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Ottoman Empire and Art of Sculpture


The restriction of portraiture within the frameworks of Islam in Ottoman Empire did not allow the development of the art of sculpture. The interest in sculpture has been transferred to other areas such as architecture, miniature, woodcarving. Although it was forbidden by strict rules, the Ottoman Palace continued to be interested in plastic arts such as sculpture and painting, Sultans secretly satisfied their curiosity occasionally, and remarkable steps were taken publicly from the period of modernization. However, in the period until the proclamation of the Republic, the prejudice of Ottoman society on the hermeneutics (art of portraiture) and thoughts of sinresulted in social discontent with almost every step towards the art of sculpture. Thus, far from portraiture and functional monuments could be erected in the public area until the Republic, and even these monuments were frequently criticized. With the special interest of Sultan Abdulaziz and the establishment of the School of Fine Arts important steps were taken in sculpture and painting in the Ottoman Empire, and the first sculptors of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic were trained here. However, in this context, the sculptures that were built, made and exhibited were not opened to the public domain. This had to wait for the Republic period.

Key Words: sculpture, monument, Sultan Abdulaziz, School of Fine Arts, Yervant Voskan


While the art of sculpture has an important place in the cultures and life of the ancient Turkish states, and with the spread of Islam, sculpture has been an occupation that is often avoided and prohibited within the same cultures. Although the art of sculpture was approached relatively moderately during the Seljukians Period, during the Ottoman Period, it is seen that all art based on portraiture were dampened, and new fields such as architecture, miniature, woodcarving, and marquetry increased instead. On the other hand, some sultans in the Ottoman Palace paid special attention to the art of sculpture and painting, made (paintings) themselves, and even secretly brought artworks from Europe and examined them. The public’s view of the painting and sculpture as sinful has caused the interest to kept hidden for a long time for a long time. Although important steps were taken during the Late Ottoman Period, it will be necessary to wait until the 20th century for the performance of figurative plastic arts in the Ottoman Empire. In this study, the steps taken for the sculpture that passed into the 20th century and the development of the art of sculpture in the Late Ottoman Period will be examined by taking into consideration the society’s reactions in this process.

1. Art of Sculpture in the Pre-Ottoman Period

The concern of the Islamic belief to end the idolatry ritual, especially in Arabia region, formed the basis of the approach to avoiding figurative arts such as painting and sculpture. Nonetheless, the approach towards portraiture in regions where Islamic belief is common hardly differs as a result of the interpretation of verses and hadiths. In Anatolia region during the Seljukians Period, it is possible to find figure sculptures even if there are very few to call them “typical”.[1] Although three-dimensional plastic was avoided during this period, the culture of sculpture did not completely disappear and continued to be used in architectural structures such as mosque, cupola, caravansary and castle.[2] In the Ottoman Empire, the rules were relatively strict and three-dimensional sculptures, whose shadow fell to the ground and could be taken full laps around them, were not welcomed.[3] The energy that is spared from figurative arts has manifested itself in different dimensions in architecture and ornamental art.

2. “Sculpture Issue” in Ottoman Empire

Although portraiture was prohibited in Ottoman Empire, where Islam is prevalent, it is known that Ottoman sultans were quite interested in sculpture and painting. Fatih Sultan Mehmet had his portrait made to the Italian painter Gentille Bellini and his embossment medals made to the sculpturer Bartelemeo Bellano.[4] Also, Selim III and Mahmud II had their portraits made.    Mahmud II also had his portraits hung in government offices.  Ultimately, as we will mention in the future, Abdulaziz II became the first Ottoman Sultan to had his sculpture built either.

