Qantara Qantara


In Byzantium

Early Byzantine glass objects were hardly different from the traditional glass productions during Late Antiquity. While our knowledge of the workshops from these epochs is scarce, it is highly probable that there were a certain number in Constantinople or that there were glasswork quarters and a glass gateway that was connected to the manufacture or commerce of glass. In 438, the Codex Theodosianus stipulated that glassmakers who shape glass should be exempt from paying taxes. While the presence of significant quantities of beakers for wine and lamps discovered among the finds of the excavation at Saint Polyeucte (Saraçhane Camii) in Constantinople supports the hypothesis that there was indeed a local production of glass during the 6th and 7th centuries, the role of the capital in the glass industry remains unclear. For these periods, the productions we know most about are from the Empire’s provinces: small blown glass flasks either cast or engraved, decorated with Jewish or Christian symbols from Syria and Palestine, and the common objects made of glass found in Sardis in Anatolia and at Čaricin Grad in Serbia. It would seem that productions of glass in the capital lasted all the way through the 9th and 10th centuries—The Posthumous Miracles of St. Photeine reports that there was a fire in a glass-making workshop situated on the road leading to Stategion in the church of Hagia Sophia. 

In Corinth, two glass-making workshops were discovered in 1937. Initially identified as Byzantine workshops dating from the 11th to 12th centuries, we now know that they were active when the city passed into the hands of the Latins, and that their production, of a rustic style, dates from the late 13th-early 14th century. These workshops were implanted near the market place, in the heart of the artisans’ quarter with its concentration of boutiques and workshops. The glass was of the utmost quality, with no trace of impurities. As virtually no badly fired pieces were found, we can assume that the glassmakers—probably Italian—had perfect mastery of their art. A square plan furnace, 2.38m long, was found on the site. It had three levels: a heating chamber surmounted by a melting chamber in which the glass pieces fuse at a temperature of 800°C, a thick partition separating it from the upper level where the vases cool down. Glass was composed of soda, lime and silica and tinted with oxides of iron, copper and manganese. Indeed, lime, fragments of quartz, as well as battitura of copper and scoria of iron were found next to the furnace. Vases with smooth sides found on the site were blown without a mould; most of the glass pieces, however, were first blown inside moulds carved with motifs and then a second time without them. The glass-making industry of Corinth encompassed primarily the mass production of drinking vessels—cast and blown, some with and some without impressed designs—and decanters or jugs for everyday use. Some vases carried engraved, stamped or painted decorations—but only a minority. The Diversarum Artium Schedula, written in the West by the monk Theophilus in the early 12th century, offers a number of directives on the process of manufacturing luxury Byzantine glass objects. According to his text, “The Greeks made precious goblets decorated with gold (…) [with] circles and in these circles images, animals, birds, all quite varied (…). They also made purple and light blue goblets”.  

There were in fact coloured glasses in Byzantium that are decorated with gold or painted ornamentation combined with polychrome enamels to trace flourishes embellished with animals or figures, inscribed within medallions. The most famous piece is the purple enamelled goblet decorated with a mythological scene, in conservation at Saint Mark’s in Venice. Its attribution to a workshop in Constantinople during the Macedonian epoch is highly probable, although still subject to caution. Other, similar pieces—small cylindrical flasks with very structured zoomorphic and geometric motifs in registers, have been discovered in Corinth, in Cypress, in Novogrudok in the northwest region of Russia, and at Dvin in Armenia. They date from the 11th century. Vases with disks, lamps, beakers and goblets in thick, transparent glass with sides decorated with raised disks, points and concave circles, productions that closely resemble rock crystal objects from antiquity or Sassanid Persia, were perhaps also manufactured in the capital’s workshops in the 11th century. Over all, Byzantium largely produced were more or less deep beakers that served as vases, slightly concave dishes, small cylindrical flasks, drinking glasses and bottles with long necks, as well as lamps, all of shapes recurrent in the Mediterranean basin. To these productions, we can add vases with simple decorations made with wire appliqué set around the entire surface of the belly, or sometimes covered over with bands of raised points. During the middle Byzantine era, patens, chalices and lamps for the shrine used in an ecclesiastic context did not stand out from other such vessels by having Christian symbols, as in the case of Early-Christian productions.  Amulets cast in glass, bracelets in spun glass, glass beads, small jewellery and cameo glass carvings were also part of the productions of the period. Finally, in the 15th century, the glass-making workshops found in Thessalonika manufactured reliquary flasks, made for receiving the myron of the tomb of Saint Demetrius.

