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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2: Exhibition Reports

The Glass of the Sultans

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Special Exhibitions Galleries, first floor;   1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028    (tel: 212-570-3951)

October 2, 2001 - January 13, 2002

In this day and age, most people have little contact with glass beyond the utilitarian; glass is used for windows, containers and vessels, while plastic is slowly replacing glass even for these mundane functions. Meanwhile, aside from the rare “art” glass vase, paperweight or museum piece, even our most decorative glassworks are uninspiring and mass-produced. In light of this, people might feel no need to rush to a new exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art which focuses entirely on glass objects from the Islamic world. In that, however, they would be remiss; for Glass of the Sultans is one of those rare exhibits which not only presents unique and beautiful objects, but does so in a well-organized, and informative manner that promises to enlighten and impress even the most jaded museumgoer.

Glass of the Sultans is the first museum survey of rare Islamic glass, and contains nearly 160 objects (on loan from 20 institutions) from various regions in the Islamic world, including Egypt, Syria, Syro-Palestine, Iran, Iraq, and Central Asia, dating from the 7th to 14th Century, as well as later works from Persia, India, and Europe in the Islamic style. The range of material is thus wide-including a vast array of shapes, styles and colors--unexpectedly so for those of us uninitiated to the variety of techniques in glassmaking. Wisely, the curators have chosen to arrange the works primarily by these techniques rather than by region or chronology, with several sections devoted to specific themes such as Islamic glass found in archaeological sites, and European works imitating or inspired by Islamic glass. With equal acumen, the objects are widely-spaced, and displayed in well-lit cases on lustrous fabrics of neutral colors, thereby encouraging the refraction and play of light which is necessary to catch the true beauty of any glasswork.

Fig.1: Ancient glass vase, with raised designs (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The exhibit opens with a single case introducing the eight major glassmaking techniques, each with a single example. The most unusual object here is a bowl probably made in Iran in the 9th-10th century which was given as a gift from the ruler of the Turkoman Aq-Koyunlu to the Venetian Signoria in 1472, and later set in a gold and silver mount and placed in the treasury of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. The opaque turquoise blue color of the glass is rare, and the inscription "Khorasan", a region in Northeast Iran where turquoise stone is known to originate, may hint at a past attempt at deception. Also in this introductory area is a display of the tools used to manufacture glass, including two of the only dip-molds to survive from the medieval Islamic world. A video is most helpful here in demonstrating some of the basic glassmaking techniques to those who have never before observed them.

As an archaeologist, I much appreciated a small section focusing on glass obtained from the scientific excavation of Islamic sites. Unfortunately, I have observed too often the indifferent recovery of glass shards from even much older sites (Roman and Byzantine), so it is comforting to see that archaeologists in the Near East, especially in Israel, have given this material so much careful attention. Text in this section outlined some of the problems related to the study of excavated glass, including the wide distribution of glassworks as luxury goods in trade, as well as the shipping of discards to be melted down and reused. This ancient recycling system prohibits researchers from determining the provenience of an object from its chemical composition alone, but other studies of chronology and manufacture are furthered by the study of excavated glass.

Fig.2: Zoomorphic glass flask from Syria made with openwork technique (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The next section is devoted to objects made by the most basic technique, glassblowing. While slower and more labor-intensive glassmaking techniques had been used since the third millenium BC, it was the invention of glassblowing in the first century BC in Syro-Palestine that increased the production and availability of glassware, as well as broadened the range of forms and styles possible. While primarily undecorated, the forms of many of the utilitarian objects shown in this section, such as a delicate Qumqum (sprinkler for perfumed water) reveal the artfulness and skill of their creators.

A rapid addition to the basic glassblowing technique was the inflation of glass into a mold, as adopted first by the Romans in the first century AD and soon spread into Near Eastern lands. Molds enabled both the basic form and decoration of an object to be duplicated. Simple patterns such as vertical ribbing or fluting, chevrons or vegetal designs were common, but so were more complex designs such as inscriptions wishing the owner well.

