The Sultan’s mitre

The Sultan’s World” exhibition at Bozar is a good opportunity to reflect on mutual artistic influences between two archrivals in Renaissance Europe: The Habsburgs’ dominions and the Ottomans’ Empire.

mehmeIIMehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, by Gentile Bellini (1479).

It would be tempting to describe this confrontation as between the Turks and us but very inaccurate. Turkish tribes changed fundamentally their identity when they conquered and settled down in Constantinople (“city of Constantine” the first Roman Eastern Emperor) or Istanbul (from the Greek “the city”). Their multinational empire straddle between Europe and Asia like a bridge on the Bosphorus. As for us, Christians, we were not all declared enemies of the Ottomans. France supported them against the Spain of Charles V and England was too oriented to its Atlantic possessions. The real enemy of the Ottomans were the composite territories of the Habsburgs. Politics were family matters in Europe, in fact, the matter of two families: the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. The exhibition is provided with a large number of engravings from Vienna’s Historical Museum—the Habsburgs’ east capital—and Brussels’ National Library—which also belonged to the House of Habsburg during Renaissance.

viennasiegeThe siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1529.

The first images in the exhibition convey the fear of a Europe who has witnessed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the siege of Vienna in 1529. Ottomans are represented as cruel warriors eager for severing heads. The imagined evil may change, sometimes it is Martin Luther, sometimes the Pope, sometimes the Ottomans—with the press a new world of knowledge was born, and of propaganda as well. There is a fascination with the unknown on both sides: European visitors report and paint bizarre customs and clothes. The Ottomans, weary of Persian miniatures, long for European painters to portrait naturalistically their sultans.

mitrasultanThe sultan’s mitre.

The European fascination with the Ottomans lies connected to Constantinople’s riches and its new “emperor”. The crown of the sultan in this engraving, unfortunately lost, reminds us of the mitre of Roman Emperors. The Pope still wears one made of fabric and not of gold as was the case of the sultan’s.

relojotomanoClock automaton of a pasha.

Here comes the most enriching part of the exhibition. Oriental influences abound. Tulips, silks, designs are imported into Europe whereas Western customs will arrive mainly to the Ottoman Empire during its decadence, after the eighteenth century. This second part is rather absent in the exhibition, perhaps due to a lack of space or because it is outside its time limits.

B_UnegeW0AAr5iCPolish armour with Ottoman motifs.

Orientalism may have been a fad in Western Europe but contributed to create a reference for new identities in the Eastern part of the continent. In the last room you have a surprising example of Ottoman influence: you would tell at first that it is a classic example of an Ottoman armour with all its inlaid ornamentation but with a close look you realise that there is a Christ engraved on the chest. Poles had adopted as theirs the military attire of their enemies.