While understanding the interest of the Sultans and the Palace in figurative arts, how society reacted to this curiosity during the same period is also an important issue. Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha (Grand Vizier of Suleyman the Magnificent), who has interest in art, brought the bronze statues of Hercules, Apollo and Dianium from Budai [5] on his return from the expedition to Mohàcs and erected them in the Horse Square, which is now called Sultanahmet Square, right across from his own palace. Ibrahim Pasha has been exposed to such nicknames as “Frankish” and “giaour” [6] because of the statues he erected in Horse Square. Although the Sultan did not react to this, Provincial Treasurer Iskender Celebi (also known as Figani) by adapting from another poem wrote the following couplets as a tribute to Ibrahim Pasha, who is condemned by the people of the community and the state:

“Dü İbrahim âmed be deyr-i cihan; Yeki put-şiken şüt, yeki put-nişan”[7].

Iskender Celebi, was sentenced to death with this one-couplet satire [8] which means “Two Ibrahim arrived on the scene / One destroyed idols, the other erected idols”[9]. It is understood that the 16th century Ottoman Empire was not yet ready to exhibit sculptures in public areas since the sculptures erected by İbrahim Pasha were torn down after his death on the ground that they were considered as idols and that he was subjected to various interpretations, insults and satires.  On the other hand, Pierre Giles, who lived in Istanbul for a time as a member of the Embassy of France during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, points out that there are naked sculptures in the courtyard of the Studios Church which has been converted into a mosque, but the sculptures do not get reactions because they belong to the church.[10]

 2.1. Themed Sculptures That Far from Figurative Elements as Monuments

Although there are no human busts, the monumental construction, which is considered in the construction of sculptures, can be considered as a step-in preparation for the arrival of the sculpture within the Ottoman geography, where there is no possibility for the development of figurative sculpture. Monuments that can be described as “sculptures that have a theme” offer a wide range of work outside the concept of figurative sculpture[11], thus being relatively possible for them to be accepted by society and to be exhibited in the public areas. However, it was not possible until the Republic Period to establish a culture of erecting monuments in the Late Ottoman Period. “Monumental sculpture construction took place before Turkey in Egypt, one of the most important provinces within the territory of the Ottoman Empire. In 1867, Kavalali Mehmet Ali Pasha’s grandson İsmail Pasha, who was given the title of Khedive by Abdulaziz, had the monuments of his grandfather Kavalali Mehmet Ali Pasha and his father İbrahim Pasha made.” [12]

In the Ottoman Empire, monuments such as medal stones, grave stones and fountains could only be permanent as a result of their functionality. Fountains and monuments built independently from other structures in city squares were built in the 18th century as a result of modernization in the Ottoman Empire.[13] While the main criteria in monuments until Tanzimat Period was functionality, even if steps were taken to erect monuments with no function during the Tanzimat period, the “Monument of Tanzimat” planned to be erected in the courtyard of Beyazit Mosque could not be erected as a result of the increased reactions.[14] Likewise, it was not possible to erect the Monument of Victory, which is thought to be related to the Greco-Turkish War.

Image 1. Monument of Victory (Abide-i Hürriyet,1916, Şişli/İstanbul) [15]
Considered the first monuments of the Ottoman Empire, the Monument of Liberty was erected in memory of the victims of the 31 March Incident and the Aviation Martyrs’ Monument was built by architect Vedat Tek in 1916 in memory of the military pilots who died during the first aviation activities. During this period, the monuments were designed by architects and built with the desire to serve a purpose. It would not be right to look for artistic concerns in the monuments built due to circumstances.

2.2. Modernization and Developments in Sultan Abdulaziz Period

The innovative steps taken by the Ottoman Empire within the scope of modernization and efforts to reach the Western level in the 18th century began to show its effect in the field of art, and the palace closely followed modern Western art and architecture. It is known that Selim III secretly brought wax sculptures to the palace and examined them from the notes and journals of the privy secretary.[16] During the Sultan Abdulmecid and Abdulaziz Periods, many artists from Europe were brought to the palace, artists presented their paintings and made new ones.[17] In the end, it was only during the reign of Sultan Abdulaziz that important steps were taken in the art of sculpture with the special attention and effort of the Sultan.

As part of the modernization steps in the 19th century, the Topkapı Palace, which had long been the home of the dynasty, was moved away and new magnificent monumental structures (palaces) were built, such as Yıldız, Dolmabahce and Çırağan.[18] The new palaces have been the mirror of modernization efforts in the Ottoman Empire in architectural, visual and artistic aspects. The gardens of these palaces also hosted statues built by Sultans, thus reflecting the concept of modernization within a private space.

