Friday, June 14, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #77: History of Glassmaking

I was super good this week and actually wrote my Fun Friday Facts in advance, instead of leaving it till the end of the day on Friday, because I knew I’d be really busy this Friday and wouldn’t want to do it. I just chose this topic because I was still thinking about mirrors and also because I haven’t covered it yet.

Roman cage cup.
Image credit: Matthias Kabel

The cup pictured above was a luxury item. It is an example of a diatretum, or “reticulated cup,” and is said to represent the apogee of Roman glassmaking technology. Only 50 of these cups survive today. Some of the cups have inscriptions and flanges and some even have figures sculpted into the reticulation, like the Lycurgus Cup, which now belongs to the British Museum.

The foot and rim were added later.
Image credit: Johnbod

It’s uncertain whether the reticulation was carved and then fastened to the body of the cup, or whether the whole thing was carved out of one block of glass, or even whether different techniques were used on different cups. It’s likewise uncertain whether the cups were used for drinking, or were used as hanging oil lamps; it’s possible that some smaller, more cup-like specimens were used for drinking, while wider, bowl-like specimens were used as lamps.

Glass was probably first made in Ancient Egypt, Syria or Mesopotamia, around 5,500 years ago (if I got my math right). The first glass objects made were beads. Glass making technology really started taking off around 1550 BC, when people figured out how to make glass vessels by wrapping ropes of hot glass around a form made of clay and sand and reheating it over and over again to fuse the coils. Early glass workers also carved and ground cold slabs and blocks of glass to form shapes.

In the early days of glass production, the techniques required to make the glass were closely guarded by manufacturers in Crete, Western Asia, and Egypt. Glassmakers created ingots of glass for export. Clear glass was discovered in the 9th century BC, and techniques for glassmaking were first written down in about 650 BC. Glass-blowing was discovered in the first century BC, and glass vessels become considerably more affordable. According to Wikipedia, “Glass became the Roman plastic[citation needed].”

The Roman plastic was somewhat less durable than the plastic plastic.

By the Middle Ages, colored glass had become an important commodity in Europe, insofar as it was used to create stained glass windows. The earliest decorative Church windows were made from thin slices of alabaster and date back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Stained glass windows date back to the late 7th century.

Stained glass windows were an important feature of medieval churches, because they depicted Biblical scenes and teachings to parishioners who weren’t capable of reading the relevant passages. Sadly, much of this glass was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. The art of stained glass making fell to the wayside until the 19th century, when churches in Britain and on the Continent were restored with new windows.

The art of making stained glass arrived in the United States with the inauguration of J&R Lamb Studios, the first American decorative arts studio, in 1857. Later innovators like John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany created not only a bunch of windows, but also a bunch of lamps.

Tiffany...where have I heard that name before.

In the 20th century, a number of well-known artists worked with stained glass, like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall (I know who those people are because I studied art history). Today, stained glass still occupies a central place in churches and temples, but it’s as varied in style and subject matter as any other art form.

Not pictured: Jesus.