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A Passion Bottle by Alexandre Soudart

All About Glass

Fig. 1: Passion bottle. The Corning Museum of Glass, acc. no. 77.3.25.Since 1977, the collections of The Corning Museum of Glass have included a rather curious object.1 It is a tall, footed, cylindrical bottle of colorless glass, in which float numerous small lampworked figures suspended from buoyant glass bubbles (Fig. 1). The top of the bottle is sealed, forming a hook.

Although little more than the immediate provenance of the object was known at the time of acquisition, it has predecessors dating as early as the second half of the 17th century. These are the Florentine liquid-in-glass thermometers, which make use of a physical principle first observed and studied by Galileo Galilei. He discovered that as the temperature of water changes, the density of the water changes: the cooler the temperature, the denser the water. When the water was sufficiently cool, all of the glass balls floated at the surface. They descended one by one as the temperature increased.2

Galileo's original thermoscope was an open bottle with glass bubbles floated in water. The chiussura a fuoco or heat-sealing of the glass container was an improvement of the 17th century, after further experiments showed that measurements made with the open-stem thermometers were affected by other environmental factors, such as barometric pressure.3

Several variations of liquid-in-glass thermometers are preserved in the Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence. They were commissioned about 1660 for the Accademia del Cimento (Academy of Experiments). The vials contain small air-filled balls blown from colored glass for easier readability, with a layer of air remaining above the liquid. The choice of "spirit of wine" as a thermometric liquid, in place of water, led to a further improvement.4

The calibration of these thermometers was achieved in rather empirical fashion. A glassblower produced a relatively large number of glass bubbles and floated them in a bowl filled with ice water and salt. As the water warmed, bubbles that sank at certain intervals were selected. These thermometers were designed for comparative purposes rather than for absolute measurement. They do not respond quickly to temperature changes when they are moved from one location to another, since both water and spirit of wine are relatively slow to adjust. Therefore, these objects were called termometri infingardi or termometri lenti (slow-responding thermometers).5

Based on the same physical principle and more similar in appearance to the little floaters in the Corning bottle is something commonly known as a Cartesian diver, Cartesian devil, or bottle imp. Diderot illustrates such a diable cartésien in his 1768 treatise on physics.6 Here, the little figure is dressed in the costume of an exotic tribal king and suspended from a small glass bubble ending in a hook. The opening of the bottle is closed at the top with a membrane of sorts, tied with a string.

The Cartesian diver is defined as "a small hollow glass figure placed in a vessel of water that has an elastic cover so arranged that by an increase of pressure the water can be forced into the figure producing the effects of suspension, sinking, and floating as the pressure varies."7 In this type of buoyant figure, the slow-moving pressure adjustment to temperature change is replaced by the more immediate pressure applied through the membrane.

Figure 2The Cartesian diver, which held its fascination for centuries, naturally became an attraction at magic shows and country fairs (Fig. 2). A late 17th-century woodcut print of a poster or handbill from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) attests to this practice.8 It advertises the abilities and marvels of a traveling Dutch glassblower whose repertory included a bottle with three Cartesian divers. The text below the illustration reports that the bottle was about one foot tall, that it was filled with water, and that it contained three small figures made of glass. The advertisement announces that these figures would respond to anyone's commands, even if they were given in several languages. The gesture of the man in the illustration indicates that the bottle was of the type closed with a membrane. In America, a similar bottle, which contained a little figure in the shape of a soldier, was still being sold in 1892 as a "philosophical instrument" through James W. Queen & Co. of Philadelphia.9

The Corning bottle is unquestionably related to these "magic" containers. However, it does not resemble the bottles containing Cartesian divers and covered with a membrane. Instead, it is of the type used in the early, closed, liquid-in-glass thermometers: it is sealed at the top, and the little floaters are solid, lampworked figures without internal air traps. All of the small, colorful glass figures are associated with the symbolism of the Passion of Christ.10 There are 53 pendants in all. The canonical symbols representing the main scenes of the Passion appear repeatedly. Side by side float the chalice, or cup of suffering, which alludes to the agony in Gethsemane; the torch, lantern, and weapons, which refer to the betrayal; the ewer, basin, and cock, which denote the trial and condemnation; and the hammer, nails, pincers, ladder, reed, and Agnus Dei, which represent the Crucifixion. Another symbol found in this bottle is a glass vial, blown as three connected bubbles of decreasing size. This vial is filled with a burgundy-colored liquid, probably red wine, representing the blood of Christ.

A clue to the bottle's provenance is provided by a small silver token with an attached loop for suspension. It shows, on one side, a standing image of the Virgin Mary and the inscription "NOTRE DAME DE LIESSE" (Our Lady of Liesse). On the reverse is a cloth with the head of Christ, wearing the crown of thorns, suspended by two nails; it is surrounded by the inscription "LE STE/FACE/ DE JESUS" (The Sacred Face of Jesus). Liesse, a little town in northern France, is famous for its 11th-century wooden statue of the Virgin, which is housed in an early Romanesque church. The image is known as the "Black Madonna of Liesse," and it is believed to possess miraculous powers. Since the early Middle Ages, it has been the object of an annual pilgrimage on the Sunday of Pentecost. According to tradition, the statue was recovered in a spring after three French knights and an Islamic princess, who converted to Christianity, brought it from Egypt.11 Water from this fountain (still extant in the town of Liesse) is believed to possess healing powers, and it has been bottled and taken by the faithful.

