Known as 'tezhip' in Turkish, this is an old decorative art. The word 'tezhip' means ‘covering with gold leaf' in Arabic. Yet tezhip can be done with paint as well as with gold leaves. It was mostly employed in handwritten books and on the edges of calligraphic texts.

The art of illumination has been practiced as widely in the West as in the East. In the Middle Ages, in particular, it was widely used to decorate Christian religious texts and prayer books. Gradually, however, picture illustrations became more popular, and illumination became restricted to decorating the capital letters in main headings.

Among the Turks, the history of illumination goes back to the Uyghurs, and was first seen among the Uyghur people in the 9th century. The Seljuks then brought it to Anatolia, and the art saw its culmination in Ottoman times. Mamluq artists in 15th century Egypt developed their own style, and great advances in the art of illumination were made at the same time in Persia and then in such cities as Herat, Hive, Bukhara and Samarkand which were ruled by the Timurs. The style that developed in Herat later had great influence on the art of illumination. As a result of growing ties with Persia in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottomans adopted many of the features of the Herat School in their own work, and created new syntheses. In the 18th century, the Ottoman art of illumination began to fade, with crude decoration replacing the classical motifs. In the 19th century, the Western influence that could be seen in almost all areas of art also began to make its presence felt in the art of illumination. For example, flower motifs that used to be employed singly on vases during the classical period now began to appear in groups on pots.

The main ingredient in illumination is gold or paint. Gold is used in a thin leaf prepared by beating it to an extreme fineness. The gold leaf is powdered in water and mixed with gelatine, and then brought to the desired thickness. Earth paints tended to be preferred in terms of paint, although synthetic paints were employed later. The illuminator, known as the 'müzehhip’, first uses a needle to impress the designs he has drawn on to paper attached to a hard boxwood or zinc base. He then places the perforated paper onto the material he intends to decorate, and fills the holes with a sticky, black powder. When the paper is removed, the design is left behind. The motif is then rounded out and filled with the gold leaf or paint.


That the earliest examples of Turkish illumination were produced in the period of the Anatolian Seljuks is apparent from the few handwritten works that have come down to us. On a few such manuscripts, dated and undated, which are assumed to have been prepared in Anatolia, probably in the 13th century, we see that rumis (split leaves), interwoven patterns and geometric designs over scrolling branches were used as decorative motifs in titles and sometimes between the various parts of the title text. The illumination style of the Anatolian Seljuks continued to be used in certain works produced in the Konya region in the 14th and 15th centuries. 

In early Ottoman manuscripts, the existence of a brand new styles of illumination, born of the fusion of divergent influences, is evident at first glance. These motifs, which are unique to the splendid art forms developed within the context of the Ottoman Palace, are observable in the decoration of books as well. In the beginning, a style of illumination was created which incorporated certain motifs derived in part from the origins of the circle of painters and illuminators working for the Palace; and in part from the impact on art of the conquered lands themselves. In general, rumis superimposed over scrolling branches and hatayis (stylized composite blossoms) of Far Eastern origin were used - sometimes on their own and sometimes in conjunction with one another in registers. The manifold compositional possibilities inherent in the rumi -- the most popular and frequently employed decorative motif in Turkish art, especially since the time of the Anatolian Seljuks-- were exploited to the full. In such compositions the influence of Timurid art is evident.

Rumis were usually used in conjunction with palmettes and lotus blossoms. In the arts of the book, the influences of the existing Mamluq school and the art of the Herat and Shiraz schools of the Timurid period were gradually assimilated in the organization and decoration of books in the first half of the 15th century. Then, in the second half of the century, an original style of decoration took shape.

Illuminations characteristic of the early Ottoman period were apparently included in certain works prepared in the time of Sultan Murad II, probably in the Palace at Edirne. Although the surviving manuscripts reflect Mamluq and Timurid (Shiraz) influences in their decorative motifs, their composition is uniquely Ottoman.

The style, organization, and color composition of the illuminations made in the second half of the 15th century, especially for Sultan Mehmed, the Conqueror, are both highly original and extremely consistent. An illuminated frontispiece typical of this period appears in a work titled Sherh el-Hamase, copied for the treasury of the Sultan and bearing the date Zilhicce 869 (July 1465) (Topkapı Palace Museum Library, R.106). All the motifs, as well as the utilization of the surface area, are in the 15th century Ottoman illumination style. Not only rumis but also small stylized flowers and hatayis feature prominently in illuminations of this period. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror's high level of culture and ardent interest in books led to preparation of a large number of scientific, religious and literary works, in which lively shades of dark blue, red, green and black were used harmoniously in combination with gilding. The Korans written in the naskh script by the famous Turkish calligrapher Seyh Hamdullah during the reign of Sultan Beyazid II exhibit rich illumination. During this period at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, the cloud band is also observed to have joined the repertoire of Turkish illumination motifs.

