Early Islamic Gold Sandwich Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass

Early Islamic Gold Sandwich Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass

Figure 1This article reviews the current state of our knowledge of early Islamic gold sandwich glass and publishes five examples in the Museum's collection.

In 1964, the Corning Museum acquired a gold sandwich glass cup [^^64.1.32^^] (Fig. 1) that was identified as “2nd–4th century A.D., Parthian or Sassanian,” although no parallels from these periods were known.1 The cup was republished in the 1967 exhibition catalog Sasanian Silver, together with a theretofore unpublished gold-glass fragment [^^66.1.18^^] (Fig. 2).2 In 1972, the cup was again identified as “Parthian or Sasanian, probably 2nd–4th century A.D.,” and the fragment was described as “Sasanian, about 3rd–6th century A.D.”3

The identification of these objects as Parthian or Sasanian was challenged in 1978, when The British Museum acquired a bottle, also of %%gold sandwich glass%%, with decoration strikingly similar to that of the cup (Fig. 3).4 The bottle has the “mallet-shaped” form that is well known among early Islamic glass vessels but has never been associated with the Parthian or Sasanian period.5

Figure 2

Ten years later, Marian Wenzel described fragments of a %%gold sandwich glass%% cup recently acquired by the David Collection (Fig. 4), the ornament of which includes an imitation of a Kufic inscription, showing conclusively that the object is Islamic and probably of the 10th century.6 Clearly, therefore, the repertoire of early Islamic glassmakers included %%gold sandwich glass%%, and Wenzel nominated three additions to the group. The first of these, a fragment in the Louvre, had been described as gold sandwich glass by A. J. Butler in 1926, a description repeated by Arthur Lane in 1938. However, in 2000, Marthe Bernus-Taylor stated that the decoration was produced by staining, and on this basis I have omitted it from the present discussion.7 Wenzel’s other additions were a fragment of uncertain provenance in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and fragments of a bottle excavated at al-Mina, northern Syria, also in the V&A.8 All of these objects, she suggested, were made in the Islamic world, perhaps in Syria, in the ninth or 10th century.

Shortly afterward, Sidney M. Goldstein published two more fragments at Corning (Figs. 5 and 6), the second of which has a Kufic or pseudo-Kufic inscription.9 In 2007, a hitherto unknown cylindrical cup was offered at auction in London.10 One additional fragment, also at Corning, is published here for the first time (Fig. 7).11

At present, therefore, I am aware of 10 examples of early Islamic gold sandwich glass vessels:

Figure 5

1. The Corning Museum of Glass ([^^64.1.32^^]; Fig. 1).
2. Arts of the Islamic World [note 10].
3. David Collection (4/1987; Fig. 4).

4. The British Museum (OA 1978.10-11.2; Fig. 3).
5. Victoria and Albert Museum (C333-1937 and C333A-1937).
6. The Corning Museum of Glass ([^^74.1.50^^]; Fig. 5).

Form Uncertain
7. Victoria and Albert Museum (363-45/ 1900).
8. The Corning Museum of Glass (^^65.1.33^^; Fig. 6).
9. The Corning Museum of Glass (^^66.1.18^^; Fig. 2).
10. The Corning Museum of Glass (^^79.1.292^^; Fig. 7).

These objects form a small but remarkably coherent group. The repertoire of forms is limited. Three members of the group (1–3) are cylindrical cups, three (4–6) are bottles with a globular or presumably globular body and a narrow neck, and three others (7–9) are represented by fragmentary bases with profiles that suggest that they, too, may have come from cups or bottles, although this is uncertain. One fragment (10) is thought to be part of a vessel with a rounded base.

Figure 6

In every %%case%%, the gold decoration is sandwiched between two fused layers of glass, and it has simple scratched details. One object (4) is also decorated with silver. On seven of the 10 objects (2–6, 8, and 10), the decoration is embellished with dots of blue enamel. Three objects (1, 4, and 8) were finished by cold working: the rim of 1 was ground, the neck of 4 has vertical facets that extend from the top to the bottom, and the underside of 8 has a wheel-cut rosette.

