For the first time, all the works of art held in collections in Vienna that have their origins in the Islamic world are being documented. Scientific studies are also being carried out on many of these artefacts. Closer examination of this group of objects has revealed that the total number of pieces involved is far greater than originally assumed. In addition to the process of scientific documentation, a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF is now seeking to uncover the history, significance and precise origins of the Islamic art contained in these collections. For example, comprehensive work to reconstruct the background of several Ottoman flags has already been carried out with impressive results.
Traces of the era of the Turkish wars – such as the tradition of the Vienna coffee house and the Ring boulevard that encircles the city centre – are still evident today in the day-to-day culture and street layout of the Austrian capital. The Turkish sieges of Vienna (16th/17th century) led to an expansion of the city’s fortifications and heralded the introduction of coffee. However, until now, the fact that they also generated a significant increase in the number of works of art from the Islamic world finding their way into Viennese collections has been largely ignored. A study by Prof. Bert Fragner and Dr. Barbara Karl from the Institute of Iranian Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences is the first to make an in-depth examination of these objects dating from between the 8th and 19th centuries.
A few years ago, the number of pieces of art from the Islamic world held in collections in Vienna was still estimated to be around 5,000. During the course of the project, this number has increased six-fold to around 30,000. One of the reasons why the original estimate proved wide of the mark is the fact that the artefacts are housed in several different collections. For example, various departments of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History), Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Museum of Military History), Wien Museum (Vienna Museum) and the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) are all home to examples of Islamic art. However, the majority of these works have thus far remained out of the public spotlight. In addition, some pieces found their way to Schloss Ambras, which lies 500 km west of Vienna and serves as a branch of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Suras from the Koran in St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Looted art represents one of the most interesting groups of artefacts among the Islamic art in collections in Vienna. This group includes Ottoman flags that fell into the hands of the imperial army following fierce battles. Rather than being left to moulder in museum cases, such booty was paraded in front of the people during military processions or in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Due to their often religious symbols and texts, such as suras from the Koran, flags were a particularly popular means of communicating propaganda. For decades, a red silk flag seized by the imperial army was displayed in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to mark the anniversary of the end of the second Turkish siege. “Time and time again, the flag was put on show in what represented the religious centre of the Habsburg Empire. The aim was to ensure the memory of the victory over the “enemy of the faith,” became deeply ingrained in the minds of the city’s population, and to imbue it with a religious, Christian quality,” explains Dr. Karl. Today, the flag – also known as the Hamzabeg Flag after the place it was taken from – is housed in the Wien Museum.
A silk flag in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum represents a further example of the way the Habsburgs made use of this looted Ottoman art. The flag was originally displayed in the antechamber of the Treasury in the Vienna Hofburg, the building that embodied the power of the Habsburg Empire. “The way the flag was displayed in the Treasury had the effect of presenting the Emperor as the figure who defended Christianity against the peril of the Islamic/Ottoman enemy,” says Dr. Karl. In addition, this was intended to ensure the Habsburg claim to embody the grace of God was firmly embraced by the population as a whole.
The study of the way objects of art from the Islamic world have been used constitutes just one aspect of the project. The pieces are also to be integrated into the overall context of artefacts dating from the Habsburg era, and investigations will be carried out into the significance of the role they have played. In addition, the pieces are to be assigned a place within a chronological, geographical and dynastical structure. In an era where there is an increasing focus on Islam, the project supported by the FWF makes an important contribution to raising awareness of the value and treatment of artefacts originating from other cultures.
Image and text will be available online from 13:00 CET on Thursday 16th April 2009 at:
Dr. Barbara Karl
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institut of Iranian
T +43 / 1 / 515 81- 7820
Austrian Science Fund FWF:
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 – 8111
Copy editin & Distribution:
PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44
Vienna, 16 April 2009