In Korans of this period the opening pages are generally illuminated as are the beginnings of the Fatiha and Bakara suras, as well as the other chapter headings, with verse stops and marginal ornaments, while the finispiece at the end takes the form of illuminated facing pages. These illuminations consist of medallions, rumis and in particular scrolling branches with hatayis and cloud bands done in gilding and various tones of dark blue, light blue, orange, black, green, yellow, pink and white.

The second important period in Ottoman Turkish illumination coincides with the first half of the 16th century. These years, in which a variety of styles and motifs were created, prepared the ground for the classical Turkish style of illumination. When Sultan Selim I entered Tabriz following the victory at Chaldiran in 1514, a group of artists from Herat took refuge with him and a group of Tabriz artists were sent to Istanbul, thus opening the door to certain influences in art. These extremely short-lived influences on Ottoman Palace art were also reflected in the arts of the book. The influence of certain forms and of the extremely ornamental style developed in Herat at the end of the 15th century is evident in illumination motifs. Finely executed concentric scrolls and equally finely executed rumis became widespread in book illumination at this time. 

The most magnificent examples of the Ottoman Turkish art of illumination were produced during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The painter Shah Kulu, an exile from Tabriz who was appointed head of the Palace nakkashane (painting atelier) when Suleyman succeeded to the throne in 1520, introduced a new style to Ottoman art and to book illumination and won great favor among the Palace illuminators. According to 18th century Ottoman sources, this new style was known as the saz style. In it, the stylized composite blossoms of Far Eastern origin, known as hatayis, were handled very differently from those of their 15th century predecessors, being cast in novel forms combined with twisting and turning serrate leaves with pointed tips.

Towards the middle of the 16th century a sudden enrichment took place in the vocabulary of Turkish decorative motifs. In this period the illuminator Kara Memi, who had been trained by Shah Kulu, was placed in charge of the Palace painting atelier, and the stylized hatayis introduced into Ottoman art by Shah Kulu gave way to the flowers cultivated in the Palace gardens - tulips, roses, hyacinths, flowering fruit trees, cypresses and pomegranates. Through this innovation introduced by Kara Memi, flowers depicted through the eye of a careful observer became the central theme of all Ottoman decoration. The most prized illuminations bearing Kara Memi's signature can be seen in a copy of the Divan-i Muhibbi dated Saban 973 (December 1565-January 1566) containing the Turkish poems of Suleyman the Magnificent (Istanbul University Library,T.5467). The frontispiece and spaces between the verses were illuminated by Kara Memi. This work, which constituted a virtual encyclopedia of decoration for the painting atelier during Suleyman's reign, includes examples of all the decorative motifs and styles characteristic of Ottoman naturalistic decoration, as well as classical rumis, scrolling branches and tiger skin designs. Other works of the same period illuminated in the style of Kara Memi include various Korans (for example, a Koran with calligraphy by Ahmed Karahisari, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Y.Y.999) and the Suleymanname, (Topkapi Palace Museum Library, H. 1517). An album, probably prepared in the third quarter of the 16th century, is of special importance for its illuminations in the saz style and in the style characteristic of Kara Memi. 

Although the classical style continued to dominate Ottoman illumination in the 17th century, the examples produced are much less refined. Manuscripts from this period are illuminated in the halkar technique, characterized by profuse gilding and ostentatious decorations. A richly illuminated work from the first half of the century is the Divan-i Osman (Topkapi Palace Museum Library, R.741) containing the poems of Sultan Osman II. The frontispiece of this work (1b-2a), and the opening (2b) texts are illuminated, and the margins decorated with halkar in gilding and soft-hued colors.

Western influences gradually become evident in Ottoman art from the beginning of the 17th century. Traditional motifs were used together with new motifs and forms generated under the impact of European art. The most popular decorative motif of the period is the bouquet of flowers in Turkish style. But the tendency to add depth to the flowers by the use of shading reflects the western influence typical of the period. A calligraphy album decorated with such bunches of flowers constitutes a characteristic example of this decorative style. (Topkapi Palace Museum Library, M.R. 1123).

In book illumination of the 18th century, as well as books reflecting the new taste, books reviving the classical motifs were also produced (for example, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, E.H. 259). Another group of work demonstrates that the influence of western art is even stronger. Illuminations displaying baroque motifs alongside halkar style decorations adorn chapter headings and margins, and classical illuminations often exhibit a naturalistic bouquet of flowers in the center. Of special significance in this period are the works in which classical decorations of the illuminator and lacquer master Ali Üsküdari are reconciled with the new western influence. This artist, who produced flower pictures, also produced lacquer decorations characterized by a novel interpretation of the saz style (for example, Istanbul University Library, T. 5650), for which he is known in Ottoman sources of the period as the Shah Kulu of the time. 

As the fascination with western art and the western life-style in the Ottoman Palace steadily increased towards the end of the 18th century, a style known as "Turkish Rococo" came to characterize the art of illumination as well as the decorative elements of other works of art. This style is distinguished by a ponderous taste in decoration dominated by large intertwined foliage, floral garlands and bows (for example, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Y.Y.1152).

Turkish illumination of the Ottoman period came to an end towards the close of the 19th century with the neo-classical movement which revived the classical motifs.