Glass also played an important role in the art of Byzantine mosaics with the use of tesserae of coloured glass, employed in mass during the Empire, spanning from the 6th to the 14th century. One tessera weighed about 5 grams while a full mosaic, like that made during the Justinian period for the church of Hagia Sophia, employed up to 400 tonnes of glass. The finds of fragments of painted and tinted stained glass, along with a number of lead cames in the churches of Pantokrator (Zeyrek Camii) and Saint-Sauveur in Chora (Kariye Camii), Constantinople, are a fine illustration of the Byzantine art of stained glass from the early 12th century. Digs at the E church of Sardes have also delivered fine specimens of stained glass—some thirty panes in coloured glass from the13th century.

V. F.


In Islam

In antiquity, the Mediterranean basin saw numerous technical and artistic innovations especially as far as glass was concerned. The main workshops were first set up in Mesopotamia, then in Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome and Byzantium. Glass was discovered in Mesopotamia in the second half of the third millennium BC and it is thanks to Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis Historia that we know its composition. It is made out of silica (sand), soda (alkaline base, also known as natron) and lime (contained in sand)[1]. The first few pieces were made at a low temperature using sophisticated techniques such as pressing into a mould, which made the manufacture of beads possible, the “core-wound” technique or mosaic glass. During the Roman era, the art of glass reached its peak with a major discovery: cane-blown glass. This technique was probably invented in Sidon, Phoenicia, in the first century BC. Glass blowers of the time knew how to build kilns that allowed for a complete fusion of the different components of glass – at a temperature of 1420° C.

In ancient times, glassblowers produced both tinted and translucent glass[2]. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (fifth century AD), when the exchanges between East and West became rare, Western European glassmakers no longer to produce high-quality objects. They could no longer import the raw materials that for the most part came from the region of the Belus River (Syria, Lebanon) or from Egypt. The know-how was gradually lost. In the Eastern Mediterranean on the other hand, glassmakers improved on ancient techniques. The advent of Islam left the artisanal structures untouched. Most of the techniques found in Muslim regions come from antiquity. However, they were much improved and until the fifteenth century the Middle East was the main producer of luxury glass[3].

The Umayyads (660–750) carried on the glassmaking tradition that they had inherited from antiquity, but made certain techniques their own, for example, the gold-backed mosaic that came from the Byzantine world and was used in the ornamentation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem[4]. Very few objects from that time have survived, except those which were commonly used. Those that were kept show the Umayyad production was coherent, for example, a small blown glass globe-shaped vase[5] adorned with a thin line on which five circles bearing a stylised embossed bird design[6] were added.

The glass industry entered a very prosperous era during the Abbasid dynasty (eighth to tenth centuries). Several techniques and objects were revived, for example, the “core-wound” technique. Just like in ancient times, the glassmaker produced small bottles starting with a clay shape that gave the shape of the inside of the object. A metal rod was inserted in the clay and the whole thing was then plunged into molten glass. The craftsman then turned the object round to even out the glass surface. Once the object had cooled, the rod was removed and the inside core was pulverised[7].

Mosaic glass (later know as millefiori glass because of its multicoloured aspect)[8] was also used in architectural decoration or in hollow vessels. The objects were created from glass canes or segments cold assembled and then fused. A fragment of a bowl found on the site of Samarra[9] and an amazing bowl from the al-Sabah collection[10] are amongst the finest examples of that technique.

Lustred glass made a comeback. Silver- or copper-based paint was applied to the cooled object, which was then fired in order to fix the colour which ranged from yellow to brown depending on the temperature. The surface of a cup from the al-Sabah collection made with that technique is decorated with a design which seems to depict a griffin hunt[11].