During the fifteen-year reign of Sultan Abdulaziz, interest in figurative arts in the Ottoman Empire increased more than ever before, and in this context, important steps were taken to support many future steps. It is known that Sultan Abdulaziz had been interested in art and created paintings since his youth. The Sultan arranged a trip to Europe in connection with this curiosity. During his trip (in 1867), he attended the opening of the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Image 2. Depiction of Sultan Abdulaziz meeting the prince, sons of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, during his Trip to Europe. [19]
Sultan was very impressed by the statues he saw in European cities and the statues great leaders presented to the public in urban centers. Accordingly, in 1871, with the design of Gustave Garnier, he commissioned the sculptor C.F. Fuller to build a statue of the Sultan himself on a horse, thought to have posed for it.[20] The sculpture was made in Munich and brought to Istanbul. It was placed in the garden of the Beylerbeyi Palace, where the Sultan resided, far from the public space, contrary to what is seen in European cities. Although the location of the sculpture has been changed many times since the Sultan’s death, it is now known that it is back in the Beylerbeyi Palace.

Image 3. Abdulaziz Sculpture made by C.F. Fuller (1871, Beylerbeyi Sarayı/İstanbul) [21]
Apart from his sculpture with a horse, it is also known that the Sultan ordered his own bust and a statue of a horse to C. F. Fuller. “The marble sculptures and bronze sculptures of Abdulaziz made by both Garnier and Fuller naturalist works in accordance with the art concept of the period and they portrayed the Sultan with fez and ceremonial clothes. The sculptures successfully portrayed the Sultan’s spiritual portrait in dignity and pensive.[22] This bust is known to be in the Topkapı Palace Museum today.

Apart from his own sculpture and bust, Sultan Abdulaziz ordered numerous sculptures by order from European artists such as Pierre Louis Rouillard, Louis Joseph Leboeuf, Isidore Bonheur and Louis Doumas Toulon,and ordered most of them to be placed in palace gardens. Due to the interest of Sultan Abdulaziz in lions and tigers, most of the statues are designed according to this.

Image 4. Sculpture of a Lion Holding a Ball, Beylerbeyi Palace [23]
Another reason why animals such as lions, tigers and bulls are preferred to sculptures is most probably that they are a symbol of strength. In addition, horses often symbolize strength, victory and loyalty. Another common animal figure is deer. Deer’s horns fall at certain intervals in their lives, and the horns come out again, each time stronger than the last. The use of deer as a symbol of immortality is linked to this situation.

How much the sultan considers the symbols in the deer sculptures he ordered is an issue open to interpretation. Especially in the background of deer statues, it can be considered that the sultan has an interest in hunting.

Image 5. Resting Deer Sculpture (Beylerbeyi Palace) [24]
Sculptures built with the romanticism movement prevailing in 19th century Europe have been kept largely outside public areas and are situated in Beylerbeyi, Dolmabahçe and Çırağan Palaces.

Image 6. Bull Statue in Kadıköy Altıyol (1864) [25]

2.3. Establishment of School of Fine Arts and Sculpture Training

Although it is understood that the palace was interested in sculpture from the orders given to European sculptors earlier and allowed important steps to be taken in the field of sculpture, the opening of the School of Fine Arts had been a new change in this field. As a result of the modernization process, the School of Fine Arts (today’s Mimar Sinan University), founded by the artist Osman Hamdi Bey in 1883, is the first and only institution in the Ottoman Empire to provide sculpture education in the Western sense (for a long time). The school building was built by renowned architect Alexandre Vallury, who was also the founder and first instructor of the school’s architecture department.[26]

Yervant Voskan was the first instructor and head of the sculpture department opened in School of Fine Arts. Yervant Voskan was the first Ottoman student to study in Europe, studied sculpture at the Roman Academy of Fine Arts and lived in Paris for a while and participated in workshops. Since a significant part of Yervant Voskan’s sculpture works are made of plaster, the number of works that have survived to the present day is small.

