Iznik tile with Cintamani Design

Iznik, Turkey
Circa 1560-80
Stonepaste; polychrome painted under transparent glaze.
12.5 x 25.8 cm

This extraordinary 16th century border tile from the town of Iznik, in northwest Turkey, is a testament to the development of a pottery and tile-making tradition that was used during the Ottoman empire to decorate, among others, many of the mosques designed by Mimar Sinan in Istanbul.

Within its rectangular shape we observe, in vivid chromatic, the çintamani pattern – a cluster of three roundels paired with wavy stripes – and one of the leitmotifs of Ottoman art. Derived from the Sanskrit word for “auspicious jewel,” the çintamani motif originated in Buddhist art.

At the Ottoman court, the motif came to evoke strength and power and is seen in many media, including architectural decoration, textile design, and ceramics. On this rare tile, the çintamani is the dominant and sole motif. It probably once belonged to a çintamani border surrounding a larger wall composition, such as at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque (1561) in Eminonu or the Apartment of the Sacred Mantle and the Library of Ahmed III at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Commonly found throughout Turkey, the cintamani motif is an Islamic inspired motif containing a trifactor of circles, each containing two encapsulated circles. The trifactor of circles is usually accompanied by wavy lines that surround it. The design is typically applied in a repeating, “wallpaper-esque” pattern, making it a versatile motif. The motif is also commonly applied as a symmetrical pattern, such as within the confines of a square tile. In the present tile, the encapsulation occurs twice – once in the inclusion of a red circle within a larger aqua one and then within the white background of a larger circular form. A trio of these forms is seen centrally with two pairs at the edges of the tile, separated by slanting white wavy lines whose form was once misinterpreted as lip forms.

The cintamani motif is believed to have originated from Central Asia, with the design eventually making its way through to central Anatolia via Silk Road trade routes. The term “cintamani” is derived from the Sanskrit language, and roughly translates to the name of a mythical jewellery that was believed to grant its wearers with good fortune and the ability to grant wishes. Although not unique to Islamic art or tradition, the presence of threes, incorporated as circles in the motif, symbolically represent balance, harmony, and unity within the universe.

During the Ottoman era, the design would be popularised around the turn of the 15th century, with the motif commonly applied within architectural settings such as mosques, palaces, and public spaces. Beyond architecture the design was also commonly applied on ceremonial and statement pieces of the sultans and elites of the time.

After 1550, the chromatic range of Iznik ceramics expanded to include an emerald green and a thickly applied, brilliant red that stood up in relief. Consisting of paired, wavy lines combined with trios of balls, cintamani seems to have had origins both in Buddhist jewel imagery and in the spots and stripes of leopard and tiger skins that clothe the Iranian epic hero, Rustam. With possible apotropaic connotations and incontestable visual power, cintamani became a decorative staple of sixteenth-century Ottoman art ranging from caftans and carpets to inlaid furniture. After 1550, Iznik artists likewise featured the cintamani design on their tiles and wares or used its elements – in particular the paired stripes – as independent motifs.

A close comparative example is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [Acc. No. 2019.173]

London art market, 1980s.
Private collection, UK.

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