The Corning Ewer: A Masterpiece of Islamic Cameo Glass

The Corning Ewer: A Masterpiece of Islamic Cameo Glass

The Corning Ewer (Figs. 1-5) is the finest known example of Islamic cameo glass. Shown in London in the 1976 exhibition "The Arts of Islam”1 the ewer was acquired by The Corning Museum of Glass in 1985.2 This article describes the object and compares it with other Islamic cameo glasses, with colorless relief-cut glasses such as the Buckley Ewer, and with objects of rock crystal.

Figure 1
Figure 2


Ewer with cameo-cut ornament. [^^85.1.1^^]
H. (at rim) 16.0 cm, D. (max.) 9.3 cm. Translucent pale green over colorless glass.
Blown, cased, wheel-cut, probably drilled, ground, and polished.

Ewer. Plain, outsplayed rim with oval mouth and pointed pouring lip; narrow neck; pear-shaped body; hollow, splayed foot; ribbon handle with vertical thumb-rest attached to lower part of body and rim.

Relief decoration in light green on colorless background: one band on lip; two bands on neck, one curving upward toward. pouring lip; panel with birds and animals, which encircles body except for vertical strip behind handle; panel defined at top by border with superficial incised crosses alternating with deeper circular "printies" (small concavities), and at bottom by plain line that turns upward at extremities and follows outline of handle until it meets upper border; inside panel, pair of opposed, regardant horned quadrupeds with crossed forelegs, each with bird of prey perched on rump and pecking at back of neck; behind these, at edge of panel, parrotlike bird on branch, its back to bird of prey and its head turned back over shoulder, with scrolling palmette-spray in beak; hind leg joints of animals and wing-coverts of raptors terminate in half-palmettes; bodies of animals and raptors enlivened with printies; behind handle, green overlay cut in tall, tapering form; lower end of handle cut in relief with heart-shaped palmette above two volutes; at highest point of handle, remains of vertical, bifurcated thumb-rest.

Fluorescence in ultraviolet light: (a) longwave: colorless glass, greenish yellow with pink tint; green glass, no obvious reaction; (b) shortwave: colorless glass, brownish orange; green glass, no obvious reaction.3

Broken in approximately 50 pieces; restored. Restorations include most of rim, lower part of handle, parts of parrot to left of pouring lip, most of base; upper part of handle may be replacement from vessel of similar size and shape; thin layer of grayish weathering.

There is a marked variation in the degree to which the colorless glass was removed by the decorator. Around the central part of the body, where the colorless glass was thinnest, hardly any of it is missing. Near the top and bottom, on the other hand, a considerable amount has been removed: about 2 mm at the top of the neck and almost as much at the bottom of the panel.

Figure 3
Figure 4


Figure 5 The popularity of wheel cutting, which was practiced extensively by both the Romans and the Sasanians, declined after the fourth or fifth century A.D.4 It was revived in the Islamic world in the ninth century.5 Between the ninth and 11th centuries, wheel cutting was employed to produce a wide variety of objects, which include some of the finest achievements of Islamic glassmaking. The wheelcut glass of the Abbasids and their successors has been divided into several styles, in the simplest of which the ornament is delineated by incised lines. Many of the more elaborate Abbasid objects are cut in the beveled style, in which outlines are cut on a slant and there is no distinct second plane forming the background.6 A third style consists of relief cutting, in which the entire background is excavated, leaving the ornament in relief. Numerous examples of relief-cut glass are said to have been found in northern Iran, and they are often associated with the city of Nishapur, which enjoyed wealth and stability under the quasi-autonomous Samanid dynasty (A.D. 874–1001).7 It is highly unlikely, however, that Nishapur was the only place of production (if, indeed, relief-cut glass was made there at all), and other centers almost certainly existed both elsewhere in western Asia and in Egypt. In fact, one of the principal obstacles to elucidating the development of relief-cut glass and rock crystal between the ninth and 11th centuries is our profound ignorance of what was produced in Iraq, the home of the Abbasid and Buyid caliphs.8

