Though calligraphy is typically conceived as works of ink on paper, practitioners in the Islamic world sometimes re-oriented their tools and deep knowledge of scripts to craft kindred works on paper, including elaborate compositions of découpage or papercut art. This anthropomorphic work forms a composite face of mirrored and linear calligraphy featuring the names of Muhammad, ‘Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and Allah on a delicate vegetal ground. The design required implements familiar to a master calligrapher, such as scissors for the large-scale cuts of the letters, and a fine pen knife for the minute details of the ground pattern. Directly below the face is a phrase (partially torn) that includes the date of 1155 A.H. or 1742-43.
Still an active art form in Turkey today, Islamic découpage began at Timurid and Turkmen courts around the mid-fifteenth century before spreading to the Ottoman empire by the beginning of the sixteenth century. Its earliest artists skillfully adapted their methods from leather filigree on bookbinding to compose paper designs ranging from calligraphy to figural scenes, and even larger works. Ottoman papercut artists prominently displayed their creations in guild parades during royal festivals, some of which are depicted in court paintings. For example, in the 1582 circumcision festival, paper artists wore robes entirely cut from paper, paraded floats of castles and gigantic tulips constructed from cardboard, and flew paper kites in the forms of fantastical creatures, like phoenixes. The Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi (d. 1682) describes another guild procession in the mid-seventeenth century where découpage artists would demonstrate their craft--in motion no less--by expertly cutting designs and pasting them on paper as they passed by the sultan.
Aside from a few landscapes on boxes, most of the surviving examples of découpage come in the form of impressive calligraphies, or vegetal, animal, and architectural designs collected in albums. Compilers sometimes spotlighted calligraphic découpages in albums entirely dedicated to this art form, or alongside their ink counterparts and other works on paper. Artists and album compilers often pasted these intricate designs onto mounting papers (and other materials) of contrasting colors to maximize the effect of the composition. This work offers a subtler contrast of buff designs on yellow paper, though it is unclear whether this choice of mounting paper was made by the artist or another individual.
The captivating face at the heart of the design relates to a subject especially suited to its mirrored composition. In the Ottoman empire, mirror-writing (muthanna, lit. “double”) appeared on a wide range of surfaces, not only in paper and ink, but also textiles, public architecture, and ceramics. Here, the artist reserves mirror writing for the names of God and the caliphs, but distinguishes the names of ‘Ali’s martyred sons, Hasan and Husayn, on the forehead in linear script. The largely Shi’ite names selected for this design closely resonates with the revered figures of Bektashi Sufis. Founded in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century, this Ottoman dervish order had a devoted following in janissary corps and Ottoman intellectual circles. More importantly, the Bektashi order had strong Shi‘ite leanings, which regarded ‘Ali and the Prophet Muhammad as complementary, mirror reflections of exoteric and esoteric aspects of the divine (zahir and batın in Ottoman). As if drawing upon these tenets, the structure of this composite face heavily emphasizes the letters of Muhammad and ‘Ali’s names, joined by the name of God. Above the face, is a composition with a bismillah (In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful) in naskh script.