Interpreting Iznik floral motifs

Part of the Illuminating Objects series: On display from 6 November 2013


This beautifully decorated dish was bequeathed to The Courtauld in 1966. It was made between 1560 and 1565 in the Ottoman city of Iznik (North-West Anatolia).


The dish has a remarkable symmetrical pattern. It displays distinctive bole-red carnations and blossoms in harmony with the cobalt blue and turquoise tulips and hyacinths.


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


This Illuminating Object case study aims to use evidence from 16th-century lyrical poetry, travel narratives and mystical meditations to offer an interpretation of the symbolic and cultural meanings of the floral motifs on the dish.

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 art2 . 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.

The back of the Iznik dish.

> back


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