Cameo glass is a logical extension of the relief-cut decoration of monochrome vessels. An overlay is applied to all or part of an object of a different color. Most of the overlay is removed, leaving the decoration in relief on a background of another color. Among Islamic cameo glasses, usually the overlay is colored and the background is colorless.9

Figure 6Islamic cameo glasses are rare. Only a handful of more or less complete objects have been published, and the number of fragments known to exist is smaller (perhaps considerably smaller) than the number of known fragments of Roman cameo glass, which has been estimated at about 200.10 The complete or restored Islamic objects include a pitcher at Corning (Fig. 6 [^^59.1.489^^]), a bowl in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, and a cup in the L. A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art, Jerusalem, The pitcher11 has a form that is well known among early Islamic glass and earthenware found in Iraq and Iran.12 It has a bright green overlay. The neck is decorated with a panel containing two horned animals. The shoulder has a pair of snakes. On the body, between bands of openwork circles and oval motifs, is a panel containing foliage and two cloven-hoofed animals, each accompanied by a bird. The bowl, which has a dark blue overlay, bears two confronted gazelles and a Kufic inscription wishing happiness to the owner.13 The cup in Jerusalem also has gazelles and an inscription; the overlay is bluish green.14

Although the Corning Ewer stands head and shoulders above these objects because of its masterly design and astonishingly skillful execution, it is related to all of them. It shares with them the presence of printies on the bodies of the birds and animals, and it shares with the pitcher and the cup the occurrence of notches on the raised outlines. The ewer, the pitcher, and the cup reputedly came from Iran, and their forms have numerous parallels among glass, pottery, and metal objects from the same country. It might be logical, therefore, to suppose that the Corning Ewer was made in Iran.

This supposition appears to derive support from the only close parallel for the Corning Ewer in colorless, relief-cut glass: the Buckley Ewer in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Fig. 7). 15 The Buckley Ewer has a plain, outsplayed rim with an oval mouth and a pouring lip; a narrow neck; a pear-shaped body, which is rounded at the bottom; and a ribbon handle with a vertical thumb-rest. The relief-cut decoration consists of one band below the lip; two bands on the neck, one of which curves upward toward the pouring lip; and a panel with birds, animals, and foliage on the body. The panel encircles the body except for a vertical strip behind the handle. It is defined at the top by a narrow border, and at the bottom by a flange that turns upward at the extremities and follows the outline of the handle until it meets the upper border. Inside the panel, at the center, near the top, are two palmettes and, below them, two confronted birds among foliage and palmettes; on each side of the panel is "a creature, part bird, part ibex"; at each end, near the handle, is a larger bird; scrolls with leaves fill the spaces between the birds and animals. The thumb-rest is cut in the form of two confronted birds. The Buckley Ewer was found in Iran, and consequently it may add weight to the argument that the Corning Ewer is Iranian.

However, another relief-cut ewer, of almost colorless glass with a hint of yellow, was discovered during the excavations at Fustat in Egypt between 1964 and 1971.16 The Fustat ewer is decorated with two horizontal registers, which together form a continuous panel that occupies most of the body; the panel begins and ends on either side of the handle. The upper, narrower register contains a floriated Kufic inscription. The lower, much wider register consists of three identical groups of closely spaced concentric semi-ellipses. The quality of the cutting is superb. The ewer was found in the undisturbed filling of a pit, which contained nothing that was thought to be later than the ninth century A.D. The excavators regarded the presence of a faint yellowish tinge as a feature that distinguishes the almost colorless glass of Fustat from the colorless glass of lran.17

The Corning Ewer also has parallels in another, related medium: rock crystal. The parallels are six ewers that form a conspicuous element in the rock crystal objects usually attributed to workshops in Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid caliphate. Perhaps the best known of these is a ewer in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice.18 Like the Corning Ewer, it has an everted rim and a narrow neck with two relief bands; a pear-shaped body, the bottom of which is emphasized by a third, sharply defined relief band; a foot-ring; and a concave base. The body is decorated with a single panel containing two seated lions separated by scrolling foliage. Above them, a Kufic inscription invokes "The blessing of God on the Imam al-Aziz bi'llah." Al-Aziz bi'llah was the fifth Fatimid caliph, who reigned from A.D. 975 to 996.

