For the better part of 5000 years, the amorphous nature of the silicate compound called glass has intrigued and challenged craft workers. Molten, it is plastic, ductile, almost docile. Cooled, it has the mechanical rigidity of a crystal, but retains the random molecular arrangement that characterizes liquids. Its strength, hardness, elasticity and resistance to thermal shock and abrasion have made it a superbly useful material, and the great majority of glass production, throughout history, has in fact been utilitarian.
But glass can also take almost any shape, can be given almost any color, can be layered, blown, molded, cut, fused and ground, and has thus also long been an important medium of artistic expression. Whether simple or ornate, whether used in ordinary households or royal courts, fragile objects of art glass tell of the people who created, traded and used them. A recent exhibition organized by the Corning Museum of Glass and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York provided a platform from which some 160 precious glass objects from the Islamic world could present their stories once again.
"Glass of the Sultans," on display in Corning, New York and Athens, examined the artistic and technical development of glass from the seventh to the 20th century.
Long after their makers have disappeared, the objects displayed tell us about a craft whose fundamental techniques have not changed radically since glass was invented. As an art, glassmaking has always been a race, under the pressure of time and the elements, in pursuit of beauty.Glass does not belong exclusively to either East or West; rather, there has been a pendulum-like transfer of artistic ideas back and forth over time. The earliest finds, of colored glass beads that imitate precious stones, date back to 3000 BC in Egypt—but finds contemporaneous with the Egyptian beads have been excavated in Mesopotamia as well. The Romans believed that glass was an invention of the Phoenicians of the eastern Mediterranean, and Pliny the Elder even locates the event on a beach in what is now Syria:
A ship belonging to traders in soda once called here, so the story goes, and they
spread out along the shore to make a meal. There were no stones to support their
cooking-pots, so they placed lumps of soda from their ship under them. When these
became hot and fused with the sand on the beach, streams of an unknown liquid
flowed, and this was the origin of glass.
While it is in fact not certain who invented glass, it is likely the Phoenicians played an important role in its transportation and distribution.
Although the manual shaping and molding of glass to imitate objects made of clay, stone and metal continued, techniques and shapes specific and appropriate to glass gradually displaced the imitative techniques. With the introduction of the blowpipe by the Romans in the first century of our era, the ability to inflate a blob of hot glass by blowing through a hollow iron pipe rapidly lowered the cost of glass production and also led to new forms and new decorative techniques. Blowing was used to force glass into more elaborately decorated molds as well as to create free-blown objects.
As the center of the Roman Empire shifted to Constantinople in the fifth and sixth centuries, cultural production also shifted east. Beginning in the seventh century, the new Islamic societies became heirs to the technological and artistic knowledge of the glass manufacturers of the former Roman Empire. But there was no immediate courtly patronage for glassmaking in the early Islamic societies, and thus production of traditional (that is, Roman) glass continued. As a result, historians today have difficulty distinguishing Roman glass from early Islamic glass: The works of this period are considered "transitional," and the art-historical term for them is "Proto-Islamic."
Among Syrian glassworkers, one of the most popular ornate productions during the seventh and eighth centuries was the so-called cage flask, a name derived from the openwork structure that surrounds an inner vessel. Such vessels were usually small, made to contain kohl (antimony-oxide eyeliner), perfumes or fragrant oils. Closely resembling the Roman vessels manufactured by the same technique, a small container from the David Collection in Copenhagen is made in the shape of a horse carrying a large container on its back, echoing the time when goods like this flask were transported on animal-back along the caravan routes. Even though this object belongs to the early Islamic period, its zoomorphism and its technique make it difficult to differentiate it from contemporary Roman glass objects produced in the same region.
In the eighth century, Egyptian artisans discovered a technique of decorating glass with metallic stains. By using copper and silver to create a color palette ranging from lemon yellow to deep amber, they enlarged the scope of artistic expression. This color repertoire, in turn, became the most recognizable characteristic of early Islamic glass produced in the Near East. Such luster-painted glassware continued to be made in the ninth century in Fatimid Egypt, as well as in Iraq and in Syria. It was employed in a variety of interpretations as late as the 14th-century Mamluk period, and still later was traded and highly valued as far away as China, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, during this period glassworking was a relatively minor art, at least to judge by the rarity of royal patronage—an art that could hardly compete with other more durable media such as calligraphy, metalwork and ceramics.
