Although ceramic mosque lamps are known as far back as the 13th century (see for example a Raqqa lamp published by Arthur Lane, Early Islamic Pottery, London, 1947, pl.45A), their purpose is not entirely clear. Whilst they follow the general shape of Mamluk glass examples, they could not have served the same purpose, as lighting fixtures. Nurhan Atasoy describes them as ‘hanging from long chains above eye level, yet a long distance from the ceiling’ thus providing no light whatsoever (Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby, Iznik. The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey, London, 1989, p.41). Their function was therefore probably symbolic although it has also been proposed that the lamps, and the hanging ornaments associated with them, were in fact acoustic devices – hung in groups near where prayers were read and helping to muffle the echo by allowing sound to bounce off them (Istanbul, Isfahan, Delhi. 3 Capitals of Islamic Art. Masterpieces from the Louvre Collection, exhibition catalogue, Istanbul, 2008, p.115).
Mosque lamps are a rarely encountered form of Iznik pottery. Never mentioned in palace accounts or listed in contemporaneous price lists, they were probably produced as specific commissions for religious buildings. The earliest known examples, very close in form and decoration to that offered here, were made for the tomb of Sultan Beyazid II and are thus dateable to circa 1512. The largest surviving corpus of these early lamps are now in the Çinili Kösk in Istanbul (inv.no. 41/3-41/6; Atasoy and Raby, op.cit., figs. 88-91 and 105-109). Later examples also exist, developing in line with the stylistic changes that occurred in Iznik pottery during the 16th century. However with the exception of one example dated AH 1058/1648-49 AD, none seem to post-date the death of Sultan Murad III in 1595.
The mosque lamps of the group relating to those commissioned by Sultan Selim in 1512 for the tomb of his father Beyazid II can be divided into two distinct groups which differ in form and decoration. One series is identified with the workshop of the ‘Master of the Knots’ and are retrospective in character, featuring knots and cloud scrolls, and inscriptions in bold thuluth (for an example see a mosque lamp formerly in the Godman Collection and now in the British Museum, inv.no.G.5). The group to which ours belongs however is different - embodying the style of the 1510s and heralding that of the 1520s. The lamps of this group are typified by a squat and sharply articulated form, as well as painted details which are reminiscent of metalwork. Note, for instance, the mitred decoration on the shoulder and base of our lamp and the shoulder of the comparable example published here. This is a decorative device which emulates the repoussé technique found on contemporaneous metalwork – for example a group of 16th century bowls from the Balkans (Géza Fehér, Craftsmanship in Turkish-Ruled Hungary, Budapest, 1975, figs.37-39). The mosque lamps of this group are all painted in a relatively light blue, similar to that which also characterises the tiles of Sehzade Ahmed’s tomb in the Muradiye Complex in Bursa which dates to 1513 (Godfrey Goodwin, Philippa Scott and Engin Yenal, Reflections of Paradise. Silks and Tiles from Ottoman Bursa, Istanbul, 1995, pp.150 and 153). The artist has avoided the textural devices such as feathering and dotting which was favoured by the ‘Master of the Knots’ – instead the dominant motifs around the bodies are large, stylised lotus blossoms. Similar lotuses are also found on other objects including jars, which serves to identify what Atasoy and Raby term the workshop of the ‘Master of the Lotuses’ (see Atasoy and Raby, op.cit., figs. 297 and 298).
Until the addition of this example, there were five known lamps by the ‘Master of the Lotuses’ – four in the Çinili Kösk and one in the British Museum (inv.no.78.12-30.520). Four were known definitely to have come from the tomb of Sultan Beyazid, leaving little doubt that the group, including ours, was originally commissioned specifically for this building. Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby comment on the survival of only twenty-five 16th century mosque lamps in all. That offered here therefore presents a significant addition to the small group.