The other rock crystal ewers are closely similar, each having a pear-shaped body with a single panel of ornament divided below the lip. The second example, also in the Treasury of San Marco, has, instead of lions, a pair of rams.19 The third, one of the Medici treasures in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, has a pair of birds and an inscription indicating that it was made between A.D. 1000 and 1008 or 1011.20 The fourth ewer, in the cathedral treasury at Fermo, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, also has a pair of birds and an inscription.21 The fifth, now in the Louvre, again depicts a pair of birds, which have a family likeness to the parrots on the Corning Ewer.22

It is, however, the last example (Fig. 8), in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, that bears the closest resemblance to the Corning Ewer.23 On it, a single panel extends from one side of the handle to the other. It contains, surrounded by arabesques, two versions of a familiar scene: two short-horned animals run toward the center of the panel; birds of prey, their wings outspread as though they have only just alighted, perch on the rumps of the animals and peck at their necks; the animals turn to look at their assailants.

Place of Manufacture

The striking similarity between these objects raises questions about the place of manufacture and the date of the Corning Ewer. One of the rock crystal ewers bears an inscription that associates it with a Fatimid caliph, and the inscription on another associates it with a Fatimid official.24 Furthermore, one other rock crystal object bears the name of a Fatimid caliph, and the Iranian traveler Nasir-i Khusro, who visited Egypt twice between A.D. 1047 and 1050, identified Cairo as a center for the working of this material.

It may be equally logical, therefore, to suppose that the Corning Ewer was made in Egypt. However, in 1930, Carl Johan Lamm concluded that the rock crystal ewers were made either in Iraq or in Egypt under direct Iraqi influence. Lamm was probably influenced by the discovery at Samarra in Iraq, the capital of the Abbasid caliphs from A.D. 836 to 883, of fragments of relief-cut and cameo glass with notched outlines, which he assumed were made locally. Later, Lamm changed his mind. In 1935, he wrote, "I am inclined to regard [the Buckley Ewer] as of Egyptian manufacture, as it is extremely similar to rock crystal ewers known to have been made there." Later still, Honey, with some reservation, agreed.25

However, the rock crystal ewers, have no known Egyptian antecedents, and in 1940 Kurt Erdmann drew attention to the occurrence of possible prototypes in Sasanian Iran. These led him to suggest that the origin of the type lay in western Asia.26

The implications of Erdmann's suggestion were not accepted immediately. Thus, in 1942, Robert J. Charleston drew attention to similarities between the Buckley Ewer and several relief-cut fragments previously published by Lamm, all of which were said to have been found in Iran. Nevertheless, despite the supposed Iranian provenance of the objects, Charleston concluded that the Buckley Ewer and the rock crystal ewers were made in Iraq, and that, following the rise of the Fatimids, "what was fashionable in Baghdad becomes the mode in Cairo.''27

However, Erdmann continued to argue that the Buckley Ewer and other glass vessels of the same form were made in Iran, and that the prototypes of the Fatimid rock crystal ewers were indeed Iranian.28 This view is widely held today. Waffiya Ezzy and Ralph Pinder-Wilson, for example, described the Corning E\ver as ''probably of Persian origin," and identified the Corning Ewer and the Buckley Ewer as "the only surviving examples in glass from Persia of a type which was to serve as the model for the carved rock crystal ewers of Fatimid Egypt, both with regard to shape and to the style of relief carving."29