Fig.3: Glass cup (9-10th c. AD) with relief patterns made from metal stamps (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hot-worked glass includes objects manipulated and decorated when the blown vessel is still hot and malleable. In one subset of this technique, hot trails of glass are applied to the object as it is rotated, to form various raised designs (fig. 1; #37). This technique is used to form an openwork glass “cage” in a group of zoomorphic flasks from Syria (fig. 2; #29.) In another subset, metal tongs ending in a design were impressed against the interior of hot vessels to form relief patterns on the outer wall. Thus the technique was primarily used to form simple patterns on open shapes, such as on a small 9-10th century cup (fig. 3, #47), but closed shapes were also formed by joining two separate sections. Three medallions which decorated windows grills in a 12th-13th century palace at Old Termez, Uzbekistan also employ this technique. Another hot-working technique integrated the trails of glass into the vessel by rotating against a marver, or polished slab. Such marvered trails are usually white, and often combed to form a meandering pattern against a darker colored background.

Fig.4: Mosaic glass (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mosaic glass is manufactured from a time-consuming technique in which long canes of glass, created by gathering glass of different colors around a core, are then sliced to form individual roundels. These slices are then arranged around a mold and heated so they fuse together. Often referred to as 'millefiori' (thousand flowers, in Italian) for the resultant colorful pattern (fig. 4; #62), mosaic glass was especially popular in Mesopotamia and Syria during the 8th and 9th centuries.

One of the earliest techniques for working glass was through cutting and engraving. On display here are several very different groups of objects which use this basic technique, including those with rather distinctive scratch-engraving, fine incisions, or honeycomb patterns of facet-cut decorations. The masterful “Corning Ewer” features “cameo glass” created by encasing light green glass over colorless glass in a Roman-inspired design of stylized animals (fig. 5; #90). A rare and challenging technique particularly popular in Egypt and Syria in the 7th-9th century was stained, or luster-painted, glass. Using silver or copper-containing pigments glassware was painted and then fired until the designs were permanently fixed.

Fig.5: The Corning Ewer, showing faceted animal patterns (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is with the opulent and vibrant enamel and gilded glass, however, that we see the true artistry applied to glassworks in the Islamic world (fig. 6; #129). Great skill was required to make these pieces, which required applying gold and/or enamels (powdered opaque glass) to a glass surface using an oil-based medium and a brush or reed pen, and then firing to a regulated temperature that would permanently fix the substances-each with its own melting point--to the vessel. Highly valued, these works were created for the wealthy and for sultans, but also for any individual who wished to show the glory of Allah. It is thus not surprising that vivid enameled and gilded glass was often used for mosque lamps, emphasizing that, as inscribed on one such lamp (cat. #117), “God is the light of the heavens and earth.” Some of these lamps are exhibited as they would have appeared to worshippers, hanging from the ceiling and lit, the better to show the beautiful play of light, color, and shadow. One unusual lamp (cat. #118) depicts picturesque flowers against a blue background instead of gold-when lighted we see a garden of paradise. Similarly, brightly colored birds--identifiable species in fanciful colors--are portrayed on an unusual beaker-shaped vase from Syria (cat. #128). Perhaps these are inhabitants of the gardens of Heaven or possibly they refer to a Sufi parable in which hoopoe, Solomon's sacred bird, leads other birds on a search for the divine.

Fig.6: Gilded, enameled glass vase with bird motifs (Glass of the Sultans, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Such enameled glass was a specialty of lands controlled by the Ayyubids and Mamluks (modern Egypt and Syria) during the 13th and 14th centuries, but by the 15th century fell out of favor there so much that production shifted to Europe, particularly Venice. The final cases of the exhibit are thus devoted to glassworks from the “Age of Empires” (16th-early 20th century), especially fine glass from Mughal India as well as late imitations of Islamic glass from Europe. Especially interesting are several 19th century glassmakers who not only copied specific medieval Islamic works, but were inspired by many different Islamic motifs and styles to create their own, unique, and elegant works.

Reviewed by Michele A. Miller

Appearing in Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2.

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