It was in the ninth century that Islamic glasswork began to distinguish itself. Like ceramics, woodwork and architectural decoration, glass too reflected the distinctive Islamic taste of the Baghdad-based Abbasid Empire (749-1258). Although imitation of Roman glass continued, the influence of Sasanian craftsmen led to the development of a new artistic vocabulary.
The most characteristic examples from this period are the relief-cut glasses decorated with cold-cut techniques. Also employed on hard stones and rock crystal, these required a pointed tool or a revolving abrasive wheel to cut away the glass surface precisely and create a pattern that would stand in relief. It could be employed on monochrome or colorless glass or, to create a cameo effect, on objects made of two layers of different-colored glass. For the cameo effect, the artisan would selectively remove the "background" parts of the top layer, leaving the subject in a contrasting color standing in relief—or he could cut away both the interior and the exterior of the subject, leaving only its outline in relief.
Dating back to the 10th century, the Corning Ewer is a beautiful example of early Islamic cameo glass. Resembling a group of late 10th-century Fatimid rock-crystal ewers now dispersed to various collections throughout the world, this one was found in Iran and is thought to be of West Asian origin. Made of a layer of light green glass over colorless glass, the decoration of this pear-shaped container represents the age-old theme of hunting in a highly stylized fashion. A bird of prey attacking its four-legged victim is one of the common themes encountered in different media, such as metal, ceramics and book illustration, throughout Islamic art.
A pitcher in the collection of the Kuwait National Museum is another exquisite example of late 10th–11th-century Islamic glasswork. It has an elegant shape with a globular body and wide flared rim. Its decorative handle, created spontaneously by superimposing glass trails, resembles again the rock-crystal vessels of the period. A similar pitcher was found in the tomb of a Chinese princess in Mongolia, which shows the vast distances over which these luxury objects might be traded.
In the 11th and 13th centuries, colored and mold-decorated glassware appears to have become fashionable. Blown into a mold with a carved inner surface, or allowed to "slump" over the outside of a carved mold the glass would take up not only the shape of the mold but also the decorations incised in it. With this technique, popular decorative subjects such as animal and human figures, inscriptions and floral motifs were easily and repeatably transferred to the glass. Incised molds were used in the serial manufacture of ceramics of this period as well, and the wide trade in these glass and ceramic objects helped transmit an artistic language wherever the trade routes reached.
Also popular in this period was dark glass adorned with feathered trails of contrasting colors, worked into the hot glass in a technique called "marvering." With the glass object still on the pontil (the metal rod used to hold and twirl glass while it is being worked), the artist would roll it over thin trails of glass laid out on the marver, the flat polished stone or metal surface upon which glass is normally shaped. After these trails of glass are consolidated onto the surface of the object, they can be manipulated with a pointed tool into a wavy, arched or featherlike pattern. The small flask dated to the 11th–12th century in Egypt, now in the Corning Museum of Glass, is an example of this technique using dark blue and opaque white glass. The 15-centimeter (6") flask was probably used as a kohl container from which, with the help of a small wooden or metal rod, ladies could apply the contents to their eyelids as part of their daily makeup routine.
An elegant beaker from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art reflects the luxury of handmade decorated glassware. Such beakers, with a cylindrical body and a flared rim, are the most common objects accompanying depictions of royalty in book illustrations, ceramics and metalwork. The beaker symbolizes power and sovereignty, and the royal figure, usually sitting cross-legged on a throne, holds it in one hand.
Various sizes of such beakers can be found in Islamic art collections all around the world. The fact that some of them look as though they are from the same manufacturer leads art historians to think that they might have been designed as nesting beakers, each size fitting inside a larger one, sold as sets.
One of the most distinctive achievements of Islamic glass occurred in the 13th century, when artisans in Egypt and Syria were able to enamel glass with polychrome colors for the first time. This technique required the glass object to be painted with brushes and then fired several times to fix successively a variety of vibrant colors, such as red, blue, green or yellow, depending on the number and the chemical structure of the pigments that were applied. Made in Syria, a dark-blue enameled and gilded container known as the Cavour Vase is one of the finest examples. Named after its 19th-century Italian owner, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the vase bears elaborate polychrome decoration as well as cursive inscriptions that present the many honorific titles of an otherwise anonymous sultan who probably lived in western Asia in the 13th century. The decorative repertoire also includes animal figures and floral patterns.
