Hedwig Beakers

Hedwig Beakers

Hedwig beakers form a small but famous group of vessels. They share several characteristics: the same form (they are beakers with a straight, tapering side), the same finishing techniques (they were decorated by cutting), and the same shallow faceting of the upper wall in order to display the ornament in relief. The beakers range in height from 8.3 to 14.6 centimeters. All are colorless or nearly colorless. The repertoire of motifs is varied: lions, eagles, griffins, and the tree of life are recurrent elements, but we also find a chalice, a crescent moon and stars, palmettes, and abstract or geometric motifs.

Hedwig beaker

According to separate traditions, two of these beakers are associated with the wife of Duke Henry I of Silesia and Poland, Saint Hedwig (1174–1243), who was canonized in 1267—hence the collective names for such objects: Hedwigsgläser (Hedwig glasses) and, more recently, Hedwigsbecher (Hedwig beakers).

The legend of Saint Hedwig is described in a manuscript written at the court of Duke Ludwig I of Liegnitz and Brieg in 1353. According to the legend, Duke Henry criticized his pious wife for her ascetic habits and in particular for drinking water instead of wine. Determined to make her change her ways, he unexpectedly confronted her while she was dining and snatched the cup from her hand. When he drank from the cup, he realized that the water it contained had been transformed into wine. One tradition associates this miracle with the Hedwig beaker in the cathedral at Cracow, Poland, while another associates it with a beaker formerly in the National Museum in Wrocław, Poland, which disappeared in 1944.

Thirteen %%Hedwig beakers%% are, or once were, in church treasuries in Europe. Fragments of up to 11 others have been found in archeological excavations, all in Europe. Two of the beakers that have survived above %%ground%%, in the treasury of the monastery of Saint Nicolas d’Oignies, preserved in the convent of the Soeurs de Nôtre Dame in Namur, Belgium, are said to have arrived as gifts of Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre from 1216 to 1226 (although the list of the bishop’s gifts does not specify any glass). They have mounts made in and after 1228. One of the excavated fragments, from Novogrudok, Belarus, is reported to have come from a 12th-century context; another fragment, from Hilpoltstein, Germany, was found in a context attributed to the years 1170–1180, while a third, from Pistoia, Italy, is from a deposit datable to the decades around 1300. Thus the known find-places of %%Hedwig beakers%% are in Europe, and the earliest datable examples belong to the 12th or early 13th century.

From the moment the %%Hedwig beakers%% attracted scholarly attention, the place of their manufacture has been the subject of considerable debate. The following paragraphs contain a list of suggested places of manufacture, together with brief comments. The list is long: (1) the Islamic world, (2) Novogrudok, (3) Byzantium, (4) central Europe, (5) southern Italy, (6) the Latin East, and (7) Sicily.

1. The Islamic world. Several scholars have compared the ornament on Hedwig glasses with that of rock crystal objects made in Egypt during the reign of the Fatimids (969–1171) and concluded that the beakers were made in the Islamic world: in Egypt, Syria, or Iran. However, no fragment of a Hedwig glass has been reported from Egypt or Western Asia, despite the recovery of many hundreds, if not thousands, of relief-cut glass fragments from Fustāt, Nishapur, and other places. In any case, Hedwig glasses, which have thick walls and are boldly cut, are unlike almost all Islamic glass and rock crystal objects, most of which have paper-thin walls and fine lines.

2. Novogrudok. The discovery of a fragmentary Hedwig glass and, “nearby,” a small piece of unworked glass of the same color led B. A. Shelkovnikov (1966, pp. 109–112) to reject the view that the glasses are Islamic and to attribute them to a local workshop. Nevertheless, we may discount the possibility that the Hedwig glasses were made at Novogrudok on the grounds that the find-place is some 400 miles/640 kilometers from the next specimen (in the cathedral at Cracow) and it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which objects made in Belarus reached sites in Germany and Italy.

