Collecting guide: Ottoman silk velvet panels

With their precious metal threads and floral motifs, the textiles produced in Turkish workshops in the 16th and 17th centuries were widely prized in war tents, palaces and pavilions. Cosima Stewart tells their story, illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s


Detail of a large silk velvet and metal-thread panel, Bursa, Ottoman Turkey, 17th century. Dimensions: 67⅜ x 50 in (171 x 127 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 2 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

Of the many arts patronised by the Ottoman court, silk textiles represent some of the finest examples. From the 15th century onwards, with the introduction of sericulture (silk production) to Turkey, weaving centres sprang up around Istanbul and the imperial court.

Lying between Persia and Europe, the Ottoman capital Constantinople had long played an important role in the trade of raw silk between East and West. As political difficulties slowed the trade of Persian silks, Ottoman workshops began to produce ever more ambitious and sophisticated pieces which remain highly collectable today.

What are the different types of Ottoman silk?

A variety of different types of textiles were produced from the 15th century onwards. As well as velvets woven with metal-thread (çatma), gold or silver-ground silks (serâser or kemha) were also produced.

The former — ‘voided’ velvets woven from silk-velvet pile and thread of silver or gold — were among the most impressive and sought-after pieces. The velvet pile is ‘voided’, or contrasted, against areas of no pile, in which the precious metal-threads are exposed, producing the much-admired contrast between the metallic sheen of the thread and the rich hue of the velvet.

Why are Ottoman textiles so famed for their quality?

The Ottoman court sought to gather the most skilled artists and artisans (known as ‘ehl-i hiref’) to the imperial capital, establishing workshops responsible for producing fine metalwork and calligraphy, ceramics and silks. The court carefully set and enforced standards of quality (ihtisab).

Textiles were woven in strict accordance with these regulations, which defined the numbers of warp threads and weave density and fixed the price of each piece.

What is the inspiration behind the motifs?

The beautiful designs that decorate Ottoman textiles were, like the quality of the material, controlled by the state through the court ateliers, or nakkashane. These ‘design studios’ housed miniaturists and calligraphers, who were responsible for drawing up the decorative patterns to be transposed onto the looms of the silk weavers.

These patterns often employed large, stylised flowers or palmettes, frequently arranged in a lattice design. Certain flowers and plants were favoured: tulips, carnations, date palms and hyacinths being foremost among them.

Limited to these motifs, the court draughtsmen drew up sophisticated patterns relying on stylisation and variation of scale, sometimes placing one motif within another or imposing a floating border to add perspective.

What were velvet panels used for?

Silk and metal-thread were precious materials, and these textiles were used in appropriately elegant and refined contexts. Some served as furnishings in imperial palaces, pavilions or even war-tents, as wall-hangings or cushion covers (yastik yüzü).

An impressive Ottoman velvet panel, Ottoman Turkey, 17th century. Dimensions: 55 x 49 in (139.7 x 124.5 cm); framed 58⅕ x 54 in (148 x 137 cm). Sold for £413,000 on 27 April 2017 at Christie’s in London

In wealthy Ottoman homes, drawing rooms (selamlik) were furnished with low daises on which to sit or recline, bedecked with velvet çatma  cushions. An example of a typical cushion cover is shown below.

Fine silks were also cut for use as ‘robes of honour’ (hil‘at), worn by court officials or bestowed as gifts to foreign ambassadors.

Collectors beyond the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman velvets were synonymous with luxury beyond the Ottoman Empire, not least in Europe and in Russia. Many fine examples survive in the form of ecclesiastical vestments, notably in the collections of Russian monasteries.

Venice ranked high among the Ottoman empire’s European trade partners. Although the relationship between the two maritime powers was occasionally strained, it was also commercially fruitful. Italian merchants flocked to Istanbul to procure the famed silks produced in the town of Bursa, near Istanbul.

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A number of fine velvets woven in Bursa in the 16th and 17th centuries will be offered for sale in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 2 May at Christie’s London.

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