A very close parallel to the Corning bottle is owned by the Musée de Verre in Sars-Poteries, about 60 kilometers north of Liesse.12 This museum owns many examples of so-called bousillés, playful objects and curiosities made in off-hours by glassblowers who worked in the two glasshouses operating in Sars-Poteries between 1802 and 1937. The bouteille de Passion or Passion bottle is such an object. It is recorded to have been made by the master blower Alexandre Soudart, who lived in Sars-Poteries from 1850 to 1914. Soudart was a prominent local personality with varied interests, which included founding the local glassmakers' choir, volunteering as fire chief, and setting up a glass workshop in his home. In his workshop after hours, he produced naturalistic glass eyes for animals, mercury barometers, and gifts for friends. His Passion bottles were initially made as gifts, but they became so popular that he decided to market them. Every year during Pentecost, he joined the pilgrims' march to Liesse, carrying his bottles in a basket on his back. Although he needed several days in his workshop to produce these religious souvenirs, brisk sales provided him with ample compensation for the time he spent away from the glass factory.13

The number of bottles and the number of years during which Soudart made them are unknown. At least one other bottle, which was owned by the late French novelist Colette,14 has been published. Because of the close resemblance of these bottles, it can be assumed that they were made as a series. Soudart probably selected his glass containers from those that were readily available from the local factories. Some of the footed counter jars and display bottles made by the Verreries Réunies de Sars-Poteries and advertised in a sale catalog of 1885 are quite similar in shape.15 The lampworked figures contained in the three bottles recall the same Passion symbols, from the nails and the ladder to the large vial filled with red liquid, although there are slight variations in the colors. After all, these bottles were religious souvenirs with a touch of whimsy—light-hearted personal mementos of a visit to a holy place.

Jutta-Annette Bruhn, former Curator of European Glass at The Corning Museum of Glass

This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 36 (1994), 135–139.

1. Acc. no. 77.3.25, gift of the Comtesse J. de Vogüé. H . 36.0 cm, D. (max.) 12.4 cm.

2. E.H. Brown and A.C. Brown, "Treatise on the Thermometer," The Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society, v. 12, no. 12, December 1934, p. 338.

3. The improvement is generally attributed to the Grand Duke of Tuscany himself, Ferdinand II de' Medici, in or before 1641, although it is reasonable to assume that he was inspired by Torricelli. W.E. Knowles Middleton, A History of the Thermometer and Its Use in Meteorology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 29–30.

4. O. Vittori and A. Mestiz, "Calibration of the 'Florentine Little Thermometer'," Endeavour, n.s., v. 5, no. 3. 1981, p. 114.

5. One of these instruments consists of a set of vials labeled with the numbers 1 to 6. Each vial contains a small colored glass ball carefully balanced for maximum temperature sensitivity. M.C. Cantu' and T. Settle, The Antique Instruments at the Museum of History of Science in Florence, Florence: Arnaud, 1974, p. 36.

6. D. Diderot, "Physique," L'Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers, v. 3, Paris, 1767 (reprint, Paris, 1965), pl. II, nos. 24 and 25.

7. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, s.v. "Cartesian diver."

8. The Corning Museum of Glass, the Rakow Library print collection, no. 306. For an illustration of the costume, dated 1670, see Braun and Schneider, Historic Costume in PicturesNew York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975, pl. 63.

9. James W. Queen & Co., Priced and Illustrated Catalogue of Philosophical and Electrical Apparatus, Philadelphia, 1892, nos. 4167–4170.

10. Although there were 13 Passion symbols originally, there are more today. F.R. Webber, Church Symbolism, 2nd rev. ed., Detroit, 1971, p. 136.

11. E.N. Villette, Histoire de l'image miraculeuse de Notre-Dame de Liesse, 2nd ed., Laon, 1755, p. 129.

12. L. Meriaux, "Pourquoi Sars-Poteries?," Revue de la Céramique et du Verre, v. 4, 1982, pp. 12–13.

13. I would like to express my gratitude to Louis Meriaux, director of the Musée de Verre in Sars-Poteries, who graciously provided me with pertinent information on Alexandre Soudart and illustrations of the bouteille de Passion in the museum's collections.

14. A photograph, probably taken shortly before Colette's death in 1954, shows her with her extensive paperweight collection and the bouteille de Passion in the foreground. Gerard Ingold, The Art of the Paperweight: Saint Louis, Santa Cruz: Paperweight Press, 1981, plate on p. 14. The collection was inherited by Colette's daughter, Madame de Jouvenel.

15. Verreries Réunies de Sars-Poteries (Nord) , Tarif General, Album, March 1, 1885, part 1, pl. 48.

Published on July 10, 2013