In Israel, blown-glass vessels engraved or carved with geometric designs were found. The Corning Museum of Glass has a complete bottle[12] in its collections. Another fertile period for glass was during the Fatimid dynasty (tenth to twelfth centuries)[13]. In some cases, glass was blown and cut like rock crystal. It was worked in relief with a grindstone and abrasive powders. Glassmakers combined this Roman technique with that of cameo glass, also a Roman technique. They created exceptional objects by layering two colours of glass, a lighter one under a darker and thinner one. The glass cutting made the relief decoration appear[14].

Some blown-glass objects feature amazing decorations made out of gold leaf accented with pale blue enamel sandwiched between two coats of translucent glass fused together. This is known as sandwich glass. One of the rare surviving examples that is almost intact is a bottle[15].

From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, at first during the Ayyubid era and then during the Mamluk era, marvered bottles and vessels came back in fashion. Their colours varied but were usually dark. They were blown, then rolled on marble. During that operation thin glass lines, often white, were encrusted and “combed” with a toothed implement in order to form various patterns. It is that technique that can be admired on the Durighiello bottle[16].

The famous production of gilt and enamelled glasses developed until the fourteenth century. These outstanding objects were aimed at high-ranking clients. There are bowls, bottles, vases and lamps (for mosques, mausoleums or madrasahs) similar to the one in the Metropolitan Museum[17]. That technique, derived from the use of enamel on precious metals, was already in existence in Egypt and Syria during the Roman era. The object is first blown, then enamel is painted on with a brush. Enamel is made out of very fine vitrifiable powders coloured by oxides, which can be fired and melt at very low temperatures because of their fusible base. A kind of oil is added to these powders to act as a fixative. The firing of the enamelled piece is a delicate process and the temperature must never reach above 600° C. These prestigious pieces – some of them brought back from the Crusades – proved very popular in the West.

In 1453 the conquest of Constantinople brought various glass objects and techniques to the West by way of Venice, and these enhanced the know-how of Western craftsmen. Venice and its Murano glassmakers became a benchmark for the manufacturing of everyday as well as prestigious objects. That is when the production of Aldrevandini beakers[18], inspired by Middle Eastern enamelled glass objects[19], began. From then on the export route was reversed and went from the West to the Middle East rather than the other way around as had been the case until then. After Venetian glass, other European glass products delighted the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. From then on the remaining workshops of the Eastern Mediterranean regions only manufactured everyday objects, with few exceptions.



Arveiller, V. “Le verre dans l’Empire romain”. Pour la Science (August 2006).

Bellanger, J. Histoire du verre : l’aube des temps modernes 1453-1672. Paris: Massin, 2006.

Bernus-Taylor, M. “Le verre dans les collections islamiques du Louvre”. In Cressier, P., ed. El vidrio en al-Andalus. Casa de Velázquez/Fundación Centre Nacional del Vidrio, n. d.

Carboni, S. Glass from Islamic Lands. London / Kuwait City: Thames & Hudson / Kuwait National Museum, 2001.

Charleston, R. J. Masterpieces of Glass, a World History from the Corning Museum of Glass. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Clairmont, C.W. Catalogue of Ancient and Islamic Glass. Athens: Benaki Museum, 1977.

Contadini, A. Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Publications, 1998.

Du Pasquier, J. Histoire du verre, les chefs d’œuvres de l’Islam. Paris: Massin, 2007.

Glass of the Sultans. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Lamm, C. J. Mittelalterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten. Vol. 2. Berlin: Verlag Dietrichreimer , 1929.

L’Orient de Saladin, l’art des Ayyoubides. Exh. cat. Paris: Gallimard / Institut du monde arabe, 2001.

Mamluk Enamelled and Gilded Glass in the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar. Exh. cat. London: Museum of Islamic Art / The Islamic Art Society, 2003.

Sasanian Silver, Late Antique and Early Medieval Arts of Luxury From Iran. Exh. cat. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1967.

Stierlin, H. L’Art de l’Islam en Méditerranée, d’Istanbul à Cordoue. Paris: Gründ, 2005.

