The Master and his Apprentice

Is it instructive to look past an artist’s work and imagine the influence of the teacher? If the teacher is also a master, or if the teacher is the master, how might our opinion of the student’s work change? Would Botticelli be Botticelli if Fra Lippo Lippi weren’t lurking in that alleyway where Robert Browning found him 400 years later in a long but delightful poem? Do we look at Lippi at all now that we’ve got Botticelli to charm us? Haydn taught both Mozart and Beethoven and neither student seems to have suffered from Papa’s pedagogy. And while most of us would argue that Haydn has no Magic Flute or magical Ninth Symphony, he generally holds his own. And what of George Gershwin who went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the most notable teacher of composers in the twentieth century. She taught Aaron Copland, Virgil Tomson, Philip Glass, even Astor Piazzola. But she turned down Gershwin, abandoning him to begin writing ‘American in Paris’ all on his own.

In Ottoman Turkey, Mimar Sinan is the master architect. His great Suleymaniye Mosque looms over Istanbul, looms over the Golden Horn, looms over the Bosporus as it carves Europe and Asia into separate continents. Talk about location, location, location. And, architectural historians agree, this masterpiece isn’t even his best work.

Sinan wielded great influence, as you’d expect from the best architect of the Ottoman world. His work was compared with Michelangelo’s, and the two men probably followed each other’s careers. Sinan’s apprentices included Sedefkar Mehmed Aga, who designed the Blue Mosque, now one of the most popular and beautiful tourist attractions in Turkey. It sits proudly facing the Hagia Sophia, and it looks up at the Suleymaniye with all the pride of a student who knows he’s done well.

(Just to keep things in order: the Hagia Sophia was built in 537 as a Christian cathedral. It was the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. Sinan built the Suleymaniye between 1550 and 1557. Aga’s Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed) was built 50 years later between 1609 and 1617.)


For our purposes, I want only to ask of you a preference. Does Suleymaniye welcome or charm or inspire you? Or does the Blue Mosque move your aesthetic eye? Why one or the other? What sorts of motives might each architect fulfill? Which imagination are you more susceptible to?

I won’t tell you my secret, but you may tell me yours if you like.


A Warm Up: The Hagia Sophia, 537 AD


Sneak Preview of Suleymaniye’s Environs



Suleymaniye Housed a Mosque, an Orphanage, a Hospital, A Med School.


Suleymaniye Towers over Istanbul. In the Distance, the Bridge Connects Europe and Asia


The Iconic Galata Tower Faces Suleymaniye from Across the Golden Horn


Suleymaniye is Nothing if not Massive


The Inner Courtyard Houses the Mandatory Public Fountain


Compared with Many Mosques, Suleymaniye is Spare, Unadorned, Even Modest


The Decoration is Highly Stylized Arabic Citations from the Koran


The Script on the Dome Reminds Us that the Greater Creation Lies Beyond the Dome


Only the Stained Glass Seems like Flamboyant Design


The Blue Mosque Faces Hagia Sophia as a Kind of History Lesson


The Dome Inscription Quotes Sinan’s Verse at Suleymaniye


The Dome is Supported by Colorful Tiled Arches


Close-Up of the Arch Design


A Tiled Column Bearing Enormous Weight


Domes and Half Domes Form the Interior of the Blue Mosque

3 thoughts on “The Master and his Apprentice

  1. I vote for Suleymaniye–for its stairsteps of domes and towers, and for the floating circles of lights expanding the space inside. Thanks, Orestes!

  2. Jane, Polly once complimented my father for a veggie or something at a dinner he cooked. “What?” he said. “You don’t like the meat?” I don’t think she came back to our house for months. If you made your kind remark to Bernie, he’d say, “What? I can’t teach now that I’ve retired?” I, on the other hand, will simply say, “Thanks. That was kind of you to say.” Let’s call it generational progress.

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