All About Glass

You are here

An Unusual Fragment of Cameo Glass

All About Glass

The subject of this note is a fragment of cameo glass [59.1.509] (Figs. 1 and 2), now in The Corning Museum of Glass, that was formerly in the collection of Ray Winfield Smith.1 It was shown in the 1957 exhibition Glass from the Ancient World as part of a group of early Islamic cameo glass, which Smith attributed to the ninth and 10th centuries.2


The fragment appears to have come from either the shoulder of a bottle or the lower wall of a bowl.3 It is 6.5 centimeters across, and when a rib at the junction of the supposed shoulder and the wall is in a horizontal plane, the height of the fragment is 4.8 centimeters and the rib has a diameter of about 12.0 centimeters. The base glass is almost colorless with a yellowish green tinge, and the overlay is transparent brownish yellow. The object was blown, the overlay was applied (perhaps as a narrow horizontal strip), and the outer surface was extensively cold-worked.

The shoulder is rounded, and the upper wall, of which very little survives, appears to be straight. The decoration is relief-cut, and, on the upper shoulder, it consists of parts of three adjoining colorless swags embellished with notches, which appear to be part of a continuous band of nine or 10 swags surrounding the neck or rim. The lower shoulder has two oval bosses separated by one circular boss, which may be explained as parts of a continuous horizontal band of alternating oval and circular bosses. The bosses have yellow overlays. The overlays on the oval bosses are thick and brownish yellow, while the overlay on the circular boss is thin and yellow. It seems reasonable to assume that the different thicknesses of the overlays were intentional so that, when the object was complete, brown ovals alternated with yellow circles. At the junction of the shoulder and the wall is a colorless horizontal rib. Beneath the rib, the upper wall bears part of what may be the top of a colorless animal’s head, with a circular eye in a countersunk tear-shaped element.4

The fragment is broken on all sides. The surfaces of the colorless glass and the overlays on the oval bosses are almost as new, but the overlay on the circular boss is pitted.

Figure 1Figure 2


Many of Smith’s fragments of Islamic glass, including dozens of fragments of cameo glass, were acquired in Egypt, and the almost immaculate condition of this fragment might be explained by assuming that it was found in Egypt, where arid conditions favor the preservation of glass.

Smith regarded the fragment as Islamic and of the ninth or 10th century. Although one might quibble about the date, his view that it was made in the Islamic world is entirely plausible. The swags, for example, are notched in a manner that is characteristic of many early Islamic relief-cut glasses, and the band of alternating circular and oval bosses recalls the borders above and below the register of vegetal ornament on a Fatimid rock crystal bottle in the cathedral at Astorga in the province of Leon, Spain.5 The fragmentary motif below the rib may be part of the head of an animal similar to the heads of the lions on a 10th- to 11th-century glass bowl in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice.6

Nevertheless, despite the occurrence of similar details on glass and rock crystal objects that were made in the Islamic world, the general appearance of the fragment is sufficiently unlike that of most Islamic cameo glass to raise the possibility that it may have originated elsewhere.7 Another possible attribution is to Byzantium, although the scarcity of well-dated Middle Byzantine glass and hard stone vessels makes it very difficult to pursue this possibility. The bosses do vaguely recall the cabochons that adorn some Middle Byzantine metal mounts,8 but the similarities are too generic to carry conviction.

This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 50 (2008), 309–311.


1Acc. no. 59.1.509.

2Glass from the Ancient World: The Ray Winfield Smith Collection, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1957, p. 285, no. 610. The fragment (Smith’s no. 1076) was neither described nor illustrated in the catalog, and the purpose of this note is to draw attention to it, in the hope that readers will tell me about similar objects that have escaped my attention.

3For the purposes of this note, the description and illustrations are based on the assumption that the fragment is from the upper part of a bottle, with swags surrounding the neck. It is possible, however, that the object came from the lower part of a bowl, with swags surrounding the foot.

4The identification of the decoration on the wall as part of an animal’s head is, of course, possible only if the fragment came from the upper part of a bottle or bottlelike vessel.

5See, most recently, Manuel Casamar and Fernando Valdes Fernandez, “Les Objets egyptiens en crystal de roche dans al-Andalus: Elements pour une reflection archeologique,” in L’Egypte fatimide: Son art et son histoire, ed. Marianne Barrucand, Paris: Presses de l’Universite de Paris–Sorbonne, 1999, pp. 367–382, esp. p. 371 and fig. 13 on p. 374.

6Procuratoria di San Marco, Venice, inv. no. 117: 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, pp. 178–179, no. 84.

7Ibid., pp. 182–185, nos. 87–90.

8A. Grabar, “Calici bizantini e patene bizantine medievali,” in Il Tesoro di San Marco, v. 2, Il Tesoro e il Museo, ed. H. R. Hahnloser, Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1971, pp. 55–90, esp. p. 63, no. 47; p. 65, no. 53; pp. 66–68, nos. 56 and 59; and p. 70, no. 64.

Published on January 22, 2013