Image 6. Bull Statue in Kadıköy Altıyol (1864) [25]
In the first semester of the School of Fine Arts, students from minority groups showed more interest in the sculpture department, and over time this interest spread to other people.[29] The role of sculptors such as Ihsan Özsoy, Isa Behzat, Mahir Tomruk and Nijad Sirel, who were the first generation sculptors of Turkey raised by Yervant Voskan, should be counted among his permanent works. This generation will be the bearers of post-republican sculpture art. Of this generation, which usually employs a classic and naturalist style, Mahir Tomruk and Nijad Sirel continued their training in Germany after completing their education in School of Fine Arts, and returned to homeland where they started working as an educator in the School of Fine Arts.[30]

Image 8. Naile Hanim Bust, Yervant Oskan [31]
Working in a classical and naturalistic style, Yervant Voskan had the opportunity to produce sculptures and exhibit them during his job at the School of Fine Arts. During this period, small-sized and figurative works of plaster, stone and bronze were made in the sculpture department, and the works produced were presented only to the school and the interested people.[32] Since the society’s belief that the art of sculpture invites to sin still applies, the works produced have not yet been exhibited in public area. While it is noteworthy that the founding staff penned the name of the section as woodcarving [33] in the article of organization of the school’s sculpture department, it is an important detail in terms of understanding the extent of the possible reactions. Ihsan Özsoy, a sculptor who graduated from the school, experienced the situation that was intended to be prevented in School of Fine Arts. Ozsoy, who went to Paris to participate in the workshops after graduation, wanted to continue his sculpture studies by opening his own workshop when he returned to Istanbul. An investigation was launched against Özsoy, who was reported to law enforcement officers by the public who saw the sculpture works in front of the workshop.[34] The workshop continued its following works without showing the sculptures.

3. First Figurative Monument in Public Area: Osmangazi Monument

The best example of figurative sculpture in the ottoman empire is the Osmangazi Bust in Sivas. Osmangazi Bust is is considered the first example of figured monument in the literature.[35] The bust was built in Hafik district in 1916 by the governor of Sivas at the time, Muammer Bey.[36] Although it is difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the reasons, it is known that the bust was demolished by the governor of the time in 1936. Osmangazi Bust is now exhibited at the Sivas Archaeological Museum.

Image 9. Osmangazi Bust (1916, Sivas Archaeological Museum) [37]


It is an important step to need innovation in the field of art and to follow up the European art since the period of modernization in the Ottoman Empire. Especially, during the periods of Mehmet II, Mahmud II and Sultan Abdulaziz, the palace’s interest in plastic arts rincreased considerably.   Sultan Abdulaziz, who hosted the artists in his palace, traveled to Europe, observed the sculptures and paintings closely and commissioned about thirty sculptures, including his own sculptures. School of Fine Arts, which was opened with the contribution of the developments in this period, operated as the first official institution where academic and practical studies were carried out on the sculpture and trained the first sculptor staff of the republic. Despite all these developments, the prejudices of Ottoman society on the art of sculpture could not be broken down and the people reacted greatly to almost every step taken. Apart from the no-themed-monuments, the only sculpture work that can be exhibited in public was the Osmangazi Bust in Sivas. It was possible during the Republic period to give the art of sculpture it deserved and o open the works of art to the public domain.


Alsaç, Birsen; Alsaç, Ürtün; Türk Resim ve Yontu Sanatı, İstanbul: İletişim: 1993.

At Meydanı’ndaki Heykeller | Figânî’nin Hicvi ve İdamı, “Fatih Ortaylı ile Tarih Dersleri”, URL:, 17.12.2020.

Ataseven, Olcay; Oluşum Süreci İçinde Türk Heykel Sanatına İlişkin Kısa Bir Değerlendirme, “Türk Sanatları Araştırmaları Dergisi”, Cilt 1, Sayı 2, 2011, S.n.126-146.

