The Start of Something Big

I’ve been missing from the blog. Apologies. We bought a house and renovated it during October, then there were holidays and loads of house guests, and now it’s January. I haven’t been inactive, though! An uncomfortable but highly effective dose of steroids injected directly into the nerve bundle in my wrist has given me mostly normal use of my hand back. Temporary, but its success tells us that surgery will fix it permanently – and that’s a massive relief for this calligrapher.

Since I have no way of knowing how much I’ll be able to do, or how long the shots will last, I picked a new project to start that has some projects at the beginning that are more research than hands-on work. It’s going to take a long time to do, and it’s a little bit crazy to take on. What is it? I’m making an Ottoman talismanic shirt. Most people have no idea what that is, so let me show you.

Oct 2015 Jama 2
This shirt was auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2015 and sold for £185,000. It’s from 1583, Ottoman, and in especially fine condition. The gold in the gilding is still very shiny, and the colored inks are bright and crisp.

A talisman is an object that has magical protective powers. They come in many forms, are found all over the world, all throughout history, across all religions. Crystals, St. Christopher medals, lucky rabbit’s feet – all things that anthropologists would consider talismans. The shirts are based on Qur’anic verses that talk about shirts imbued with magical powers.

The shirts feature elaborate calligraphic decorations that include the 99 names of Allah, verses of protection from the Qur’an, magical seals and squares, and decorative motifs of various shapes. Most of the shirts are cotton, which was a luxury fabric in the Levant. Some are dated, so we know that they took a long time to make: 1-3 years, depending on the shirt. Some of that may be due to the shirts being begun and finished under especially auspicious astrological circumstances.

Talismanic undershirts are a rare thing. There are fewer than 100 of these known to exist in the world right now. There are examples of them from Mughal India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and there’s even one in Spain. Turkey has the most shirts, because the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has preserved the royal garments for hundreds of years. Nothing in my research has turned up how far back the practice goes, but it is seen throughout the middle/late medieval period.

A friend showed me one three or four years ago, and I’ve been quietly obsessed ever since. The shirts are such a complex and unusual calligraphic challenge, which is appealing to someone who has grown up surrounded by medieval European manuscript pages and aesthetics. Arabic calligraphic art is some of the finest in the world. I love to look at it. Do I speak or read Arabic? Nope. So there’s a giant language barrier making this harder. Still, I’m going to do the research and make a thing. My plan is to do everything but weave the fabric and make the lampblack ink, as both are outside my skill set. Plus, I don’t think the calligraphers were likely to be the ones weaving fabric anyway.

 

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