During Roman and early Islamic times, animal‑shaped vessels were made using an intricate decorated double or quadruple glass tube. Decorated with trailed glass threads, the tubes are carried on the backs of domestic animals and the trailed threads appear to imitate protective cages. Such vessels were probably used as containers for kohl or perfume.
Like the blue bottle decorated with applied threads of blue glass, X.21.210 (cat. 13), this playful utilitarian object (cat. 14A) and object 1999.145 (cat. 14B) testify to the transition between two glassmaking traditions, the Roman and the Islamic, along the coastal zone of the Mediterranean region. They are also examples of the versatility and flexibility of glass as a medium, which poses no restrictions on the creativity of the glassmaker. Here, two simple vessels, small bottles for ointments or valuable liquids such as essences and perfumes, are transformed into zoomorphic figurines that "carry" the container as part of their burden.
Once a bottle had been blown and shaped, the rest of the figure was constructed around it from trails and blobs of hot glass, forming the stylized body, legs, head, and burden surrounding the functional vessel. The quadruped with a bottle (cat. 14A) is typical of early Islamic production and is probably slightly earlier than the camel (cat. 14B) because it follows more closely the Late Antique, eastern Roman tradition. It combines a figure that supports a slender tubular flask known as balsamarium (container for balm) and is in turn encased in a cage. This latter feature evolved from extremely accomplished third- to fourth-century bowls known as vasa diatreta, in which vessels encased in open cages were produced by cutting the glass when cold. In their imitations (known as pseudodiatreta) produced in Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, the cage was constructed from hot-worked glass trails. Evidently the idea of constructing a cage around a vessel was adopted by the early Islamic glassmakers and fused with features of a balsamarium container.
The bottle of cat. 14A was built entirely with one batch of amber-colored glass whose surface has taken on an iridescent hue due to weathering. Many of these animal-shaped bottles, now preserved in various collections around the world, carry a cage made of different trails from two contrasting colors— usually nearly colorless and dark blue glass— thus also offering a pleasant chromatic variety. In this example, the figure is given a more whimsical appearance by its double head and by the addition of four protruding stylized heads atop the cage, almost as if it is meant to represent an entire caravan of horses, donkeys, or camels carrying their precious goods.
On the other hand, figurine cat. 14B is atypical for this group because the burden that surrounds the bottle is solid. The surface of the glass is entirely weathered from long burial in the ground, but when viewed through transmitted light the object is revealed to have been made of two different colors. Unmistakably a camel, feet well planted on the ground and ostensibly conscious of its mission, this lively piece is evocative of the vital role played by these animals along the caravan trade routes of western Asia in a time of transition between two empires.
Stefano Carboni (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Mrs. Charles S. Payson, New York (until 1969; gifted to MMA)
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