The debate is not over. Even if we accept the view that the Fatimid rock crystal ewers were made in imitation of Iranian vessels, this does not necessarily mean that the Corning Ewer was made in Iran. (If Iranian objects could be imitated in Egypt in rock crystal, presumably they could be imitated there in glass as well.) One method that might help to determine whether the Corning Ewer is Iranian or Egyptian is to compare the manner in which it fluoresces under ultraviolet light with the reactions of objects that are known to have been found in Iran and Egypt.30

Unfortunately, the results are inconclusive. The Corning Ewer has been compared under ultraviolet light with the cameo glass pitcher (Fig. 6), three fragments of cameo glass, undecorated colorless fragments from Fustat, and wheel-cut colorless fragments from Nishapur.31 Fragments of colorless glass from both sites, which are known to have been made from plant-ash soda, are pinkish orange under shortwave ultraviolet and yellow under longwave. Fragments from Fustat known to have been made from natron show little or no reaction to either short- or longwave ultraviolet light. The colorless base-glasses of two of the cameo fragments, which are plant ash glasses, are weak pink (shortwave) and weak yellow (longwave) and weak yellowish pink (shortwave) and strong yellow (longwave), respectively. The colorless base-glass of the third fragment, which is known to be a natron glass, shows little if any reaction to both short- and longwave ultraviolet light. In all three cases, the green overlays also show little or no reaction. The colorless glass of the Corning Ewer is brownish orange under shortwave and greenish yellow under longwave light. The green overlay shows little or no reaction. The pitcher shows little or no reaction to shortwave ultraviolet light, and is weak yellow, with a suggestion of pink, under longwave ultraviolet light. The green does not react.

Thus, none of the cameo glasses closely resembles the colorless fragments from Fustat and Nishapur, nor do they closely resemble one another. These observations indicate that the Corning Ewer was not made from the same ingredients as the colorless fragments from Fustat and Nishapur, but they fail to reveal whether the Corning Ewer is or is not Egyptian or Iranian.


No such uncertainty surrounds the date of the Corning Ewer. Thanks to the inscriptions on the first San Marco ewer and on the ewer in the Palazzo Pitti, we know that they were made in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, and it is probable that the entire group of rock crystal ewers was produced between about A.D. 975 and 1025.

In a posthumous publication, Buckley argued that his ewer is earlier than the rock crystal ewers: "The lines of the design are particularly graceful and the details are left more simple and are not covered, as in the case of the crystals, with a mass of ornament. One therefore feels instinctively that, if there be any material difference as to their respective dates, the glass is the earlier and the crystal ewers were followers and not forerunners."32

This distinction is difficult to justify, and in any case, there is no good reason to make any such statement about the Corning Ewer, which in so many respects resembles the rock crystal ewers. Indeed, the resemblance is so close that we may safely conclude that the Corning Ewer belongs to the same period as its rock crystal counterparts.


The Corning Ewer is the most accomplished example of Islamic cameo glass that is known to exist. Although it has only one good parallel made of glass (the Buckley Ewer), it closely resembles six rock crystal ewers that are attributed with confidence to workshops in Cairo. It is widely believed that the rock crystal ewers were made in imitation of objects imported from Iran, but although the Corning Ewer and the Buckley Ewer were found in Iran, there is no conclusive proof that they are Iranian. Indeed, examination of the Corning Ewer and of fragments from Fustat and Nishapur in ultraviolet light failed to resolve the problem. However, regardless of where the Corning Ewer was made, the close similarity between this object and the rock crystal ewers indicates that all of these pieces are more or less contemporary. Sound reasons exist for dating the rock crystal ewers to the period between about A.D. 975 and 1025, and this, therefore, is also the date of the Corning Ewer.

This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 35 (1993), 48–56.

1. Waffiya Ezzy and Ralph Pinder-Wilson, "Ewer of Colourless Glass with an Overlay of Transparent Green Glass," in The Arts of Islam,London: Hayward Gallery, 1976, p. 141, no. 132.

