When exploring art galleries and museums it always amazes me that so many rare and fragile items have survived from the Middle Ages.
The fact that so much survives is possibly due to old customs of burying the dead together with their personal possessions.
The objects found, ranging from simple household goods to luxury glass items, now form the core of many museum collections, providing us with endless opportunities for the study of medieval life.
The Lycurgus Cup – One Cup Two Colours – Roman Glass-making at its Best
Roman glass makers of the 4th and 5th centuries AD were highly skilled craftsmen who created items such as the Lycurgus cup, a rare surviving example of a ‘cage’ cup, now in the British Museum.
At this time, glass makers and glass workers were two separate professions. Glass makers made large quantities of glass by melting raw materials in tank furnaces. Glass workers would use cutting wheels and hand tools to cut away parts of a very thick, undecorated, blank vessel leaving an openwork cage in which a container sat.
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One cup – two colours: the Lycurgus cup changes colour, from opaque green to translucent red, when light shines through it. Small particles of gold and silver suspended in the glass create this unusual optical effect.
The cage shows scenes depicting the death of the mythical Lycurgus, a king of the Thracians. Legend tells that Lycurgus attacked Dionysos, Greek god of wine, and one of his followers. His punishment was entrapment in the branches of a gravevine. Sitting on a circular silver-gilt base with open-work vine leaves, the cup has a silver-gilt band of leaf ornament around the rim.
The Mucking Claw Beaker
While 4th and 5th century Romans glass makers were working with dichroic glass English artisans were creating cups known as claw beakers, so named because of the claws applied to the side of the vessel.
The Mucking Claw Beaker, dating from the early fifth century, is an example of this technique, and comes from a burial site in Essex, England.
Broken and restored, this translucent pale green beaker is not such a lucky survivor as the Lycurgus cup. It has significant damage to the rim and base. The body of the cup has vertical walls with eight claws applied in two rows.
Glass Beaker from Gotland
From Gotland in Sweden we have another translucent olive-green beaker dating from the 5th century.
This conical beaker with its flared mouth and rounded base is not in perfect condition.
According to Sonja Marzinzik, in Masterpieces Early Medieval Art, glass pieces like this were a rare import to Sweden. They were prestigious articles often used in ceremonial drinking practices.
The beaker found its way to England in the collection of Scottish antiquarian James Curle.
Fascinated by Gotlandic archaeology Curle made a number of visits to Gotland, acquiring this beaker in 1891.
Sutri Drinking Horn from the Mediterranean Region
From a burial site in Sutri, Italy, we have the powder-blue Sutri Horn dating from the late 6th century.
The colour may come from cobalt in the glass, a commodity easily found in the area either by melting down mosaic tesserae or from recycled glass.
The horn has applied self-coloured lattice-work around the neck and a thin line of opaque white glass trailing around the body forming a pointed tip. Drinking horns were popular throughout Europe but the trailing white glass decoration suggests this one comes from the Mediterranean region.
Frankish Palm Cup – Vibrant Blue-Green Drinking Cup
One of the most attractive survivals from the Middle Ages is the Frankish Palm Cup.
Coming from Reims, France, and dating from the 7th century, this beautiful translucent, pale blue-green vessel has spiralling trails of vibrant red glass.
With a rounded base these cups cannot stand up, but once empty they rest on their side.
Palm cups were popular during the late 6th and 7th centuries with many being found in medieval cemeteries in Germany, France and Belgium.
More than fifty survive from English find sites. Often buried in pairs, the cups bring to mind the notion of community and communal drinking. This piece of medieval glass looks surprisingly modern.
The Palmer Cup – A High Status Object
Another fine example of medieval glass is the Palmer Cup. Coming from either Syria or Egypt, the clear glass goblet dates from about 1200-1250.
Enamelled and gilded, the glass sits on a silver-gilt base embossed with Fleurs-de-lis. The base was added in France at a later date.
The cup has an Arabic poem in praise of wine inscribed around the rim.
According to the British Museum website, one line, attributed to the poet Kushajim (died around AD 961) says “Repent! While the cup is in the hand of the beardless youth, and the sound of the second and third [strings of the lute] is loud!”
Beneath the inscription a prince sits between two attendants who hold swords. The white enamel figures have fine details highlighted in red and blue.
Coveted by rulers, nobles, and the wealthy, Middle Eastern decorated glass was held in high esteem throughout medieval Europe.
Venetian Perfume Flask – Inspired by the Islamic World
In the late medieval period Italy, Venice in particular, played a crucial role in the circulation of luxury goods between East and West.
Highly skilled Venetian craftsmen produced top-quality colourless glass pieces such as this perfume flask, dating from about 1500-1550.
Inspired by imports from the Middle East, the enamelled container bears an unidentified coat of arms suggesting it was made for a wealthy or important patron.
Medieval Glass – Fine Survivors Fit for a Millennium
That something so fragile as a piece of glass should survive for one hundred years is amazing, but when items like the Palmer Cup, the Sutri Drinking Horn, and other rare and beautiful items survive for a millennia or more, I think that is incredible.
This 19th-century small yellow glass jug bears no comparison in quality or skill to items such as the Venetian perfume flask or the beakers from Gotland. It’s just a piece of ordinary glassware.
In Europe we don’t bury our fine glassware with the deceased. It’s more likely to end up in a charity or thrift shop. So, will it stand the test of time? I doubt it!