patterns. Harmony is achieved through its sympathetic patterns and complementary colours.

Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Enlarged Detail.
Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Enlarged Detail.

The use of roses, carnations, saz leaves, and plant scrolls makes the Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent a perfect example of the Saz Style. The style was popular in 16th century Ottoman art, and is known for its vibrant floral compositions against pale backgrounds. The splendour of the style is added by an Arabic inscription appearing on the bottom left corner. It is written from right to left and it can be translated into English as “Sultan Süleiman, son of Sultan Selim Khan, ever victorious.” It highlights Süleiman’s lineage through his father while praising his own glorious reign. It also adorns the page with pure elegance in gold. There is an ancient Arabic proverb that states, “Purity of writing is purity of soul.” Perhaps when Süleiman commissioned his tughra, he was trying to achieve purity of soul. No matter the intentions, the sophisticated Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent is a powerful symbol of the once mighty Ottoman Empire. It is an Ottoman image, an Ottoman painting.

Works Referenced

  • Denny, Walter B. “Tughra of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 12, 2020.
  • “In Praise of Allah: The Art of the Islamic World.” In Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., 367. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2005.
  • “Tughra of Sultan Süleiman.” In 10,000 Years of Art, 337. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2009.

James W. Singer is an art historian and fine art photographer.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Florida.  Singer has sold works at local galleries and art shows throughout Florida.  He currently writes “Painting of the Week” articles for DailyArt Magazine.

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