The subject of mosque interiors and men at prayer were of interest to Orientalist painters mainly for practical and occasionally for philosophical reasons. The fundamental practical reason was that some of the most extraordinary architectural edifices in the East were non-secular buildings such as the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, the Caid Bey Mosque in Cairo and the Green Mosque in Bursa. Such structures were scattered throughout the Middle East and were some of the most imposing works of art on display. In addition to the public accessibility of these edifices, the message conveyed by this architecture is one of power. As with the Mamelukes, 'in the Ottoman Empire, secular power and religious authority were personified in the sultan himself, whose rule had been granted by God. The great imperial mosques therefore were an expression of the sultan's grandeur: indeed, mosques are known by the names of their benefactors more often than not and unlike Christian churches, they are never given names associated with God or with religious personages.' (D. Kuban & A. Ertug, Sinan: an Architectural Genius, Ertug & Kocabiyik, Bern, 1999, p. 20). Both ritualistically as well as theoretically, prayer practices in Islam are different from those in Christianity. In Islam, Allah has no human characteristics and therefore is everywhere without any limitations of time or space, thus needing no separate house. 'Since the mosque is not a house of God, it is not consecrated in the sense that a pagan temple or Christian church is. In Islam, prayer is a common and simple duty incumbent upon a believer. It can be performed anywhere. Islam a priori rejects the notion that any artifact - any man made thing - can have any religious significance and this principle holds true for mosques. A mosque indicates a place of gathering but it is a communal gathering and not a transcendental one' (ibid. p.20).
Most artists visiting the Middle East were drawn to these impressive structures but only those who embraced these foreign lands and their different cultures became interested in the underlying cultural and religious philosophies. Ernst was fascinated with the practise of prayer, as he was interested in depicting all things foreign to his cultural heritage. His mosque interiors tend to concentrate more on the human figure at prayer, for example when compared with Gérôme's scenes which place equal if not more attention on the architecture. An interesting comparison to In the Mosque is Lessons of the Koran (fig. 1). Both works are religious in their nature, yet the present painting is far more introspective, because Ernst focuses on the composed devotion of his sitters.
Also see notes to lots 8, 11 and 15.
(fig. 1 ) Rudolf Ernst, Lessons of the Koran, Private Collection.