A backward interpretation of the çintamani – one symbol, two origins

Twice a year I follow the auctions of the Islamic Art Week in London: I note down in my agenda the auction dates, browse the online catalogs, take notes on the lots on sale, save on Pinterest my favorites, and I check the final results.
I do all this not because I am a collector, far from it.To me, it is simply fascinating the way art and market merge in one place, the auction house, ruled by specific norms and conventions.
Year after year, something different catches my interest: last year it was the general market trend of Islamic art auctions; two years ago, the historical and geographical origins of those objects defined ‘Islamic Art’ by the auction houses.

This year, well, this year I am fascinated about the lot that realized the highest price.

A large and exceptional Ottoman voided silk velvet and metal-thread panel (çatma), with çintamani and tiger-stripe design. Lot 139, auction L17220 Sotheby’s

The highest price for this season of Islamic art auctions has been realized on the 26th of April, at Sotheby’s: £ 1,076,750, lot 139.
In my notes, lot 139, is simply recorded as “Silk velvet panel, Ottoman Empire, late 16th/early 17th century, lowest estimate £200,000”. Nothing else, not even a small star, a thumb up or the picture of the panel saved on Pinterest.

Clearly, I underestimated the lot, the ‘large and exceptional Ottoman voided silk velvet and metal-thread panel (çatma), with çintamani and tiger-stripe design’, as described in the catalog. So I decided to understand something more about it.

Leaving aside a technical analysis of the object – I am far from being an expert on the field -, my curiosity focused on the decorative pattern.

From Inner Eurasia, with love

First of all, what is a çintamani?
The çintamani (or cintamani, or chintamani) is the triangular formation of three circles usually incorporating two wavy bands. It is a quite typical motif of Ottoman decoration style and can be found both in textiles and tiles of that period. The elements of çintamani were believed to protect the bearer and to give him/her spiritual as well as physical fortitude.

Coins, minted in Samarkand, dated 785 AH. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image from Y. Kadoi, “Çintamani”.

Ottomans inherited the three-ball pattern: the three circles were placed on Timur’s tamga (seal). The three-circle pattern is to be found on coins minted under Timur’s reign, and interestingly enough, also in an illustration of the Catalan Atlas, illustrating his banner. We also have an eye-witness: the ambassador of Henry III of Castile, Ruy González de Clavijo, visiting the Timurid court in Samarkand in 1404, describes the armorial design of Timor with the three circles in the shape of a triangle, adding that Timur ordered to set that design also on coins, building and official seals.

Attributed flag of the Timurids, Wikipedia.

The three circles have been interpreted differently: in Wikipedia it is written that they are a ‘symbol of peace’.
In fact, it makes more sense interpreting the flag in the light of the Turkic origin of the Timurids. Using animals for the heraldic emblem of a clan was a Turkic custom: animal symbolism was widely shared in Inner Eurasia. According to this interpretation, the three-ball pattern is likely to have been originated from animal-skin patterns, most probably spots of the leopard.

Anyhow, it is also a fact that apart from just a few instances, where the three-ball pattern is visible on objects dating back from Timur’s reign (the Ashmolean coins, for instance), after his reign, the pattern is not identifiable anywhere. It seems that the pattern lost its emblematic significance in the post-Timur period, or simply had a transitory nature.

The first çintamani in Islamic Middle East and its far origins

Timurid 15th-century Transoxiana is not the first place where a three-ball pattern appeared in connection with Islamic Middle East. A couple of centuries earlier, the three circles can be spotted in Ilkhanid art.

zahhak entrhoned
Zahhak enthroned, detauil from a folio of a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi. Iran, Tabriz, ca.1330-1340. Freer Gallery, Washington,  acc. num. F1923.5.

Yuka Kadoi, again, points out how the three sparkling balls depicted on Zahhak’s throne in the so-called Great Mongol Shahnamah recall one of the East Asia examples of çintamani, from 12th-century Japan. This occurrence indicates Iranian awareness of Buddhist çintamani in the Mongol period.
The Mongol empire allowed fruitful cultural relationships between East and West. And always in this period, Buddhism was re-introduced in Iran thanks to Lamaist Buddhist scholars, patronized at the Iranian Mongol court, particularly under Arghun (r. 1284-91).

Kshitigarbha, Korea, first half of the 14th century. Metropolitan Museum of New York, 29.160.32

This connection to Buddhism is extremely important: the çintamani is much about Buddhism, in fact.
The word çintamani has nothing to do with Turkish, or Arabic. It comes from Sanskrit and is usually translated as ‘auspicious jewel’ or ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’.
In the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism the explanation of the world çintamani is under the entry ‘jewel’: the wish-fulfilling jewels ‘represents the absolute merit (punya) offered by the Buddhist dharma and scriptures. While originally an image, the term in some East Asian tantric traditions came to be venerated as an object of esoteric ritual, and was even regarded by some in medieval Japanese Shingon as equivalent with Buddha relics […], and was coveted by the sovereign.’
The çintamani (one rounded jewel) appears in Buddhist iconography, particularly in the hands of the Bodhisattvas. A group of three jewels represents the triratna: Buddha, dharma (law), and sangha (monastic community).
The Buddhist çintamani is thus an image dense of meaning.

From Buddhism to Ottoman art?

‘Through the detailed observations of the two cases of decoration broadly termed as çintamani in pre-Ottoman art, it has become clear that the triple-ball design in Ilkhanid art and the three-circle pattern in Timurid art essentially have different origins and functions — the former is intrinsically of Buddhist origin and serves as a pictorial device, whereas the latter is likely to have been associated with indigenous Inner Eurasian cosmology and animal symbolism and acts as a visual symbol of the state.’ This is Kadoi’s conclusion, and I cannot but agree on this.

Also, Yuka Kadoi points out that it is far more probable that the three-ball pattern developed in the Ottoman art has more to do with the animal symbolism interpretation: the two wavy signs depicted next to the three dots being interpreted as representing the tiger stripes. It is then far more probable that the Ottoman çintamani comes from the Inner Eurasia representation of the animal skin patterns.

It is then appropriate to call the Ottoman three-ball pattern çintamani?
Not quite so: it is far more probable that the inspiration came from the Turkic animal symbolism, and has not much to do with the Buddhist wish-fulfilling jewels.

Further readings
This article is base on the works of Yuka Kadoi, which I suggest everyone to read for further analysis on the çintamani and the Timurid flag:

Y. Kadoi, “Çintamani: notes on the formation of the Turco-Iranian style”, in Persica 21 (2006-2007), pp. 33-49 [academia.edu]
Y. Kadoi, “On the Timurid Flag”, in Beiträge zur islamischen Kunst und Archäologie, Band 2 (2010), pp. 143-62 [academia.edu]


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