Depictions of births in Ottoman painting are highly unusual, but the eighteenth century pushed the subject boundaries of this medium with depictions of the intimate lives of women. In particular, the Zenanname (Book of Ladies) by Ottoman divan poet Enderuni Fazıl (d. 1810) offers a scandalous survey of women from thirty-three regions of the world, which includes a section on the intricacies of marriage. This painting incorporates the same composition as a scene commonly found in Zenanname manuscripts, depicting a Christian woman giving birth. A crowd of ladies and a young child gather in the harem to attend to a woman in the midst of labor as they witness the joyous event. A midwife kneels with her hands outstretched to guide the baby descending. Meanwhile, the cradle stands ready in the foreground to receive the infant. The rendering of the harem offers a remarkable and rare view of the interior details in a wealthy Ottoman household, complete with painted walls and gilded panels above sumptuous textile-covered furnishings.
Despite the author’s rather derisive opinions of his female subjects, the image and its corresponding text offer valuable insight into the social dimensions of childbirth. Fazıl relates that the birth of a child often accompanies a “clamor like Judgement Day.” The woman in labor yells to her husband to bring a nurse or two, before also inviting a plethora of other women to her side, such as servants, friends, and concubines or female slaves. Thus, the occasion of childbirth activated an extended network of women in the community to support the new mother with both solidarity and experienced assistance.
The author also elaborates on practices specific to certain confessional groups. He writes, “Particularly if a non-Muslim woman is pregnant, it is necessary to have bird milk on hand.” In Ottoman, “bird milk” is a covert way of referring to alcoholic beverages. Though Ottoman Islamic law observed the Qur’anic prohibition of alcoholic beverages, these efforts did not prevent many Muslims from partaking in their consumption. More importantly, Christian and Jewish communities, for whom it was openly licit, made extensive use of alcohol by running taverns and well-stocked shops to serve the public. The birth of a child marked one event when such wide access to alcohol was especially useful. In this scene, one attendant carries the bowl seemingly filled with a healthy amount of red wine. The wine may have helped to dull the woman’s pains, or perhaps even acted as an antiseptic.