The principal decoration of 1, 2, and 4 is almost identical. It consists of a register of palmettes alternating with motifs that are reminiscent of a calyx on a narrow stem. Four or five of the six objects that preserve all or part of the base (1, 2, 4, 7, and possibly 10) have a small gold or silver motif at the center: three birds, one pair of birds, a senmurv, and possibly the image of a human being or a god(dess). Three objects (3, 5, and 6) have Kufic or pseudo-Kufic inscriptions.

Several conflicting explanations have been advanced about how the objects were made. The major issues are how the gold was applied and how the two layers of glass were brought together.

Wenzel and Ralph Pinder-Wilson described the ornament as an application of gold in a liquid medium, which was painted on the surface.12 However, in at least one place on 1, the gold consists of two overlapping layers, one of which ends abruptly in a straight line, and it is clear that the gold was applied in the form of foil. Given the similarities of the objects in the group, it is reasonable to infer that all of them were decorated in the same manner: with metal foil, which was then cut away and scratched to produce the desired ornament.13

Figure 7

Three mutually exclusive methods of protecting the decoration between two layers of glass have been proposed. Wenzel and Kjeld von Folsach suggested that the decoration was applied to the inner surface of a cuplike object, into which a gather of molten glass was inflated to produce the “sandwich.”14 Goldstein, on the other hand, concluded that the decoration was applied to the outer surface of the object, and close examination confirms that this is true of at least 1, 8, and 10. Goldstein offered two solutions to the question of how the outer layer was added: either by inflating a gather of glass against the decorated object (which is how many Roman gold glasses appear to have been made15) or by inserting the object into a preformed “cup.”16 As William Gudenrath has demonstrated, Goldstein’s second suggestion is not only feasible but also results in the distinctive rounded edge of the outer layer on the shoulders of 4, 5, and 6.17 It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, unlike Roman gold glasses, most—perhaps all—early Islamic examples were made by lowering the decorated object into a cuplike container, which became the outer layer of the sandwich.

Discussion has also focused on the date and place of manufacture of early Islamic gold glasses. Wenzel and von Folsach likened the pseudo-Kufic inscription on 3, which is accompanied by blue dots, to Qur’anic manuscripts in which colored dots represent vowels and diacritical marks, and on this basis they dated the object to the 10th century.18 It should be noted, however, that the surviving parts of 3 contain four decorated registers, all of which are embellished with blue dots although only one is inscribed, and that fragments 2, 4, 6, and 10 also have blue dots but are without inscriptions. It is possible that the use of enameled dots was inspired by manuscripts, but if so, the decorators of the gold glasses extended their use beyond Kufic or pseudo-Kufic inscriptions.

Nevertheless, the wheel-cut ornament on 4 and 8, as well as the shape of 4, does support a date in or about the ninth or 10th century. The rosette on 8 is linear-cut, and glass decorated in this style is universally dated between the late eighth and early 11th centuries.19 The vertical facets on the neck of 4 have numerous parallels on wheel-cut bottles, and these, too, are attributed to the ninth or 10th century.20 Mallet-shaped bottles are not uncommon, and, like facet-cut necks, they are habitually dated to the ninth or 10th century, although (as far as I am aware) there are none from well-dated archeological contexts.21 At present, however, we cannot improve on the attribution of the gold glasses to the ninth or 10th century.

The find-place of only one early Islamic %%gold sandwich glass%% is known: 5, which was excavated at al-Mina in northern Syria. 4 is reported to have come from Iran, and it is said to have been found in the northeastern city of Nishapur;22  the site, however, is a favorite “provenance” for dealers in early Islamic artifacts, and we should be cautious about accepting this information at face value. Lamm, without explaining why, described 7 as “probably Egyptian.”23 More recent opinions favor Syria, Mesopotamia, or Iran.24 The homogeneity of the group suggests that the objects are the products of a single workshop or region, although we do not know where that workshop or region was located.

Catalog of Examples at The Corning Museum of Glass

The numbers are the same as those in the list of objects above.

1. Cup
H. 7.9 cm, D. 9.2 cm.

Almost colorless glass and gold foil. The object was blown, decorated with gold foil, and cased; the lip was finished by grinding. The cup is roughly hemispherical. The rim is plain. The wall tapers, then curves in at the bottom. The base is slightly rounded and has, at the center, an abraded oval depression (L. 1.8 cm). The entire object is cased.