Çetintaş, Vildan; Türk Heykel Sanatının Gelişim Aşamasında Abdülaziz Dönemi Sanat Etkinlikleri (1861-1876)“38. Icanas Uluslararası Asya ve Kuzey Afrika Çalışmaları Kongresi”, TOBB Üniversitesi: Ankara, 10-15 Eylül 2007, S.n. 925-935.

Osma, Kıvanç; Cumhuriyet Dönemi (1923-1946) Anıt Heykellerinin Heykel Sanatımızın Gelişimine Katkısı“Anadolu Sanat”, Sayı 5, Nisan, S.n.129-138.

Özfırat, H. Nezahat; Atatürk’ün Sanat Anlayışı ve Türk Sanatçısından BekledikleriYayınlanmamış Yüksek Lisans Tezi, İstanbul Üniversitesi, Atatürk İlkeleri ve İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü, 1994.

Öztürk-Kurtaslan, Banu; Açık Alanlarda Heykel-Çevre İlişkisi ve Tasarımı, “Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi”, Sayı 18, 2005, S.n.193-222.

Parisa, Göker; Elmas, Erdoğan; Geç Osmanlı Döneminde Heykel“International Journal of Social Humanities Sciences Research (JSHSR)”, Cilt 5, Sayı 24, Eylül 2018, ss.1422-1431.

Renda, Günsel; Yücel, Ünsal; Atagök, Tomur; Türk Resim ve Heykel SanatıMilliyet Sanat, Nisan 1983, (URL:, 16.12.2020.)

Seçen, Emine Atalay; Son Dönem Saray Bahçelerini Süsleyen Heykeller, “Milli Saraylar (Kültür-Sanat-Tarih Dergisi)”, Sayı 7, 2011, S.n.19-39.

Sülün, Ebru Nalan; Türkiye’de Cumhuriyet Öncesi Dönemde Heykel Dinamikleri, “Artist Modern”, Nisan-Mayıs 2011, S.n. 75-78.

Tezcan, Esma ; Pargalı İbrahim Paşa Çevresindeki Edebi YaşamYayınlanmamış Yüksek Lisans Tezi, Bilkent Üniversitesi Ekonomi ve Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, 2004.

Uzun, Derya; Heykel Sanatının Türk Kültürü İçindeki Yeri ve Yervant Oskan Efendi, “Batman University Journal of Life Sciences”, Cilt 1, Sayı 1, 2012, S.n.279-291.

Uzun-Aydın, Derya; Cumhuriyet Dönemine Işık Tutan İki Heykeltıraş; Mahir Tomruk Ve Ali Nijat Sirel, “Istanbul Journal of Social Sciences”, Sayı 3, (2013 Bahar), s.1-17. (URL:, 16.12.2020.)

Yeşilkaya, Neşe G.; Osmanlı’da ve Cumhuriyet’te Anıt-Heykeller ve Kentsel Mekan, “Sanat Dünyamız (Üç Aylık Kültür ve Sanat Dergisi)”, Sayı 82, İstanbul-Kış 2002, s. 147-153.


[1] Ebru Nalan Sülün, Türkiye’de Cumhuriyet Öncesi Dönemde Heykel Dinamikleri, “Artist Modern”, Nisan-Mayıs 2011, s. 75.

[2] Vildan, Çetintaş, Türk Heykel Sanatının Gelişim Aşamasında Abdülaziz Dönemi Sanat Etkinlikleri (1861-1876), “38. Icanas Uluslararası Asya ve Kuzey Afrika Çalışmaları Kongresi”, TOBB Üniversitesi, Ankara, 10-15 Eylül 2007, s.926.

[3] Derya Uzun, Heykel Sanatının Türk Kültürü İçindeki Yeri ve Yervant Oskan Efendi, “Batman University Journal of Life Sciences”, Cilt 1, Sayı 1, 2012, s.283.

[4] Olcay Ataseven, Oluşum Süreci İçinde Türk Heykel Sanatına İlişkin Kısa Bir Değerlendirme, “Türk Sanatları Araştırmaları Dergisi”, Cilt 1, Sayı 2, 2011, s.129.

