Medallions as decorative design

Medallions as decorative design

Medallions as decorative design

Rosette medallion with names and titles of an Indian ruler. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The relationship of mathematics and art was recognized thousands of years ago, from the Early Bronze Age onwards, whether one is talking about the Egyptian pyramids, or the Greeks with their golden ratio. But mathematics played and continues to play a special role in Islamic art and architecture. From patterns on carpets to the decoration of mosques, there is a relationship that follows strict mathematical principles. “Nowhere is the sacred character of mathematics in the Islamic world view more evident than in art, where, with the help of geometry and arithmetic matter, is ennobled and a sacred ambience created wherein is directly reflected the ubiquitous Presence of the One in the many.” (Seyyid Hossein Nasr, “Islamic Science”)

Muslims embraced the application of geometry in their art most likely because the portrayal of the human figure was forbidden and took it to new heights all over the Islamic world. From mosques and their interior features to tents and book bindings, geometry determines the shapes of artistic decoration. A number of books have been produced in recent times that demonstrate just how great an influence geometry has had on Islamic art.

Medallions among the Ottomans

One of the many artistic forms used in Islamic art is the medallion. A short time ago, a five-piece Kaabah cover medallion was sold at an auction in Istanbul. The dark-blue with gold silk thread embroidery was dated to the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, that is, the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876 – 1909). [See HDN, March 4, 2014]
How did such a piece make its way from Mecca to Istanbul? Tradition dictated it. Providing a cover for the Kaabah was the prerogative of the strongest Muslim ruler, although the practice initially began prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th century. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have wrapped the Kaabah stone with white Yemeni cloth. Subsequently, other colors were used and finally black.

As long as the ruler in Egypt was caliph, it was his duty to provide the covering; however, when the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517 and the Ottoman sultan took over the title of caliph, it became his prerogative to supply the covering and that continued until the end of the Ottoman Empire. The white silk would be woven in Bursa and then died black; the gold embroidery was the work of the imperial harem. Each year, a new one would be produced and the old one returned to be divided into pieces and presented to various officials and servants in the court. This is undoubtedly how the piece just auctioned off in Istanbul came to be here, although its color was most likely a faded black. Blue was considered a Christian color and would never have been used for a Kaabah cover.


18th century book binding with rose
medallion. Sabancı Museum.

Popular medallions

The medallion, basically of circular or oval design, is found in many parts of the Islamic world. The circular patterns take the shape of the sun, for example, on the first page of handwritten books, cloth, doors and windows. Oval medallions are more likely to be found on the bindings of books.

One of the most popular medallions was the circular medallion, often called a sunburst from the Arabic word for sun, shamsa or, in Turkish, şemse. The sun was worshipped thousands of years before the Arabs in many areas. The Egyptians had the sun god Ra. The Greeks had Helios and later Apollo. The Persians worshipped Mithra, the god of light and wisdom, and elsewhere in the Middle East, one finds peoples who worshipped the sun and others who believed the moon was a god. In Islam, there is no such suggestion of sun or moon worship and in the Sufi tradition of Islam, the sun was perceived to be brilliant and limitless but also possessed of tremendous power and destroying strength, as Annemarie Schimmel writes in her book on Celaleddin Rumi, “The Triumphal Sun.” Symbols related to the sun may include a revolving wheel, disk, circle with a central point, radiating circle, swastika orrays that represent the light and heat of the sun.

The şemse, for example, had a particularly prominent position in the art of illumination. It was traditionally put at the opening of imperial Mughal albums. One of these from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is from such an album. “Worked in bright colors and several tones of gold, the meticulously designed and painted arabesques are enriched by fantastic flowers, birds, and animals. The inscription in the center in the “tughra” (handsign) style reads: ‘His Majesty Shihabuddin Muhammad Shahjahan, the King, Warrior of the Faith, may God perpetuate his kingdom and sovereignty.’”

The circular design expands in octagonal points and the outer boundary has 16 points, exactly equidistant.  The fill-in, gem-like detail with its tiny flowers in specific patterns reminds one of the Timurid period that overwhelmed the eyes with minute detail. Eventually this style reached the Ottoman Empire via Safavid Persia and has been called the şükufe style that relied on flower motifs and vivid illumination through the use of gold paint and other mineral based paints such as lapis lazuli.

The introduction of painters and bookbinders from the Timurid and Turkmen courts into Ottoman society brought new styles of decoration with them and probably the use of the şemse and other medallion types on bindings. The Ottomans in particular favored the use of the medallion on leather book bindings.

Book bindings with medallions

The most splendid period for book bindings was the 16th century and the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566). It was during this time that gold-tooled designs within the medallions were preferred. This lasted until the modern period, with the only difference being the medallions began to be elongated and recognizable flowers were placed inside its parameters.

Book bindings with medallions have continued to be popular, as one can tell from a rather curious entry on the Internet, in which the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has listed sixty-two stolen bindings from the Yusuf Ağa Library in Konya. Of these, 57 had the şemse design on the bindings, suggesting this feature was particularly important to whoever the thieves might have been. So, obviously, the design is just as popular today as it was centuries ago.