The wall is decorated in gold foil with two continuous horizontal registers. The upper, narrower register consists of a row of about 29 disks, framed above and below by a plain border. The lower, much wider register contains nine upright palmettes alternating with nine motifs resembling calyxes on narrow stems, all of which have details scratched through the gold, standing on a continuous groundline. At the center of the base is a bird.

The cup has been broken, with three small losses from the wall and the base. The surface is dull, with traces of weathering.

Bibliography: “Recent Important Acquisitions” [note 1]; Grabar [note 1], pp. 152–153; Perrot [note 1]; Wenzel [note 1], p. 47 and fig. 3; Whitehouse [note 1].

6. Fragment of Bottle
Formerly in the collection of Ray Winfield Smith (1093). ^^74.1.50^^
Max. Dim. 6.4 cm, Th. (upper shoulder and cased area) 0.25 cm.

Almost colorless glass, gold foil, and grayish blue enamel. The object was blown, decorated with gold foil and enamel, and cased; the lip was finished by grinding. The fragment is from the bottom of the neck (D. about 2.5 cm) and the rounded shoulder of a bottle. Only the lower part of the fragment is cased. The overlay has a rounded edge (D. about 6 cm), above which the shoulder bulges slightly. The decoration consists of a horizontal border (W. 0.45–0.55 cm) of gold foil and, below this, a gold Kufic or pseudo-Kufic inscription represented by parts of two or more “letters,” and one grayish blue enameled dot.

The object comprises one relatively large fragment and three small fragments. The surfaces are pitted, but they have very little weathering.

Bibliography: [Ray Winfield Smith], Glass from the Ancient World: The Ray Winfield Smith Collection, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1957, p. 223, no. 450; Goldstein [note 9], pp. 117–118, fig. 8.

8. Fragment of Base
Formerly in the collection of Eliahu Dobkin. ^^65.1.33^^
H. 3.5 cm, D. (max., est.) about 9 cm, Th. (highest surviving point) 0.15 cm.

Almost colorless glass, gold foil, and blue enamel.

The object was blown, decorated with gold foil and enamel, and cased; the underside of the base has wheel-cut decoration. The fragment is from the lower wall and base of a vessel. The wall descends vertically, then curves in at the bottom; the base is plain, thicker at the center than at the edge, and it has a prominent pontil mark. The overlay is less than 0.1 cm thick. The decoration, which evidently was applied to the inner layer of glass, consists of a horizontal border (W. 0.5 cm) of gold foil, above which, side by side, are parts of two inverted heart-shaped elements, also of gold foil. Each of these contains a gold palmette, and on either side of the palmette is a single blue dot. The heart-shaped elements are contiguous, and, where they meet, two horizontal lines were scratched through the foil. Presumably, the elements were part of a continuous band of ornament on the lower wall of the vessel.

The underside of the base has, at the center, a rather irregular wheel-cut rosette with eight pointed petals. Each petal has one radial cut on its long axis, and one short radial cut projects from the junction of each pair of petals. The cutting extends over the pontil mark, which was neither ground nor polished.

The surface is dull, with some silvery gray weathering and slight iridescence.

Bibliography: Goldstein [note 9], p. 118, fig. 7.

9. Fragment of Base
Formerly in the collection of Ray Winfield Smith. ^^66.1.18^^
Max. Dim. 6.2 cm.

Almost colorless glass and gold foil. The object was blown, decorated with gold foil, and cased.

The fragment consists of a flat base (D. greater than 6 cm). The overlay is about 0.1 cm thick.

A circular pontil mark (D. 1.4 cm) has been almost eliminated by grinding. The center of the base is decorated with a creature resembling a senmurv. When seen from the interior of the vessel, the animal is shown in profile, facing right. It has the head of a dog with pointed ears, the front legs of a lion, a wing that is pointed at the tip, and a prominent tail. The lower part of the body is snakelike and coiled.

Comment: The senmurv was a mythical creature with the head of a dog, wings, the claws of a lion, the tail of a peacock, and the scales of a fish; this example is unusual in having a fishlike tail. Senmurvs represented the khvarnah (glory and good fortune) of the Kayanids, the legendary ancestors of the Sasanian dynasty, which ruled Iran and adjoining regions between the third and seventh centuries.25 Senmurvs occasionally appear in early Islamic art: for example, on a relief cut glass bowl in the al-Sabah Collection.26

Bibliography: Grabar [note 1], p. 153, no. 75; Perrot [note 1], p. 10, no. 7; Wenzel [note 1], p. 48.