3. Byzantium. The notion that %%Hedwig beakers%% are Byzantine derives from three hypotheses. The first of these is that the beakers were among luxury items produced at Constantinople and from time to time sent as gifts to rulers in the West. The second hypothesis maintains that they were brought to western Europe as part of the dowry of Theophanu, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces, when she married the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II in 972. Finally, Joseph Philippe (1970, pp. 125–141) and others noted that booty from the sack of Constantinople in 1204, preserved in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice, includes a number of relief-cut glasses. However, only one of these objects (a bowl decorated with lions: Glass of the Sultans 2001, pp. 178–179, no. 84) even remotely resembles a Hedwig glass, and, in any case, scholars are still undecided about the date and origin of many of the San Marco glasses. The evidence in favor of the view that %%Hedwig beakers%% are Byzantine, therefore, is purely circumstantial.

4. Central Europe. More recently, some scholars have maintained that the %%Hedwig beakers%% were made in central Europe and are medieval or, in most %%cases%%, modern. We may safely reject the explanation that they are modern. Seven of the glasses have 13th- to 15th-century metal mounts, and archeological excavations have yielded additional examples from medieval contexts.

Similarly, despite the exclusively European distribution of the Hedwig glasses, the explanation that they were made in central or eastern Europe in the Middle Ages is untenable. Chemical analyses of six examples show that they are made of soda-lime glass, and this alone would render them very unusual if they had been made in Europe in the later medieval period, when glassmakers habitually produced potash glasses.

5. Southern Italy. The late Basil Gray believed that the technique used to finish the %%Hedwig beakers%% was derived from Islamic glass cutters. At the same time, he was puzzled by the wholly un-Islamic distribution of the surviving examples. Consequently, Gray sought an origin in one of the melting pots of Mediterranean cultures: southern Italy. Hedwig glasses, he maintained (in a colloquium at Basel in 1988), were made in the reign of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II (1194–1250), either in Sicily or on the mainland of southern Italy. Later, Ralph Pinder-Wilson (1991, p. 128) likened the lions, eagles, and griffins on some %%Hedwig beakers%% to the same creatures “seen on the exteriors and interiors of the churches of south Italy.”

6. The Latin East. Axel von Saldern (1996, pp. 239–242) suggested that the beakers were made in the Latin East at the time of the Crusades and were taken to Europe by crusaders, pilgrims, or merchants. He noted that tradition associates the two %%Hedwig beakers%% at Namur with Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre between 1216 and 1226 (but see above), and that a fragment excavated on the site of the royal palace in Budapest may have been brought home by King Andrew II, who collected relics in the Holy Land in 1217. In this context, it is noteworthy that Karl Hans Wedepohl (2005) and Wedepohl and others (2007), on the basis of chemical analyses of six %%Hedwig beakers%% and their similarity to analyses of certain Islamic low-magnesium soda-ash glasses, concluded that the objects were made in the Levant. We know, however, that raw glass was exported from the Levant between the 11th and 13th centuries, and so the conclusion that the raw glass was made in the Levant is not necessarily at odds with the view that the beakers were produced elsewhere (see below).

7. Sicily. Despite the similarities that unite the Hedwig glasses, their ornament falls into two distinct groups: (A) beakers decorated with, among other things, one or two lions, plus an eagle and/or a griffin, or a “tree of life” motif; and (B) beakers decorated with palmettes, crescents, or geometric motifs, but neither animals nor birds. All four of the main motifs in Group A have Christological significance. Hedwig glasses, therefore, are not only un-Islamic in form and execution, but at least some of them are also non-Islamic in purpose. Indeed, so appropriate are the form and (in Group A) the decoration for incorporation in monstrances and chalices that it is logical to infer that this was their primary function; indeed, in Groups A and B, seven Hedwig glasses are known to have served these purposes by the 15th century, and the feet of six others are notched for attachment to %%metal%% mounts. Thus, we may reasonably suspect that the owners of Hedwig glasses were Christian.

Recently, a number of rock crystal objects have been associated with the nobiles officinae (noble workshops) at the court of the Norman kings at Palermo, Sicily. Rudolf Distelberger (2004, pp. 109–113) and Rosemarie Lierke (2005) attributed rock crystal vessels to the Palermo workshops and noted that the facets on some of them are similar to the facets on the %%Hedwig beakers%%. Indeed, the %%Hedwig beakers%%, he concluded, are Sicilian (Distelberger 2005; see also Jens Kröger 2006). If this is so, they were made with raw glass imported from the Levant (William of Tyre, writing before 1185, noted that “the glass [of Tyre] is exported to distant provinces, and it provides material suitable for vessels that are remarkable and of outstanding clarity”: Carboni, Lacerenza, and Whitehouse 2003, p. 146).

