An Ottoman Fritware Tile – with a lovely bunch of grapes!

Museum of the Order of St John Louise Hill-Hottinger, Collections Volunteer

The museum has a number of Ottoman ceramics in its collection, and on display in the Museum’s Malta Room (which can be seen on one of the regular tours) is this beautiful fritware tile (LDOSJ: 3548).  Tiles such as this were produced in vast quantities to feed the Ottoman building boom of the 16th century.

Two glazed tiles framed side by side. Blue, white and green with chrysanthemums and grapes, and foliate and floral decoration
© Louise Hill-Hottinger


But the technique of fritware wasn’t new, scholars believe it dates back to the 9th century,  when the Central Asian potters tried to imitate the secret recipe of Chinese porcelain. By the Ottoman period, fine Ming porcelain was even more coveted and admired, and the Chinese responded by exporting large quantities to the Middle East and Europe. You could be sure to impress your diplomatic or royal visitors if you had some Ming in your audience chambers.   And throughout the Middle East and Europe, the blue and white floral designs of the Ming dynasty were extensively copied and adapted to local tastes.

But ‘Ming Lite’ was just the starting point for fritware. By the 16th century it had become the tile potter’s technique of choice; its durable white surface was ideal for painted designs, and the physical components of the tile were able to ‘move’ with the building, avoiding any cracking over time. These tiles were fired and decorated at the master potteries of Iznik, just south of Istanbul, to decorate the palaces and mosques of the celebrated Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) and his architect Mimar Sinan, the mastermind behind many of the iconic buildings of Istanbul. Today, Iznik tiles are considered the Golden Age of tile production, and even some of the techniques are still a mystery to master potters today.

Iznik tiles typically feature floral, vegetal and calligraphic motifs in a geometric design, based on repetition, symmetry and two-dimensionality. They symbolically recall the promise of Paradise, so extensively described in the Koran.   Fruit is depicted too, but the pomegranate is usually the fruit of choice, not grapes.  Which is not surprising, since the pomegranate represents the Muslim symbol of beauty, is native to Iran, and has a long symbolic tradition in Persian culture and religion.

But here we are looking at a bunch of grapes. Not so usual.

But we do find grapes commonly depicted on Iznik plates, and shown below is an Iznik plate from the V&A museum’s collection, where the influence of Ming blue and white porcelain designs is clearly evident. The grapes have the same dark ‘eye’ feature found in Ming depictions of grapes, and our tile uses this feature to decorative effect.

A round blue and white ceramic dish with a central motif of three bunches of grapes, and decorative border.
716-1902 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But although we know this V&A plate was probably made in Iznik, we don’t know who it was made for, whether local or export. It’s easy to shift a few plates overseas; less easy to move a whole building’s worth of tiles, so tile production was generally more localised.  It is uncommon to find a grape design on a tile in a building in Istanbul or further east towards Iran and Pakistan, so maybe this plate was for export. And there was one place nearby where they really liked grape and vine designs, and it was the Ottoman Empire’s new kid on the block: Damascus.

Damascus was conquered by the Ottomans in 1516, from the Egyptian Mamluks, and we know the Ottomans admired both the Mamluk and Byzantine building heritage of the city. Byzantine mosaics were heavily influenced by classical decorative imagery, of which the scrolling vine was an important and recurring motif.  The vine harks back to the earlier symbolic imagery of Roman Bacchanalian feasts (God of fun wine parties) and over time this seamlessly morphed into the Early Christian decorative style of the Byzantine Empire.  The beautiful mosaics in the Great Ummayad Mosque, also called the Great Mosque of Damascus, were made by Byzantine mosaicists in the early 8th century. Here trees, buildings and garden like scenes in glistening scenes of gold, green and blue decorate both the inside and outside of the mosque. We don’t find any vine imagery, but the colour preferances of greens and blues definitely resonates with the Museum’s Iznik tile.

Damascus under the Ottomans quickly established itself as an important regional starting point for the Hajj pilgrim route to Mecca.  But by the mid 16thcentury, the governors felt Damascus didn’t look Ottoman enough, so Suleiman the Magnificent shipped in  his favourite architect Sinan, to get to work on some new Ottoman style mosques to mark the beginning of the pilgrim route.  And the best potters arrived too, almost certainly some from Iznik (since this was the best pottery around).  It is from this mid to late 16th century era, that the most accomplished Iznik tiles were produced, and this is almost certainly the era the Museum’s tile was produced. The 16th century tiles which remain in Damascus today, also show very strong stylistic and colour similarities to the Museum of the Order of St John tile. The 1574 tiles of the Darwish Pacha Mosque in particular show a clear resemblance [see the pinterest link below for pictures].

What is particularly interesting about this tile, however, is the fact that it is in the Museum’s collection.  Similar Damascus style Iznik tiles are found in many of the major museums of Europe and America. This is because the 19th century Western collectors were particularly keen on these tiles; they scooped up them up from crumbling Damascus buildings and showed them off to their fashionable friends in London and Paris. Lord Leighton, the Victorian artist and collector, was particularly fervent, and managed to bring back room fulls of tiles.   Here are some samples from the Leighton House Museum’s ‘Arab Hall’ in London, which feature grapes in their design.

A detail of ceramic wall tiles with foliate decoration, including bunches of grapes and flowers. Predominantly white, blue, green and brown.
© Louise Hill-Hottinger, by kind permission of Leighton House Museum
A detail of a corner of a tiled room, with a niche in the wall containing a vase. The tiles have a central grape motif, in foliate borders. Predominantly white, blue and green.
© Louise Hill-Hottinger, by kind permission of Leighton House Museum

Pictured below is a tile from the V&A even more closely resembling the Order of St John’s tile. There is another similar tile in the Harvard Art Museum’s collection.  The characteristic grape motif, with faint green outline, set in a muted palette of cobalt blue, sage green and turquoise, is so similar that all three tiles could come from the same building, perhaps a local ruler’s palace.

A detail of a ceramic tile with vivid blue background, featuring a central bunch of grapes, stylised tulips and leaves.
524-1900 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So in summary, the tile in the collection of the Museum of St John clearly belongs to the ‘Damascus School’ of Iznik tile making, which is slightly later than the ‘Golden Age’ of the  Iznik potteries. But this does not make it less worthy. In fact it’s rather more interesting to us, because these Damascus tiles have their own claim to fame …. and that’s the next blog.

Further images related to this blog can be found on my pinterest sites.

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