2. Accession no.: 85.1.1 (acquired with funds from the Clara S. Peck Endowment); Joumal of Glass Studies, v. 28, 1986, frontispiece.

3. The presence of weathering and perhaps also of adhesive may have interfered with the reaction of the glass.

4. Donald B. Harden, "Group G: Cut and/or Engraved," in Glass of the Caesars, by Donald B. Harden, Hansgerd Hellenkemper, Kenneth Painter, and David Whitehouse, .Milan: Olivetti, 1987, pp. 179–185; Shinji Fukai, Persian Glass, New York, Tokyo, and Kyoto: Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1977, pp. 30–56.

5. Prudence Oliver, "Islamic Relief Cut Glass: A Suggested Chronology," Journal of Glass Studies, v. 3, 1961, pp. 9–29. Relief cutting may also have been practiced at Constantinople, if the colorless relief-cut vessels in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice, are Byzantine, as is sometimes maintained.

6. Richard Ettinghausen, "The 'Beveled Style' in the Post-Samarra Period," in Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld, ed. George C. Miles, Locust Valley, New York, 1952, pp. 72–83.

7. Pinder-Wilson [note 1], p. 132.

8. The published information still consists essentially of fragments of colorless relief-cut glass and cameo glass from Samarra, published by Carl Johan Lamm, Die Ausgrabungen von Samarra. Band IV: Das Glas von Samarra, Berlin; Verlag Dietrich Reimer/ Ernst Vohsen, 1928, pp. 74–78, nos. 224–250. In the second half of the 10th century, al-Harawi mentioned the "glass crystal" (abginah) of Baghdad: see Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten, Berlin, Verlag Dietrich Reimer/Ernst Vohsen, 1929–1930, v. 1, p. 497, no. 87.

9. Sidney M. Goldstein, "Islamic Cameo Glass," in Cameo Glass: Masterpieces from 2000 Years of Glassmaking, by Sidney M. Goldstein, Leonard S. Rakow, and Juliette K. Rakow, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1982, pp. 30–33.

10. Sidney M. Goldstein, "Roman Cameo Glass," in Goldstein, Rakow, and Rakow [note 9], pp. 8–19, esp. p. 18.

11. 59.1.489. Goldstein, Rakow, and Rakow [note 9], pp. 105–106, no. 21.

12. From Iran: Monique Kervran, "Les Niveaux islamiques du secteur oriental du Tépé de l'Apadana," Cahiers de Ia Délégation Archéologique Française en lran, v. 7, 1977, pp.·75–165, esp. fig. 30, no. 8; and Charles K. Wilkinson, Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d., p. 340, no; 29. From Iraq: Friedrich Sarre, Die Keramik von Samarra, Berlin: Verlag Dietrich Reimer/Ernst Vohsen, 1925, p. 5, no. 1.

13. Pinder-Wilson [note 1], p. 140, no. 130.

14. Goldstein [note 9], p. 33, fig. 19.

15. Wilfred Buckley, "Two Glass Vessels from Persia," Burlington Magazine, v. 67, no. 389, 1935, pp. 66–71.

16. R. H. Pinder-Wilson and George T. Scanlon, "Glass Finds from Fustat: 1964–71," Journal of Glass Studies, v. 15, 1973, pp. 12–30, esp. pp. 25–26, no. 19.

17. Ibid., p. 17.

18. Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser [note 8], v. 1 and v. 2, pp. 192–193 and pl. 67, no. 1; K. Erdmann, "Bricco di cristallo del Califfo Al-Aziz-Billah (975–996)," in Il Tesoro di San Marco,·v. 2, Il Tesoro e il Museo, ed. H. R. Hahnloser, Firenze: Sansoni Editore, 1971, pp. 112–113, no. 124.

19. Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser [note 8], v. 1 and v. 2, p. 193 and pl. 67, no. 2; K. Erdmann, "Bricco degli Arieti," in Hahnloser [note 18], pp. 113–115, no. 125.

20. Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser [note 8], v. 1 and v. 2, p. 192 and pl. 66. According to D. S. Rice (''A Datable Islamic Rock Crystal," Oriental Art, v. 2, 1956, pp. 85–93), the inscription, which contains the rare title qa'id al-quwwàd (commander of the commanders), refers to Husain b. Giawhàr, a distinguished figure at the court of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim. Husain b. Giawhàr received this title in A.D. 1000 and probably ceased to use it in 1008; he was assassinated in 1011.

21. Ignazio Guidi ("Di un vasa arabo posseduto dal Signor Marchese Alfieri di Sostegno," Actes du XIe Congrès des Orientalistes, Section 3, Paris, 1899, pp. 39–43) believed that the inscription refers to one of two Fatimid caliphs, al-Hakim (996–1021) or al-Amir (1101–1131). However, Rice ([note 20], pp. 91–93) concluded that it is anonymous. For a good illustration, see Umberto Scerrato, "I cristalli di rocca," in Gli Arabi in ltalia. Cultura, contatti e tradizioni, ed. Francesco Gabrieli and Umberto Scerrato, Milano: Libri Schewiller for Credito Italiano, 1979, fig. 521.

22. Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser [note 8], v. 1 and v. 2, pp. 193–194 and pl. 67, no. 3.

23.lbid., v. 1 and v. 2, p. 194 and pl. 67, no. 4.

24. The object is a crescent inscribed with the name of the caliph al-Zahir (r. A.D. 1021–1036), in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg; see ibid., v, 1 and v. 2; p. 213 and pl. 75, no. 21. For the attribution of the majority of early Islamic rock crystal objects to Egypt, see (among many others) Ralph Pinder-Wilson, "Rock-crystal and Jade," in The Arts of Islam, London, Hayward Gallery, 1976, pp. 120–121; Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650–1250, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987, pp. 191–193; and Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, rev. and enlarged ed., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 165 and 201.

25. Carl Johan Lamm, Glass from Iran in the National Museum, Stockholm, Stockholm and London: C. E. Frltzes K. Hovbokh and Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1935, p. 13; W. B. Honey, Glass: A Handbook for the Study ofGlass Vessels of All Periods and Countries & a Guide to the Museum Collection, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1946, p. 42 and caption of pl. 15A.

26. Kurt Erdmann, "Islamische Bergkristallarbeiten," Jahrbuch der Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, v. 61, 1940, pp. 125–146; Wilfred Buckley, The Art of Glass: Illustrated from the Wilfred Buckley Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, New York: The Phaidon Press and Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 242, no.78. (The book was copyrighted in 1933, the year of Buckley's death.)

27. R. J. Charleston, "A Group of Near Eastern Glasses," Burlington Magazine, v. 81, 1942, pp. 212–218.

28. Erdmann [note 19], p. 114, with references.

29. Ezzy and Pinder-Wilson [note 1].

30. Another, potentially more informative, method would be to compare the chemical compositions of the ewer and objects of known Iranian and Egyptian provenance. In this case, too, one would be hampered by the fact that the objects are portable, and consequently find-places are not necessarily indicative of places of manufacture. No attempt has been made to obtain samples of the glasses with which the ewer was made.

31. The fragments from Fustat were found during the excavations of 1964–1971. They were given to The Corning Museum of Glass by the Fustat Expedition. The fragments from Nishapur were collected on the site. I am grateful to Dr. Robert H. Brill for assisting in the examination of these objects.

32. Buckley [note 26], p. 242.

Published on June 25, 2013

David Whitehouse, Senior Scholar
David Whitehouse (1941-2013) joined The Corning Museum of Glass in 1984 as chief curator. He was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director of the Museum in 1988, and became director in 1992. He was appointed to...