Opiz' large and lavish rendition of the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) en route to Mecca, painted circa 1805-25, is an especially magnificent and wonderfully detailed painting of the subject by a Western artist.
In the foreground a meeting seems to be taking place between a religious leader and an Ottoman official. On the right side of the composition are the Ottoman dignitaries. Mounted on his Arab stallion appears to be an emissary of the Sultan or a governor of the province, behind and beside him are janissaries and soldiers of the Ottoman Court who hold aloft Ottoman flags decorated with the zulfiqar, the sword originally used by the son-in-law of Mohammed. To either side of the flags are the distinctive horsetail plumes of the Ottoman tughs. Ottoman officials line up on the emissary's left, at the far end of which appears the head courier of the grand vizier.
Paying homage to the Ottoman party is a senior religious leader, dressed in traditional green robes in the style of the grand mufti, his green garb signifying that he has made the pilgrimage before. Behind him is the court imam, and to their right, in the centre of the composition, mounted on the highly decorated camel is the mahmal, the elaborate coffer containing the Koran that accompanies the pilgrims to Mecca. To the left of the camel three dervishes, distinguished by their hair-styles and conical hats, survey the mahmal and dignitaries before them.
Elsewhere in the composition Opiz features everyday life in the caravan. On top of the tower on the left of the composition a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer; below him pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, taking water from the sadirvan. In the middle ground on the left men eat, smoke and relax; on the right ladies of the court wearing yasmaks dismount from camels. Still further to the right shepherds tend the sheep that are to be ritually sacrificed at Mecca. And in the background a steady stream of pilgrims, punctuated by camel heads, zig-zags down from the hills.
If the painting records a specific meeting, which occasion this was is now unclear. In the 1978 Fine Art Society exhibition the painting was titled Emir Bechir Shibab II, Ruler of the Lebanon, Rendering Hommage to Ibrahim Pasha, a meeting that took place outside Acre in 1831. However, Briony Llewellyn in her note in the catalogue of the Leighton House exhibition refutes this as a plausible subject, not least because the Emir Bechir was a Christian, and because both the costumes displayed and the style of the painting precede this particular event. In conclusion she writes: 'The cumulative effect of this picture with its rich assortment of colourful turbans, robes, sashes, pantaloons and banners is one of spectacular oriental fantasy.' (Leighton House, Romantic Lebanon: The European View 1700-1900, 1986, p. 51). In his recent reconsideration of the painting, however, Charles Newton has mooted that the scene may just possibly record the Mustafa Agha Barbar, Governor of Syria, receiving obeisance from the religious leader of the Hajj as it passes through his domain. The landscape is not specific, but the hills might suggest a location in Syria. Both scholars have suggested an approximate date of circa 1805-25 for the painting, but as such large-scale works by Opiz are rare, and not dated it is difficult to be precise.
Ottoman control of the Hajj developed with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The sacking of Constantinople in 1453 established the Ottomans as the principle Muslim power worldwide and their later conquest of Egypt and Syria in 1515 and 1517 gave them control of the eastern border of the Red Sea including Mecca and Medina. With the Sultan's adoption of the role of protector of the two shrines at Mecca and Medina the pre-eminent status of the Ottoman Sultan among Muslim rulers was confirmed. In the ensuing years the Ottomans did their utmost to be seen as leaders of the Muslim world and defenders of Islam's holiest cities, a role that included building forts and defences to upgrade the Hajj routes, the three most important of which led from Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.
Georg Emmanuel Opiz was born in Prague. He studied in Dresden and later Vienna where he is said to have been a pupil of Francesco Guiseppi Casanova (1727-1803), a painter of battle pieces and younger brother of the famous libertine, Giacomo Casanova. In his early years Opiz concentrated his practice around portraiture, and he later became a skilled miniaturist, water colourist, and engraver. From 1807, he specialised in satirical genre scenes, many of them in Paris, where he travelled in 1814 in the retinue of the Duchesse de Courlande. He later worked in Heidelberg and Altenberg, settling in Leipzig in 1820. With his extensive travels around Europe, his subject matter changed to military and genre painting, and included large scale history paintings of military ceremonies in Sweden, Denmark, England and Russia, although few are known to have survived.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.