While there are parallels in Apulia for images on %%Hedwig beakers%%, equally close or closer parallels are found in the decoration of buildings constructed by the Norman kings of Sicily (Tronzo 1997). The ceiling mosaic of the Stanza Normanna in the Norman palace at Palermo, for example, includes lions, griffins, and an eagle that resemble the creatures on some of the %%Hedwig beakers%%. The %%mosaic%%, and perhaps the beakers, were made in the reign of William II (1166–1189).

Thus it is attractive to attribute the %%Hedwig beakers%% to Sicily, perhaps during the reign of William II. If this is correct, can we explain the presence of most of these Sicilian objects in central Europe? The answer is, yes. In 1177, William II arranged the marriage of his aunt, Constance, to Henry VI, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, whose family, the Hohenstaufen, were extraordinarily powerful in central Europe. Henry became king of Sicily in 1194. The “migration” of Palermitan luxury goods to central Europe in the late 12th century, therefore, is explicable in terms of Constance’s dowry when she married Henry, or of the subsequent movement of treasures between the many branches of the Hohenstaufen family. The earliest archeological find of a Hedwig beaker, from Hilpoltstein, discovered in a context attributed to the years 1170–1180, is consistent with this hypothesis.


Carboni, Lacerenza, and Whitehouse 2003

Stefano Carboni, Giancarlo Lacerenza, and David Whitehouse, “Glassmaking in Medieval Tyre: The Written Evidence,” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 45, 2003, pp. 139-149.

Distelberger 2004

Rudolf Distelberger, “Die Gefässe aus Bergkristall,” in Nobiles Officinae: Die königlichen Hofwerkstätten zu Palermo zur Zeit der Normannen und Staufer im 12. und 13 Jahrhundert, ed. Wilfried Seipel, Milan: Skira, 2004, pp. 109-113.

Distelberger 2005

Rudolf Distelberger, “Die Hedwigsbecher und die Steinschneidekunst,” in Rosemarie Lierke, Die Hedwigsbecher: Das normannische-sizilische Erbe der staufischen Kaiser, Mainz: Rutzen, 2005, pp. 83-94.

Glass of the Sultans 2001

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 collaboration with The Corning Museum of Glass, Benaki Museum, and Yale University Press, 2001.

Kröger 2006

J. Kröger, “The %%Hedwig Beakers%%: Medieval European Glass Vessels Made in Sicily around 1200,” in The Phenomenon of “Foreign” in Oriental Art, ed. A. Hagedorn, Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2006, pp. 27-46.

Lierke 2005

     Rosemarie Lierke, Die Hedwigsbecher.  Das normannisch-sizilische Erbe der staufischen  

     Kaiser, Mainz: VErlag Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2005.

Philippe 1970

Joseph Philippe, Le Monde byzantine dans l’histoire de la verrerie (Ve-XVIe siècle), Bologna: R. Pàtron, 1970.

Pinder-Wilson 1991

Ralph Pinder-Wilson, “The Islamic Lands and China,” in Five Thousand Years of Glass, ed. Hugh Tait, London: British Museum Press, 1991, pp. 112-143.

Saldern 1996

Axel von Saldern, “Early Islamic Glass in the Near East: Problems of Chronology and Provenances,” AnnAIHV, v. 13, Pays Bas, 1995 (Lochem, 1996), pp. 225-246.           

Shelkovnikov 1966

B.A. Shelkovnikov, “Russian Glass from the 11th to the 17th Century,” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 8, 1966, pp. 95-115.

Tronzo 1997

William Tronzo, The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Wedephol 2003

Karl Hans Wedepohl, Glas in Antike and Mittelalter: Geschichte eines Werkstoffs, Stuttgart: Schweizerbart’sche Verlasbuchlandlung, 2003.

Wedepohl and others 2007

Karl Hans Wedepohl and others, “A Hedwig Beaker Fragment from Brno (Czech Republic),” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 49, 2007, pp. 266-268.

Published on November 1, 2011

About the Author

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...
more