10. Fragment with Figure
Formerly in the collection of Jerome Strauss (F3). ^^79.1.292^^
Max. Dim. 4 cm, D. (est., if object was a spheroid) 7–7.5 cm, Th. 0.2 cm.

Almost colorless glass, with many small bubbles; gold foil and blue enamel. The object was blown, decorated with gold foil and enamel, and cased.

The fragment, which curves in all directions, may have come from the center of a rounded base. The decoration (when seen from the outside) consists of a figure made of gold foil. She(?) is perhaps naked, except for a necklace. She sits on or leans against an indeterminate object, also made of gold foil, that might be a rock, a bank, or drapery. The figure faces right; she appears to grasp something in her left hand and to hold it in front of her face. In her right hand, she holds a small object indicated by a blue dot.

The fragment is dull and pitted, with traces of iridescent weathering between the layers of glass.

Comment: The gold foil began to break up when the overlay was applied, and this makes it difficult to interpret the scene. The gender of the figure is uncertain. The overlay is less than 0.1 cm thick.

The subject matter would be less unusual if the object were Sasanian (cf. the numerous dancing women or goddesses on Sasanian metal objects27), but the presence of the blue dot points unequivocally to its affinity with the other gold glasses described in this article.

David Whitehouse
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 50 (2008), 97–103.


164.1.32: “Recent Important Acquisitions,” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 7, 1965, pp. 122–123, no. 9. Other publications of this object include Oleg Grabar, Sasanian Silver: Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Arts of Luxury from Iran, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1967, p. 152, no. 76; Paul N. Perrot, A Tribute to Persia: Persian Glass, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1972, p. 9, no. 6; Marian Wenzel, “Islamic Gold Sandwich Glass: Some Fragments in the David Collection, Copenhagen,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1, 1988, pp. 45–72, esp. p. 47; David Whitehouse in Bruno Overlaet and others, Splendeur des Sassanides: L’Empire perse entre Rome et la Chine (224–642), Brussels: Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, 1993, p. 266, no. 115; and Stefano Carboni in Stefano Carboni and David Whitehouse, with contributions by Robert H. Brill and William Gudenrath, Glass of the Sultans, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with The Corning Museum of Glass, Benaki Museum, and Yale University Press, 2001, p. 225, no. 112.

2Grabar [note 1], p. 153, nos. 75 and 76.

3Perrot [note 1], p. 9, no. 6, and p. 10, no. 7.

4OA 1978.10-11.2: Wenzel [note 1], pl. 2, figs. 4 and 5; David Whitehouse, “Islamic Glass,” in Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Glass, ed. David Battie and Simon Cottle, Boston, Toronto, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1991, pp. 39–45, esp. p. 43; Ralph Pinder-Wilson, “The Islamic Lands and China,” in Five Thousand Years of Glass, ed. Hugh Tait, rev. ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp. 112– 143, esp. pp. 122–124; Carboni [note 1], pp. 223–224, no. 111.

5C f., among numerous examples, David Whitehouse in Carboni and Whitehouse [note 1], p. 168, no. 74, pp. 190–191, no. 95, and pp. 194–195, no. 99.

64/1987: Wenzel [note 1]. See also Kjeld von Folsach, Islamic Art: The David Collection, [Copenhagen: the collection], 1990, pp. 138 and 147, no. 231; idem, Art from the World of Islam in the David Collection, [Copenhagen: the collection], 2001, pp. 202 and 213, no. 325; and Carboni [note 1], pp. 221–222, no. 110.

76696: A. J. Butler, Islamic Pottery: A Study Mainly Historical, London: Benn, 1926, p. 71; Arthur Lane, “Medieval Finds at Al Mina in North Syria,” Archaeologia, v. 87, 1938, pp. 19– 78, esp. p. 71; Marthe Bernus-Taylor, “Le Verre dans les collections islamiques du Louvre,” in El vidrio en Al-Andalus, ed. Patrice Cressier, [Madrid]: Casa de Velázquez and [San Ildefonso]: Fundación Centro Nacional del Vidrio, 2000, pp. 43–61, esp. p. 59.

