The novel is built around a point of tension within the Islamic artistic tradition: the question of how to faithfully represent God’s creation. During a conversation with Black, Nuri voices the presiding religious view that “it is indeed important that a painting, through its beauty, summon us toward life's abundance, toward compassion, toward respect for the colors of the realm which God created, and toward reflection and faith.” Yet there is a precariously fine line between being summoned to appreciate God’s creation through looking at a painting and being summoned to admire the creation of the painter. The miniaturists must constantly navigate the dilemma between excelling at their craft and remaining humble enough that their painting does not constitute a challenge to the glory of God.
Under some interpretations of Islam, all representation is forbidden, and the only visual art permitted is calligraphy of passages from the Koran. The tradition of miniature painting evolved as a way of illustrating this calligraphy, and thus of creating images that didn’t violate religious law. Some leaders, such as Sultan Murat III (who is in power at the time the book is set), were supporters of miniature painting, and the Sultan even commissions Enishte to create a book illustrated with the new European painting style, which is an even more obvious violation of Islamic custom than miniature painting. This shows that even the Sultan, who has the authority of a religious leader, is not able to resolve the tension between religiously sanctioned representation and the appeal of more daring forms of artistic creation.
This tension is no light matter; in fact, the murders of both Elegant and Enishte are inspired by the conflict over artistic representation. The murders are thus a testament to art’s dangerous power. Pamuk also shows artistic creation to have mystical or supernatural properties; for example, in the story of Shirin and Hüsrev, which is referenced many times in the novel, the main characters fall in love after seeing pictures of one another. The impact of art on reality is shown, too, when Master Oman states: “By furtively and gradually re-creating the same pictures for hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of artists had cunningly depicted the gradual transformation of their world into another.” According to this line of thinking, art does not only represent the world; it can transform the world and, in this sense, create new worlds. From a religious perspective, this automatically makes art and artists the subject of suspicion, and it is the reason that the miniaturists are warned against the sin of “competing with Allah.”
However, the very concept of idolatry also highlights the limitations of art’s power. The murderer references a passage of the Koran, which states that “on Judgment Day, the idol makers will be asked to bring the images they've created to life.” When the idol makers fail to do so, their sin will be proven; they will be humbled before God, and they will be sent to hell. From one perspective, this belief seems to confirm the dangerous power of idolatry. On the other hand, it is also a reminder of the limitations of representation in comparison to the power of God. God created the world, and “idol makers” like painters only create representations of God’s creation. Can art thus really be a threat to God and Islam? Once again, the answer is ambiguous. The characters live in a perpetual state of doubt over whether artistic representation should be permitted or banned, revered or feared.
Creation vs. Representation ThemeTracker
Creation vs. Representation Quotes in My Name is Red
Not one could approach my mastery in imbuing illustrations with the poetry of the soul, not even in gilding. I'm not bragging, but explaining this to you so you might fully understand me. Over time, jealousy becomes an element as indispensable as paint in the life of the master artist.
Perhaps one day someone from a distant land will listen to this story of mine. Isn't this what lies behind the desire to be inscribed in the pages of a book? Isn't it just for the sake of this delight that sultans and viziers proffer bags of gold to have their histories written? When I feel this delight, just like those beautiful women with one eye on the life within the book and one eye on the life outside, I, too, long to speak with you who are observing me from who knows which distant time and place. I'm an attractive and intelligent woman, and it pleases me that I'm being watched. And if I happen to tell a lie or two from time to time it's so you don't come to any false conclusions about me.
When a God-fearing man like myself unexpectedly becomes a murderer, it takes time to adjust. I've adopted a second voice, one befitting a murderer, so that I might still carry on as though my old life continued. I am speaking now in this derisive and devious second voice, which I keep out of my regular life. From time to time, of course, you'll hear my familiar regular voice, which would've remained my only voice had I not become a murderer. But when I speak under my workshop name, I'll never admit to being "a murderer." Let no one try to associate these two voices, I have no individual style or flaws in artistry to betray my hidden persona. Indeed, I believe that style, or for that matter, anything that serves to distinguish one artist from another, is a flaw––not individual character, as some arrogantly claim.
He was frightened because he suddenly understood––and perhaps desired––that Islamic artistry perfected and securely established by the old masters of Herat, would meet its end on account of the appeal of portraiture.
"However, it was as if I too wanted to feel extraordinary different and unique," he said. As if prodded by the Devil, he felt himself strongly drawn to what he feared, "How should I say it? It is as if this were a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world."
“Why did they all believe that painting would bar them from the gates of Heaven?"
"You know quite well why! Because they remembered Our Prophet's warning that on Judgment Day, Allah will punish painters most severely."
"Not painters," corrected Enishte Effendi. "Those who make idols. And this is not from the Koran but from Bukhari."
"On Judgment Day, the idol makers will be asked to bring the images they've created to life," I said cautiously. "Since they'll be unable to do so their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He."
The world was faithful to the illustrations and legends that I'd avidly scrutinized over the years. I beheld Creation with awe and surprise as if for the first time, but also as if it'd somehow emerged from my memory. What I called "memory" contained an entire world: With time spread out infinitely before me in both directions, I understood how the world as I first experienced it could persist afterward as memory.
I believe in myself, and, most of the time, pay no mind to what's been said about me. Tonight, however, I've come to this coffeehouse to set my miniaturist and calligrapher brethren straight about certain gossip, lies and rumors.
Of course, because I'm the one speaking, you're already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you're smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true, and though you might doubt me, you're astute enough to take an interest in my words: You're well aware that my name, which appears in the Glorious Koran fifty-two times, is one of the most frequently cited.
All right then, let me begin with God's book, the Glorious Koran. Everything about me in there is the truth. Let it be known that when I say this, I do so with the utmost humility. For there's also the issue of style. It has always caused me great pain that I'm belittled in the Glorious Koran. But this pain is my way of life. This is simply the way it is.
This chamber was red, tinged with the color of the velvet cloth, carpets and kilims hanging on the walls. With due reverence, I considered how the accumulation of all this wealth was the consequence of wars waged, blood spilt and cities and treasuries plundered.
"Frightened?" asked the elderly dwarf, giving voice to my feelings. "Everybody is frightened on their first visit. At night the spirits of these objects whisper to each other."
There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest masters in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning. Unfortunately, even the greatest masters, just like tired old men or great miniaturists gone blind from their labors, were only vaguely able to recollect random parts of that magnificent vision.
Hundreds of years hence, men looking at our world through the illustrations
we've made won't understand anything. Desiring to take a closer look, yet lacking the patience, they might feel the embarrassment, the joy, the deep pain and pleasure of observation I now feel as I examine pictures in this freezing treasury––but they'll never truly know.
From now on, the European style would be preeminent in Our Sultan's workshop; the styles and books to which we'd devoted our entire lives would slowly be forgotten––yes, in fact, the whole venture would come to an end, and if the Erzurumis didn't throttle us and finish us off, the Sultan's torturers would leave us maimed . . . But as I cried, sobbed and sighed––even though I continued to listen to the sad patter of the rain––a part of my mind sensed that these were not the things I was actually crying about. To what extent were the others aware of this? I felt vaguely guilty for my tears, which were at once genuine and false.
Had Enishte Effendi’s book been completed and sent to them, the Venetian masters would've smirked, and their ridicule would’ve reached the Venetian Doge––that is all. They'd have quipped that the Ottomans have given up being Ottoman and would no longer fear us.