Coded in Glass: A Love That Dared Not Speak its Name

Queerness is as old as humanity itself. It might not have always been recognized as such, and it certainly has not always been accepted (and we still have a long way to go on that front), but communities of Queer folk have survived throughout history, despite the prejudices, fears, and insecurities of those who persecuted them.

Wineglass Commemorating “VRIENDSCHAP” (Friendship), Adams, L. (engraver) – 2018.3.8

A couple of years ago I was happy to acquire for the Museum a wine glass, made in the Netherlands around 1800–1816 and exquisitely decorated using the diamond-stipple technique with a scene celebrating friendship.

The diamond-stipple method involved using a diamond-point to tap a design in thousands of little dots into the glass. Effects of light and shade were created by varying the density of the dots. A little bit like an impressionist painting, but wonderfully delicate and ethereal.

Friendship (or “Vriendschap” in Dutch) was a common theme on engraved drinking vessels in the Netherlands at that time. Within a society renowned for its drinking culture, these glasses were used to toast business deals between merchants, pledge alliances, and affirm friendships. Typically, however, the friendships and alliances commemorated were those of men (a reflection of the role of women in society, and also their limited participation in drinking rituals). Generally, the iconography is accordingly masculine: often two male hands clasped as if in the act of closing a deal. Sometimes the sentiment of friendship was rendered allegorically, maybe with (male) cherubs or playful children. The accompanying engraved inscription “Vriendschap” served to explain the scene and make clear the purpose of the toast.

Detail of the Friendship goblet.

The goblet acquired for the Museum is highly unusual (unique as far as I know) in that it depicts two female figures lovingly embraced. Female figures were often used to personify connections and alliances between nations or cities, but the two on this wine glass lack any attributes that might identify them as such. It raises intriguing questions about the circumstances in which it was made, and the nature of the relationship it was intended to commemorate. The flaming heart, symbolic of eternal love, and the smoldering altar suggest a more profound bond than any kind of business relationship. The shared looks of the female figures and their intimately joined hands suggest devotion or desire, and it seems entirely reasonable to suppose this engraving commemorates a sexual or romantic “friendship” between two women.

Sappho Inspired by Love, Composes an Ode to Venus (1778)

Writing this blog gave me a welcome opportunity to look more closely at the engraving. In doing so, the intensity of the interaction between the figures and the overt references to the ancient world (in the costume of the women and the smoldering altar) struck me as rather more deliberate than a standard allegory of friendship (female figures were also frequently used as allegories of virtues, vices, and emotions). In short, the iconography is unmistakably “sapphic,” referencing the life and work of the ancient Greek female poet Sappho, famous for her homoerotic lyric verses. Although Sappho lived on the Greek island of Lesbos (from which the modern term “Lesbian” derives) around 630–570 BCE, a significant amount of her work was well known in Europe during the 1700s. Consequently, Sappho and sapphic imagery came to suggest both female literary genius and female homosexuality.

One of Sappho’s most famous and complete poems expressing desire for another woman is “An Ode to Aphrodite,” in which the goddess of desire, invoked by Sappho to help her win the love of a particular woman, responds to the poet’s entreaties with the reassurance that:

If now she flees, soon she’ll chase.

If rejecting gifts, then she’ll give.

If not loving, soon she’ll love

even against her will.

Translation: Diane J. Raynor and André Lardinois, Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.25–26.

Romantic and sexual relationships among both women and men were certainly recorded in the Netherlands during this period. While those between men were punishable by law, those between women were subject to less scrutiny, it being socially acceptable for unmarried women to cohabit.

Curious to understand the possible sources for the engraving on Corning’s wineglass, I contacted Prof. Susan Lanser at Brandeis University. Prof. Lanser is a specialist in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the Department of English, and has published on the influence of Sappho on European culture of this period. She immediately directed me to two illustrations from two books published in the Netherlands in the late 1700s. Both were written by elite homosexual women. One was written jointly by Aagje Deken (d.1804) and Maria Bosch (d.1773), and published in 1775. It contains a frontispiece depicting two women in ancient Greek dress clasping hands in much the same way as on the wineglass. The other is an illustration from Anna Slicher’s (1739-1827) Weegschaal van het Waare en Schijn-Vermaak, published in 1786. This image also shows two women in ancient Greek dress, this time by an altar carved with a flaming heart. One of the women has a profile remarkably similar to that of one of the figures on the wineglass.

These connections open up many more intriguing questions about the potential origins of this sapphic wineglass in the Queer female literary world of the Netherlands in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Very little is known about the engraver of the glass, who signed it “L. Adams,” including their gender. Fifteen goblets with diamond stipple engraving are currently known to be signed by them, of which three are dated: 1805, 1806 and 1816. The Corning wineglass is unique among them in the subject of its decoration. As an aside, L. Adams would have lived through Napoleon’s invasion of the Netherlands in 1811, after which the country adopted the French legal code which abolished laws against homosexuality.

However the wineglass originated, it reminds us that relationships of all kinds have found a way to survive and flourish, regardless of prejudice, ignorance, and persecution. After all, love is love.

Tune in this Thursday, June 25, at 1 pm EST, for a special edition of Connected By Glass, where curator and author Christopher Maxwell and special guests will continue the discussion of this goblet and others like it, and the ways subtle codes and signals have been used by queer people throughout the ages to communicate and connect with one another.

Watch the full episode here:

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