Illumination and Gilding

Decorative Turkish Arts


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

The art of ilumination has been practiced as widely in the West as it has in the East. In the Middle Ages in particularly 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 first began to be seen among the Uyghur people in the 9th century. The Selujks then brought it to Anatolia, and the art saw its culmination in Ottoman times. Mameluke 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 Persian art of illimunation. 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 in 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 onto 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.