By the 14th century, a change in artistic taste towards larger and bolder geometric and floral patterns, as well as inscriptions, can be witnessed in the decoration of portable objects. Among the great glass objects characteristic of this period were hanging mosque lamps, flasks, beakers and vases manufactured in Mamluk Egypt and Syria, all decorated with rich figural imagery and embellished with vibrant colors. The enameled and gilded basin, dated to the 1350’s in Egypt, reflects this change. Its shape, its dominant gold color and its large geometric medallions separated with floral decoration make it resemble contemporary brass objects created in the same region.
During the time of the Crusades, when high-ranking chevaliers were able to purchase gilded and enameled glass as souvenirs from the Holy Land, a heightened interest in Islamic glass grew in the West. The beauty, workmanship and uniqueness of the finest glass objects were often sufficient to give them the status of precious relics back in Europe, where they were safeguarded in the treasuries of churches and palaces, and used or displayed only on special occasions. In Venice, artists who studied these 13th- and 14th-century enameled glasses soon competed to create their own. The process, once discovered, was so difficult that it was regarded as a state secret, and the glassmakers were established—one could also say imprisoned—with all their necessities on the island of Murano.
The 14th-century Venetian glassmakers benefited not only from the artistic inspiration of Islamic glass, but also from the good quality raw material, such as quartz, soda, cobalt or broken glass for recycling, that was imported from Syria and Egypt. As Venice grew to be the leading manufacturer of fine glassware, its products inspired by Islamic glass soon began to be exported back to the very markets from whose styles they had been derived. This coincided with a drop in Islamic glass production toward the close of the Mamluk period and the high-water mark of glassmaking in the Islamic lands.
It was not until the 17th century that Islamic glass again attained such quality, this time under the patronage of the Ottomans in Turkey and the Near East, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. A fine example of style from the latter is the globular base of a huqqa (waterpipe) of the late 17th or early 18th century. The huqqa was introduced at the Mughal court from Iran at the beginning of the 17th century and soon spread rapidly. Although the round shape was popular for such smoking devices in the Mughal court, this object is considered special for its wheel-cut decoration that makes it resemble rock-crystal objects with relief decoration, as well as for its inscriptions revealing the social function of the object through a witty Persian verse on its base. In the verse, the huqqa obeys the rules of courtly etiquette, remaining silent until its patron draws it out in "conversation":
Even if you put burning charcoal on its head
The huqqa, a teacher of etiquette,
Will not respond unless drawn upon.
Thus one can learn refinement from its manners.
The most vivid example of Ottoman patronage of glassmaking appears in the pages of the Surnama-i Humayun, an illustrated manuscript from 1582 celebrating the circumcision ceremony of the son of Sultan Murat III. It contains illustrations depicting artisans on parade before the sultan, including glassmakers, windowmakers and manufacturers of flasks, pitchers and bottles. Demonstrating their craft "live" on a wheeled kiln, artisans manufacture glass as the parade moves along, while others carry the finished products.
Continuing the interchange of ideas between East and West, late 18th-century Istanbul witnessed the establishment of a glass factory on its Asian coast dedicated to glass inspired by Venice. A century after that, during the Orientalist period, Europe was again looking back to the East for artistic inspiration in glass. Several world’s fairs, held in Paris in 1867 and 1878 and in Vienna in 1873, played important roles in the reintroduction of Middle Eastern arts and cultures to Europe. As the principles of floral and geometric decorations of Islamic art became more popular in the West, objects decorated with such "oriental" motifs became fashionable. Philippe-Joseph Brocard, Émile Gallé, Joseph and Ludwig Lobmeyr and Antonio Salviati were among the 19th-century European glass artists who manufactured hanging lamps, beakers and long-necked bottles inspired by Islamic works for eager European consumers.
‘Umar Khayyam famously described a ceramic pot, gifted with speech, asking, "Where is the potter now, and where / Are they that bought, and they that sold?" Some beautiful and fragile objects of glass can tell us much of the tastes and abilities of their makers and patrons and traders, even long after those mortals are gone, and reveal details of the glass artisan’s race—against time and in pursuit of beauty.
Free-lance researcher Elif M. Gökçigdem has a background in the history of Islamic arts and museum studies. She works in Washington, D.C.