All About Glass

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A Brief History of Islamic Glassmaking

All About Glass

Figure 1 - Drinking Horn

The prophet Muhammad proclaimed the new religion of Islam in 622. Following his death 10 years later, Arab armies conquered much of what is now Egypt, the Near East, and Iran. Here the Muslims found flourishing glass industries, which continued to produce large quantities of objects for daily use. Later, Islamic glassmakers introduced new forms and decoration that were based on one or more of the three principal "building blocks" of Islamic art: geometric ornament, vegetal motifs, and calligraphy. From time to time, these craftsmen also depicted human figures, animals, birds, and fish.

Figure 2 - Bowl

In the eighth century, glassmakers in Egypt discovered the technique of painting glass with metallic stain. Transparent stains colored with copper (which produces red or brown) and silver (which produces yellow) became a hallmark of early Islamic glassware in Egypt and the Near East (Figs. 1 [69.1.4] and 2 [99.1.1]).

Islamic glassmakers inherited a long tradition of cold working: decorating an object by cutting, grinding, and polishing with a rotating wheel and abrasives, and by using hand-held tools. As early as the second half of the first century, for example, the Romans produced fine glassware with patterns of cold-worked facets. Their Islamic successors also made facet-cut objects, but in the ninth century they began to create vessels with linear decoration that included vegetal motifs, animals, birds, and inscriptions. During the ninth and 10th centuries, they produced great quantities of cut glass in several different styles.

Figure 3 - Ewer

Much of the glass cut by Islamic craftsmen was meant to resemble rock crystal. Glassworkers formed glass into blanks (plain objects) of eggshell thinness which were decorated by cutters. Much of this decoration involved removing both the background and the interior of the design, leaving the outlines in relief. On rare occasions, colorless blanks were given colored overlays, which were cut away to create cameo glasses such as the Corning Ewer (Fig. 3 [85.1.1]).

Figure 4 - Flask

Later, both cut and colorless glasses seem to have gone out of fashion. With the exception of objects for everyday use, much of the Islamic glass produced between the 11th and 13th centuries was colored. Some of these objects featured relief decoration that was formed by inflating the molten glass in decorated molds, while others were made of deep purple, blue, or green glass decorated with white trails that were tooled into festoons or featherlike patterns.

Figure 5 - Handled Vase

In the 13th century, decorators in the region of Syria achieved the first extensive application of enamels on glass. For the next two centuries, Syrian and Egyptian craftsmen produced large quantities of glass in many shapes and sizes with brilliant polychrome ornament (Fig. 5 [55.1.36]). These objects included functional vessels such as hanging lamps to illuminate the interiors of mosques, as well as drinking vessels and other useful items, plus spectacular display pieces.

Figure 6 - Flask

The making of this glass required both artistic imagination and technical expertise. Gilding was applied by mixing gold dust with a liquid medium, painting this on the glass, and fixing it to the surface by heating the object in the furnace. Enameling was accomplished in a similar manner. Powdered glass was applied in suspension, then heated until the enamel fused with the surface of the glass.

When attempting to date these objects, the most important clues are the inscriptions on lamps and other objects. These inscriptions identify important patrons whose dates are known (Fig. 6 [69.1.2]). This tiny flask, which would have held perfume, bears the arms of Sultan Baybars of Egypt (r. 1260 - 1277). Scholars believe that most of the pieces with designs including human figures and animals were made in the 13th century. Objects with ornamentation featuring large inscriptions are thought to date from the 14th century.

Figure 7 - SprinklerIn the later Middle Ages, Europeans prized Islamic luxury glasses because of their exotic appearance and technical sophistication, and sometimes because they were believed to be relics from the Holy Land. Fragments of Islamic glass, usually decorated with gilding and enameling, have been unearthed in archeological excavations all over Europe, and some unbroken objects are contained in cathedral treasuries. Excavations have also revealed that Islamic glass vessels were exported to China.

Although the peak of Islamic glassmaking ended in the 14th century, later craftsmen produced high-quality glassware in the empires of the Ottomans (Turkey, the Near East, and the Balkans), the Safavids (Iran), and the Mughals (India). The earliest of these works are known only from brief written reports and illustrations in manuscripts, but many later objects have been preserved. These pieces often have a distinct European influence. English glassmakers exported blanks to India, where they were decorated by cutting and gilding, and at least one 19th-century Turkish glassmaker is known to have been trained in Venice. One particularly elegant example of later Islamic glassmaking is a "swan’s neck" rosewater sprinkler from 18th- or 19th-century Iran (Fig. 7 [59.1.575]).

Figure 8 - Mosque Lamp

In the 19th century, glassmakers in Austria, Bohemia, and France began to create objects decorated in Islamic style. The Viennese firm of Lobmeyr and other companies produced gilded glassware for Egyptian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as pieces with "Moorish" and Turkish decoration for customers closer to home. One glassmaker, Philippe-Joseph Brocard of Paris, was so skillful in imitating older Islamic designs that even experts have difficulty distinguishing his products from the 14th-century works that inspired them (Fig. 8 [78.3.16]).

Published on September 29, 2011