Two Significant Acquisitions of Ancient Glass

Today’s post is from Karol Wight, executive director and curator of ancient and Islamic glass.

The Museum’s collections of ancient glass show great chronological breadth and depth, and include indisputable masterpieces and works of high aesthetic quality. The opportunity to work with these objects was one of the reasons I came to Corning as the Museum’s new executive director just over one year ago. But as my title also includes a second line, that of curator of ancient and Islamic glass, I am continuously scanning the art market for objects that can add significantly to our already great holdings of ancient glass. Two such opportunities arose this past year. With the support of our Board, and in compliance with our policy for the acquisition of archaeological material, I was able to enhance our holdings of Egyptian and Roman glass with two significant acquisitions. I hope you enjoy these new objects as much as I do.

Face Inlay of the Pharaoh Akhenaten

Face Inlay of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, Egypt, New Kingdom, Amarna Period, Dynasty XVIII, about 1353–1336 BC. Cast, then cold-worked to refine the sculptural quality of the portrait and to create cavities for additional inlays for the eye and eyebrow. Overall H: 4.2 cm, Th: 0.6 cm; Ear to Nose W: 2.9 cm. Gift of the Ennion Society (2012.1.2).

The first is a portrait inlay of the pharaoh Akhenaton, which is now on view in the permanent collection gallery. The artist who created this inlay was part of a large group of workers who constructed and decorated the city of Amarna, the new capital of the pharaoh Akhenaton (d. 1336 or 1334 B.C.). As this is a royal portrait, the inlay is of the highest aesthetic quality and craftsmanship.

Inlays like this were used to decorate pieces of jewelry, furniture or for relief sculpture. They were inset into carefully carved cavities, and formed parts of highly colorful figural compositions in which parts or the entire figure were made of separate glass elements. The best surviving examples of glass inlays from this period are found in the artifacts preserved in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the son of Akhenaten.

The works of art created during the reign of Akhenaten broke the long-standing traditional style of Egyptian art which was idealized and severely formal. Human figures were always shown in the same manner, with few individualizing elements. The works of the Amarna period, while often called “naturalistic,” are instead also highly stylized in that the human form seems to be an exaggeration, with sagging bellies, thin arms and legs, sumptuous lips, long oval eyes, and high, carefully carved cheekbones. These physical characteristics are present in the inlay. The long neck, high cheekbone, full lips and long, slanted eye are typical of portraits of the ruling family in the Amarna style.

Hemispherical Bowl with Inlaid Nilotic Scene

Hemispherical Bowl with Inlaid Nilotic Scene. Roman, 4th-5th century A.D. Cast, inlaid glass technique to add scenic elements, ground, polished. Overall H: 4.4 cm, Diam (max): 20.2 cm. Purchased in part with funds from the Ennion Society and the Houghton Endowment Fund (2012.1.1).

The second acquisition is a hemispherical bowl. Presented against a background of dark purple glass is a landscape scene showing the flora and fauna of the Nile River. Eight colorful birds and a dragonfly are displayed amid a variety of plant life, including the nelumbo lotus. Each of the birds is different from the other, and the plumage, beaks and feet are carefully articulated in glass of different colors. Most easily identified is the flamingo on the left side of the bowl. This scene is characteristic of later Roman art, and similar Nilotic landscapes can be found on the floor mosaics and wall frescoes that decorated Roman houses.

The bowl was constructed by first creating the glass disc that forms the background for the scene. The elements of the composition were arranged on the disc, and then heated and pressed down until they were embedded in the purple glass. The disc was then placed over a hemispherical form and slumped into its curved, bowl shape.  After annealing, the bowl was ground and polished.

The bowl is currently undergoing treatment in conservation.

Karol Wight became executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass in 2011, after 26 years at the J. Paul Getty Museum. A specialist in ancient glass, Wight received her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has curated numerous exhibitions on ancient art and glass, including Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity (Getty Villa), Athletes in Antiquity: Works from the Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Utah Museum of Fine Arts during the 2002 Winter Olympics). In 2007, she co-curated the exhibition, Reflecting Antiquity, with David Whitehouse, which was shown both at the Getty Villa and The Corning Museum of Glass.