My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk showcases the miniaturist tradition, in Istanbul during the 16th century Ottoman Empire, which navigates the fine line between Western and Eastern art, and that of art and religion. The novel also touches on societal problems that stem from the beginning of westernization starting from the Ottoman art style. The novel is about the Sultan`s commission of a secret illustrated book to honor the thousandth anniversary of the Hegira, prepared in the Western style, while also encompassing a murder (or two) and a love story too.
The characters in the novel cannot reach a consensus on whether some or all art is sinful by nature. Miniaturists, follow tradition as illustrated by the tree, 'I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning' (MNR 0). This statement singe-handily defines the biggest issue in the 16th century Ottoman Empire, the conflict between traditional and Western approaches to art. On one hand, Ottoman artists who were Muslims would depict their paintings in a self-effacing context where they would attempt to illustrate what Allah envisions and desires. In which they sought 'the act of seeking out Allah's memories and seeing the world as He sees the world' (MNR 96). On the other hand, Frankish and Venetian masters would, in their paintings, portray reality, which included the use of perspective that prioritized the human point of view over a divine one. Since Ottoman art was not depicted from the artist's point of view but Allah`s, miniaturists were not supposed to leave any trace of themselves behind, as then the viewers would assume their perspective of the world and not Allah`s. Therefore, the emphasis was put on the narrative of the piece rather than its actual form. Master Osman, the head of the workshop, reaffirms this by saying 'meaning precedes form in the world of our art,' indicating the purpose of the miniatures is not to portray the form of the tree accurately but to be able to convey the essence of being a tree (MNR 61). The miniaturists fear that the influence of western art will contaminate the purity of Ottoman paintings. Nonetheless, Enishte, the overseer of the secret book, remarks that 'nothing is pure' when talking about miniaturists` strict adherence to tradition(MNR 160). He instead implies that no art can ever be 'pure' as it is the combination of many different styles, such as Persian and East Asian, in the case of Ottoman art. For Enishte, the combination of these contradictory techniques is what makes a masterpiece, not a painting where the viewer cannot distinguish the artists.
In My Name Is Red, the old miniature masters blind themselves to reach the ideal condition for creating pure art. Only by losing their sight can they be free from the temptations of this world. Blindness helped artists to bypass and transcend the mortal world and permitted their art to approach the eternal truth. Thus, artists with sight saw their ability to perceive the physical realm, as a dangerous ability that will at any moment incite their art into the temptations of the mortal world. However, this self-imposed fate is not the goal of all miniaturists. For example, Black is resistant to the idea of blinding himself, because he wants to live the rest of his life seeing Shekure`s face, indicating his attachment to the pleasures of the mortal world. Besides, many of the miniaturists are obsessed with achieving individuality in their paintings as can be seen in Olive. Furthermore, he is obsessed with depicting his face in all of its uniqueness. He even goes on to criticize those 'who tried to depict the world the way God saw it, and to conceal their individuality and so they never signed their names' (MNR 400). Olive, at the end of the book, tries to make a Western-style portrait of himself only to find out that without skill, the style is only a mere imitation. In response to Black`s scorn of his desire to 'practice genuine artistry,' Olive concludes that the appropriation of Western realism by the miniaturists will be almost the same but not quite as good as the original (MNR 401). Olive`s attempts to modernize and achieve an individual style only result in a loss of authenticity since there is no tradition.
On the contrary, those who thought they were following the right path and not being tempted by Western techniques faced another challenge, greed. Greed fills people with unrealistic desires that are often not met and result in their demise. We see this with the opening of the book being a murder. Elegant was lured and murdered by Olive for the sake of the promise of money. In Venice, greed has led to the production of counterfeit coins which has created massive inflation in Istanbul. Enishte explains the situation to Black on his return to Istanbul by saying that a miniaturist who took up a brush without the care and diligence to read the text he was illustrating was motivated by nothing more than greed,' (MNR 0). This is facilitated by the fact that leaders of the 16th century exchanged ideas and formed alliances by trading illustrated manuscripts. Moreover, these manuscripts were taken as a representation of the power and glory of the ruler and their nation, therefore, when a city would fall to new rulers, they would not destroy the workshops but instead, the new ruler became the new patron and the best manuscripts would be taken to their treasury for adjustments and to be finished (Tanindi). For miniaturists, this meant that they could make money on the side by working on commissioned manuscripts from patrons other than the sultan such as wealthy merchants. Muslim artists in the 16th century had concluded that art through its 'beauty' should summon people 'toward life's abundance, toward compassion, toward respect for the colors of the realm which God created, and toward reflection and faith,' (MNR 0). Yet, the manuscripts that they were commissioned to paint were to fulfill the desires of humans and not the remembrance of Allah.
The manuscripts not only became the desired income of miniaturists but also pried at the religious workings of acceptable art. For instance, Enishte believes that 'every picture serves to tell a story' and thereupon all images, including taboo ones like sex-themed visual imagery, were to be represented. In his eyes, the miniatures were to be inclusive of the 'Sultan`s entire world...the joys and fears of the realm' and all (MNR 25). Despite prohibitions against pictorial representation of human beings and animals, they did not consider images, including sex-themed visual imagery, to violate Islamic doctrine. Rather their representations were following the cultural interpretations of Islam advanced by their royal patrons (Eko). This led to one of the most prominent recurring themes being love and sex. This point is illustrated in the text when Black creates his miniature of the tale of Husrev and Shirin, whose love story was the subject of many miniatures, with his name and Shekure's written underneath each character. At the same time, the tolerance of the patrons when it came to images is also reflective of society. The Ottomans defied many of the taboos of Islamic art as they produce miniatures of the life of Prophet Muhammad, which included images of the prophet. The Sultans` would commission these works without the public knowing, similar to how the public would never know about the secret book in My Name Is Red. The desires of the Sultans were rationalized by the miniaturists concluding that it wasn`t necessarily a sin to make or possess the art as long as it was not on display. Sultans and others used the same reasoning to justify other taboos such as gambling, drinking, eunuchs, homosexuality, and womanizing in private (Facts and). All these are present in My Name Is Red. The hidden miniatures would become more and more intricate and realistic, evoking a response beyond the stories they illustrate. The fear of crossing the limit into blasphemous art without being aware of it is a question Olive presents to Enishte before killing him. To which Enishte replies, 'Why did they all believe that painting would bar them from the gates of Heaven?' (MNR 0). The sad reality is that these commissioned pieces unless given to other rulers and powers are put in Sultan`s treasury or people`s collections, where they collect dust. Pessimism is instilled so deeply into the hearts of the miniaturists that their plight, against the wishes of the Sultan and Western realism changing their style, is seen as self-fulfilling. However, this fear is not unfounded, at the end of the book Shekure describes the disappearance of miniatures recounting the restrictions put in place by the next Sultan due to a dream he had of the Prophet. In the dream, the Prophet told him that if he 'allowed his subjects to be awed by pictures and, worse yet, by objects that mimicked Mankind and thus competed with Allah`s creations, the sovereign would be diverging from divine will, ' (MNR 0).
The impurity, the compromises, and the contradictions of the objective of art reflect society as it truly is. Life is a result of human interactions which is always already messy. The miniaturists realized rather quickly their tradition of painting through a godly viewpoint is flawed due to the moral ambiguity of the practice. Miniaturists claim that the purpose and intention of art are for them to be seen through a narrative that transcends the physical realm. The meaning that they seek doesn’t exist when they keep peeling away the layers of acceptability and compromising their faith. As meaning cannot escape its context, questions needed to be asked and answered at some point.