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Islamic, Byzantine, or Roman? An Unusual Fragment from the Smith Collection

All About Glass

Among the objects from the collection of Ray Winfield Smith that are in The Corning Museum of Glass, one relief-cut fragment has provoked widely divergent views about its identity.1 The object (Fig. 1), which Smith acquired in Cairo, may be described as follows:

Figure 1Fragment with eagle [55.1.148].
Greatest dimension: 7.0 cm; Th. 04–0.5 cm.

Almost colorless, with light yellowish green fracture; very small spherical bubbles. Blown or cast; wheel-cut, ground and polished.

Fragment from large object with convex outer surface. Decoration on outside relief-cut in two planes (background and surface of ornament): part of eagle and foliage. Eagle apparently shown frontally or almost so, with head turned to right: head, neck, and parts of breast and wings survive; head has curved beak and lens-shaped eye with prominent pupil; feathers on head, neck, and breast indicated by overlapping scalelike motifs, each of which is hatched with two to four wheel-cut lines; right wing displayed; position of left wing uncertain. Foliage consists of one pointed oval leaf and parts of three other leaves or stems, above and to left of eagle.

Fragment; broken on all sides. Inner surface apparently crizzled; outer (decorated) surface evidently cleaned, with no trace of crizzling.


No close parallel in glass has been found. Smith identified the fragment first as "Islamic, perhaps Egyptian, about 11th century," and later as "probably Islamic, about 8th to 11th century."2 Joseph Philippe rejected Smith's opinion and compared the bird with an eagle carved on the 11th century

Byzantine iconostasis in the church of Sv. Sofija at Ohrid in Yugoslavia.3 The nearest parallels that he could find in glass are the so-called Hedwig glasses. Relief-cut eagles are found on the intact Hedwig glasses in Minden, Kraków, Amsterdam, and London, and on the fragmentary glasses from Weinsberg and Budapest. The origin and date of the Hedwig glasses are much discussed; Philippe argued that they were made in the Byzantine Empire or in some region that was under Byzantine influence.4 For Philippe, therefore, the fragment is Byzantine.

Neither opinion is wholly convincing. As Smith himself noted, the fragment differs in style from relief-cut objects that are generally agreed to be Islamic.5 The eagle and the scrap of foliage are far more naturalistic than the birds and foliage on the Corning Ewer or any of the objects published by Lamm or by Prudence Oliver in her study of Islamic relief-cut glass.6 Similarly, on the Hedwig glasses cited by Philippe, the eagles are less naturalistic than the eagle on the fragment; indeed, with their symmetrically arranged wings, they have an almost heraldic appearance. Moreover, on the four complete examples, unlike the fragment in question, the eagles have bands of crosshatching on the neck.7

A third possibility is that the object is Roman.

This possibility is suggested by comparing the fragment with a number of Roman Staatskameen made of semiprecious stone. For example, the stance of the eagle is not unlike that of the eagles on the cameo showing the Apotheosis of Germanicus, in the Cabinet des Medailles, Paris, and on the cameo of Claudius and his family, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, both of which were carved in the first half of the first century A.D.8 In both cases, however, the eagles are modeled in low relief, and they are considerably more lifelike than the eagle on the fragment.

A closer parallel is provided by a fragmentary agate cameo in the Content Collection, which is decorated with an eagle standing between two figures grasping hands in the gesture of concordia.9 The object is believed to be Severan, and, if so, the figures are probably Severus and Caracalla, who ruled as co-emperors between A.D. 198 and 211. Here, too, however, the eagle is modeled in low relief.

Indeed, among the Staatskameen, the only analogy for both the stance of the eagle and the relief cutting in two planes is provided by the eagles on the sardonyx Ada Cameo in the Stadtbibliothek at Trier.10 The cameo depicts five members of the house of Constantine (Constantine; his mother, Helena; his wife, Fausta; the future emperor Constantine II, and Crispus), and it is dated to the late first or second quarter of the fourth century.

Late Roman relief-cut glass is uncommon but not unknown. Examples from third- and fourth-century contexts include a group of two-handled cups from Köln-Lindenthal (buried shortly after about A.D. 250), Brühl (buried about A.D. 270–280), Rheinbach-Flerzheim (buried toward the end of the third century A.D.), and Zülpich-Enzen (buried about A.D. 36o); a two-handled beaker from Trier (buried in the second half of the third century); and cameo glasses, such as the dish from Stein am Rhein-Burg (buried in the second half of the fourth century).11 On all of these objects, the relief cutting is in two planes.

The fragment from the Smith Collection is more likely, perhaps, to be Roman and of the third or fourth century A.D. than either Byzantine or Islamic.

This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 34 (1992), 156–158.

1. Acc. nos.: Smith, 625; CMG, 55.1.148.

2. Catalogue des terres antiques de la collection Ray Winfield Smith, Mariemont: Musée de Mariemont, 1954, p. 54, no. 335; Glass from the Ancient World, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1957, p. 279, no. 587.

3. Joseph Philippe, Le Monde byzantin. dans l'histoire de la verrerie (Ve-XVIe siècle), Bologna: Casa Editrice Prof. Riccardo Pàtron, 1970, p. 126.

4. Ibid., pp. 127-130.

5. Catalogue des verres antiques [note 2], p. 54, no. 335; Glass from the Ancient World [note 2], p. 279, no. 587.

6. Journal of Glass Studies, v. 28, 1986, frontispiece (the Corning Ewer); Carl Johan Lamm, Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten, v. 2, Berlin: Verlag Dietrich Reimer/ Ernst Vohsen, 1929, pls. 52–54 and 56–62; Prudence Oliver, "Islamic Relief Cut Glass: A Suggested Chronology," Journal of Glass Studies, v. 3, 1961, pp. 9–29.

7. Francis N. Allen, The Hedwig Glasses: A Survey, Hyattsville, Maryland: the author, 1987, figs. 1–3, 13, and 15.

8. W.-R. Megow, Kameen von Augustus bis Alexander Severus, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Antike Münzen und Geschnittene Steine, v. 11, Berlin: the institute, 1987, pp. 199–200, no. A80, and pp. 209–211, no. A91.

9. Martin Henig, The Content Family Collection of Ancient Cameos, Oxford, England, and Houlton, Maine: Derek J. Content Inc. and the Ashmolean Museum, 1990, p. 105, no, 178.

10. L. Schwinden, in Trier: Kaiserresidenz und Bischofssitz, Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1984, pp. 117–118.

11. Cups: Glass of the Caesars, Milano: Olivetti, 1987,p. 189, no. 99, with references to the other objects; beaker: Karin Goethert-Polaschek, Katalog der römischen Gläser des Rheinischen Landesmuseums Tn'er, (Trierer Grabungen und Forschungen), v. 9, Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1977, p. 47, no. 144; cameo glass: David Whitehouse, "Late Roman Cameo Glass," Annales du 11e Congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre, Bâle / 29aoflt—3 septembre 1988, Amsterdam, 1990, pp. 193–198.

Published on April 2, 2013