8The fragments are: 363-45/1900 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Carl Johan Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten, Forschungen zur Islamischen Kunst, no. 5, Berlin: Verlag Dietrich Reimer / Ernst Vohsen, 1929–1930, v. 1, p. 136, no. 23, and v. 2, pl. 47, no. 23); and C333-1937 and C333A-1937, also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Lane [note 7], p. 71).

965.1.33 and 74.1.50: Sidney M. Goldstein, “Old Glass, New Glass, Gold Glass: Some Thoughts on Ancient Casting Technology,” Kölner Jahrbuch für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, v. 22, 1989, pp. 115–120, esp. pp. 118–119.

10Arts of the Islamic World, sale catalog, London: Sotheby’s, April 18, 2007, pp. 70–71, lot 57.


12Wenzel [note 1], p. 46; Pinder-Wilson [note 4], p. 124, Caption of fig. 155.

13William Gudenrath, “A Survey of Islamic Glassworking and Glass-Decorating Techniques,” in Carboni and Whitehouse [note 1], pp. 46–67, esp. pp. 48–49 and 66–67, figs. 85 and 86.

14Wenzel [note 1], p. 46; von Folsach, Islamic Art [note 6], p. 138; idem, Art from the World of Islam [note 6], p. 202.

15Donald B. Harden and others, Glass of the Caesars, Milan: Olivetti, 1987, p. 267.

16Goldstein [note 9], p. 118.

17Gudenrath [note 13], pp. 49–50 and 67, figs. 87–91.

18Wenzel [note 1], p. 51; von Folsach, Islamic Art [note 6], p. 138; idem, Art from the World of Islam [note 6], p. 202. For a selection of the relevant manuscripts, see Martin Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, London: The World of Islam Trust, 1976, pls. 1–9.

19Whitehouse [note 5], pp. 159–160.

20E.g., Jens Kröger, Glas, Islamische Kunst, v. 1 (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin), Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1984, pp. 211–212, no. 185, and pp. 219–220, no. 191; Stefano Carboni, Glass from Islamic Lands, London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001, pp. 92–93, no. 23a, and pp. 102–103, no. 29.

21E.g., Carl Johan Lamm, Das Glas von Samarra, Die Ausgrabungen von Samarra, v. 4, Berlin: D. Reimer, 1928, p. 69, no. 188; Ralph Pinder-Wilson and Waffiya Ezzy, “Glass,” in Basil Gray and others, The Arts of Islam, [London]: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1976, pp. 131–146, esp. pp. 137–138, nos. 122 and 125; Kröger [note 20], pp. 211–212, no. 185; von Folsach, Islamic Art [note 6], p. 141, no. 215; idem, Art from the World of Islam [note 6], p. 205, no. 300; Whitehouse [note 5], p. 168, no. 74, and pp. 194–195, no. 99; and Sidney M. Goldstein, with contributions by J. M. Rogers, Melanie Gibson, and Jens Kröger, Glass: From Sasanian Antecedents to European Imitations, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, v. 15, London: The Nour Foundation, 2005, pp. 176–177, no. 213. Because the find-place was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate from 836 to 882, the glass from Samarra is believed to belong mainly to the ninth century.

22Whitehouse [note 4].

23Lamm [note 8], v. 1, p. 136, no. 23.

24Syria: Carboni [note 1], pp. 221–225; Syria or Mesopotamia: ibid., p. 202; Syria or Iran: von Folsach, Islamic Art [note 6], p. 147; and idem, Art from the World of Islam [note 6], p. 213; Iran: Pinder-Wilson [note 4], p. 124, caption of fig. 155.

25Boris I. Marshak, “The Decoration of Some Late Sasanian Silver Vessels and Its Subject-Matter,” in The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, ed. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998, pp. 84–92.

26Carboni [note 20], pp. 84–85, no. 19; Whitehouse [note 5], pp. 174–175, no. 81.

27E.g., Overlaet and others [note 1], pp. 224–225, nos. 74 and 75, and pp. 234–239, nos. 85–88.

Published on January 21, 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...