Tait, H. Five Thousand Years of Glass. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Venise et l’Orient 828-1797. Exh. cat. Paris: Gallimard/Institut du Monde Arabe, 2006.

Vidrio islamico en al-Andalus. Exh. cat. La Granja: Real Fabrica de Cristales, 2006.

Ward, R. Gilded and Enamelled Glass from the Middle East. London: British Museum Press, 1998.

Wiet, G. Catalogue général du Musée Arabe du Caire : Lampes et bouteilles en verre émaillé. Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1929.


[1] V. Arveiller, “Le verre dans l’Empire romain”, Pour la Science

(August 2006): 55.

[2] Copper made it go from turquoise to dark red, cobalt turned it dark blue, iron made it go from brown to amber, manganese discoloured it.

[3] Although glass was discovered in the Middle East, from antiquity the technique travelled beyond the Mediterranean. In Central Asia and especially Iran, different decorations were invented. In turn, they added to the range of Islamic glassmakers, who already mastered a vast array of techniques.

[4] H. Stierlin, L’Art de l’Islam en Méditerranée, d’Istanbul à Cordoue (Paris: Gründ, 2005), 26–27.

[5] Toledo Museum of Art, inv.1923–2215; cf. J. Du Pasquier, Histoire du verre, les chefs d’œuvre de l’Islam (Paris: Massin, 2007), 18–19.

[6] This design is another example of the exchanges and emulation that went on beyond the Mediterranean area. It seems to have been inspired by Sasanian representations of birds. See, for example, the catalogue of the exhibition Sasanian Silver, Late Antique and Early Medieval Arts of Luxury From Iran (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1967), 121–23, n. 39, a silver cup from the private collection of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, New York. The bottom of the cup bears a similar design. Numerous Islamic objects made out of other materials used designs on that theme.

[7] Amongst the objects is a small bottle from the Musée du Louvre, inv. AA144; cf. M. Bernus-Taylor, “Le Verre dans les collections islamiques du Louvre”, in P. Cressier, ed. El vidrio en al-Andalus (Casa de Velázquez/Fundación Centre Nacional del Vidrio, n. d.), 45.

[8] The term is used for Venetian glass produced with this technique from the late fifteenth century in H. Tait, Five Thousand Years of Glass (London: British Museum Press, 1995), 163.

[9] Berlin, Islamische Kunst Museum, inv. sam. 309; D. Whitehouse, in Glass of the Sultans, 148. This fragment is similar to smaller ones kept in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. OA 735/44 and OA 7735/45).

[10] Ninth-century bowl, probably Iraqi-made unusual by its colours and ornamentation. Kuwait City, Dar al-Athar al-Islāmiyyah, inv. LNS 63 G; D. Whitehouse, in Glass of the Sultans. Exh. cat. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), 150.

[11] Blown-glass cup, inv. LNS 319 G; in S. Carboni, Glass from Islamic Lands, the Al-Sabah Collection (London / Kuwait City: Thames & Hudson / Kuwait National Museum, 2001), 54–55.

[12] Inv. 68.1.1.; in Glass of the Sultans, 167.

[13] At the same time as those luxurious creations take place a more modest production exits that of bottles with pincered decoration, which combines unusual shapes and sometimes varied colours. See, for example, a small bottle kept in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It comprises two parts: a light green base is with a pincered motif (inv. 08.138.2.) and a dark blue upper section. See S Carboni, in Glass of the Sultans, 102

[14] L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Inv. G.25-69, in Glass of the Sultans, 182.

[15] British Museum, London, unspecified inv. Histoire du verre, les chefs d’œuvre de l’Islam, 101.

[16] British Museum, London, inv. 1978.10-11.2. Cf. Histoire du verre, les chefs d’œuvre de l’Islam, 80.

[17] Inv. 17.190.991. cf. Glass of the Sultans, 232–34.

[18] Name inspired by one of the first artists to sign his piece “Aldrevandinus”. See Histoire du verre, 130–35.

[19] Similar to the one in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, inv. 6770.