[5] Birsen Alsaç, Üstün Alsaç, Türk Resim ve Yontu Sanatı, (İstanbul: İletişim, 1993), s.70.

[6] O.c., Derya Uzun, s.285.

[7] Esma Tezcan, Pargalı İbrahim Paşa Çevresindeki Edebi Yaşam, (Yüksek Lisans Tezi), Bilkent Üniversitesi Ekonomi ve Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, 2004, S.18.

[8]“In fact, the couplet does not belong to Figânî.
Following the tradition of 16th-century divan poets stealing poetry from Eastern literature, the unfortunate poet adapted this satire written by Firdevsî about Mahmud Ghaznavi, which caused him trouble, for his own time. But we must state that it was a very successful pilferage, because the verse was exactly what it was for that day. (Another name of Mahmud Ghaznavi is İbrahim.)”, o.c. 17.12.2020

[9] At Meydanı’ndaki Heykeller | Figânî’nin Hicvi ve İdamı, “Fatih Ortaylı ile Tarih Dersleri”, URL:, 17.12.2020.

[10]Gülsen Sevinç Kaya, Osmanlı Sanatı’nda Heykel ve 19. Yüzyıldaki Görünümü, “Milli Saraylar”, İstanbul: 2006, s. 145.

[11] Banu Öztürk-Kurtaslan, Açık Alanlarda Heykel-Çevre İlişkisi ve Tasarımı, “Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi”, Sayı 18, 2005, s.206.

[12] O.c., Vildan Çetintaş, s.930.

[13] Neşe G. Yeşilkaya, Osmanlı’da ve Cumhuriyet’te Anıt-Heykeller ve Kentsel Mekan“Sanat Dünyamız (Üç Aylık Kültür ve Sanat Dergisi)”, Sayı 82, İstanbul-Kış 2002, s.147.

[14] O.c., Gülsen Sevinç Kaya, s.153.

[15]taken by

[16] O.c., Gülsen Sevinç Kaya, s.146.

[17] Günsel Renda, Ünsal Yücel, Tomur Atagök, Türk Resim ve Heykel Sanatı, “Milliyet Sanat”, Nisan 1983, (URL:, 16.12.2020.)

[18] H. Nezahat Özfırat, Atatürk’ün Sanat Anlayışı ve Türk Sanatçısından Bekledikleri, (Yüksek Lisans Tezi), İstanbul Üniversitesi, Atatürk İlkeleri ve İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü, 1994, s.20.

[19] taken by

[20] Kıvanç Osma, Cumhuriyet Dönemi (1923-1946) Anıt Heykellerinin Heykel Sanatımızın Gelişimine Katkısı, “Anadolu Sanat”, Sayı 5, Nisan, s.130.

[21] taken by

[22] O.c., Vildan Çetintaş, s.933.

[23] Göker Parisa, Elmas Erdoğan, Geç Osmanlı Döneminde Heykel, “International Journal of Social Humanities Sciences Research (JSHSR)”, Cilt 5, Sayı 24, Eylül 2018, s.1425.

[24] taken by

[25] taken by,5QeiQmhNmUiikaDdHpFQgA

[26] O.c., Gülsen Sevinç Kaya, s.154.

[27] O.c., Derya Uzun, s.286.

[28]O.c., Derya Uzun, s.289.

[29] O.c., H. Nezahat Özfırat, s. 29.

[30] Sanayi-i Nefiseden Cumhuriyet’e Türk Heykel Sanatı“T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı E-Kitap”, URL:, 17.12.2020.

[31]taken by

[32] O.c., Kıvanç Osma, s.129.

[33] O.c., Ebru Nalan Sülün, s.76.

[34] O.c., Ebru Nalan Sülün, s.77.

[35] O.c., Derya Uzun-Aydın, s.2

[36] O.c., Birsen Alsaç, Üstün Alsaç, s.71.

[37] taken by,5QeiQmhNmUiikaDdHpFQgA

Writer: Kübra Temiz

Source: TESAD