Engagement with the East

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Conflict and beauty emerged from the rise of the Ottoman Empire, says Ron Margulies. Review of 'Bellini and the East', National Gallery, London, until 25 June

The passing of the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, into the Muslim hands of Sultan Mehmed II was seen as an unmitigated disaster throughout the Western world.

One account cries, "They slew everyone that they met in the streets... The blood ran in rivers... towards the Golden Horn." In the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, the greatest church of all Byzantium, "The worshippers were trapped. A few... were killed on the spot; but most of them were tied or chained together. Veils and scarves were torn off the women to serve as ropes. Many of the lovelier maidens and youths and many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarrelled over them."

The Christian accounts of the fall of Constantinople dwell on its bloodiness. Interestingly, Ottoman historians confirm this, though, of course, it is the conquest they speak of. Tursun Beg, secretary to the Sultan's council, wrote: "For 50 days the battle went on... On the 51st day the Sultan ordered free plunder. They attacked... The fortress was captured. On the first Friday after the conquest they recited the communal prayer in Hagia Sophia, and the Islamic invocation was read in the name of Sultan Mehmed."

Europe did know and hate Islam before this. The images of Mohammed as the "false prophet" and the Muslim as the "infidel" were well established. And the Turks had already broken into Europe. Circumventing Constantinople, they had conquered the Balkans. But the fall of Constantinople was particularly traumatic. It was a milestone, together with the Crusades three centuries earlier, in the creation of Western prejudice against the Islamic East. The previously distant Muslim threat was now personified in the form of "the Grand Turk", Mehmed the Conqueror, and was now standing in one of the greatest of Christian cities.

Not surprisingly, Europe quickly drew parallels between the Turks and the barbarians of the ancient world. Appeals were made for a new crusade. On the one hand, they carried over the view of Islam developed in the Middle Ages and applied it specifically to the Turks and, on the other, reminded Christian Europe that for the Sultan Ottoman lands were the "House of Islam", the rest of the world the "House of War".

Yet, then as now, Islam was no more "bloodthirsty" than Christianity, the Turk was no more "terrible" than the European. And Mehmed personified this. Upon visiting the great church of Saint Sophia, the Sultan saw the ruins around him and, as Tursun Beg writes, "he thought of the impermanence and instability of this world... In sadness, a verse of his sweetness-diffusing utterance reached my humble ear, and remained engraved on the tablet of my heart:

The spider is curtain-bearer in the Palace of Chosroes
The owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyab."

Twenty-five years after capturing Constantinople, Mehmed, who was obviously aware of the new Renaissance art of portrait painting in Italy, asked the rulers of Venice to send him a "good painter". It was thus that Gentile Bellini arrived in Istanbul in 1479 and painted the famous portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror which is the centrepiece of the exhibition.

Bellini and the East is based on a potentially great idea - to open a window on relations between an Islamic superpower, the only superpower in the world at the time, and a Christian trading nation, perhaps presaging the rise of European capitalism and the change to come in the balance of forces. Alas, it is a small exhibition which does not quite fulfil its potential. One is left wishing there were more paintings on view, both by Bellini and by others, to put Bellini into context. Nevertheless, there is no admission charge, and it is definitely worth seeing.

Following The Turks at the Royal Academy last year, this is the second exhibition with a Turkish theme in two years. No doubt this reflects a desire of the curator for us to reexamine contemporary conflicts - and is a riposte to the current climate of Islamophobia. Mehmed is painted by Bellini not as a bloody infidel, but the gentle, thoughtful person, which he is known to have been.