The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is the only museum in the Netherlands that has always displayed a lively interest in Islamic glass and now possesses a rich collection reflecting the history of glassmaking in the Middle East. This winter the museum presents a unique overview of that collection, including several recent acquisitions.
Although interest in the decorative arts of the Islamic world tends to focus mainly on ceramics, glass has never been ignored. A key figure in the establishment of the Gemeentemuseum’s glass collection was Pim Mulier. A leading Dutch collector of his day, Mulier worked in consultation with the Gemeentemuseum’s first director, H.E. van Gelder, to build up a splendid private collection of glass, including pieces from the Islamic world. Then, in 1954, he bequeathed it to the museum.
This winter’s exhibition focuses on the history of glassmaking in the Middle East. This began around 2500 B.C., when the technique was discovered in Phoenicia (now Lebanon). From the seventh century A.D., when the Islamic faith began to spread and Damascus became the centre of the first caliphate, glass began to be used in the decoration of buildings as well as in utilitarian wares. Many techniques of glass decoration were inherited from the glassblowers of ancient Rome, including engraving, cutting and adding patterns in relief. Around 1200, glassmakers in Egypt and Syria began to supplement these by the use of enamel: coloured glass powder mixed with an oily substance and painted onto the glass.
Tiny kohl flasks, ink pots, and perfume bottles
Countless utilitarian and other objects were produced in glass. They included small pear-shaped jars adorned with glass spikes, containers for oils and ointments used in the hammam, tiny kohl flasks, ink pots, and perfume bottles with long, narrow necks. Some pieces, like oil lamps, reliquaries and goblets, were designed mainly for ceremonial use and were therefore magnificently decorated. The most outstanding pieces in this exhibition fall into this category: an enamelled fourteenth-century goblet embellished with calligraphic inscriptions, trailing plants and lotus blossoms, and a breath-taking Egyptian mosque lamp-holder dating from c. 1325. The latter object is adorned, again in coloured enamel, with an inscription dedicating it to Allah and naturalistic decorative motifs surrounding the Mameluke arms of the man who had the piece made for his madrassa (Koranic school).
Around 1500, the Middle East began to step up its imports of European glass, especially from Venice, where enamelled glass of great quality was being produced. Even mosque lamp-holders were produced there, using a technique that the Venetians had actually filched from the Islamic glassblowers. This exhibition will also include some Western pieces inspired by Oriental examples, such as Dutch gin bottles enamelled in India using a style derived from Persian miniatures. The 19th-century vogue for Oriental artefacts gave rise to a renaissance of Islamic-style glassmaking on European soil, a point illustrated here by a pilgrim’s flask and basin made in France.
Special issue Dutch periodical
To coincide with the exhibition, Dutch periodical Vormen uit Vuur is publishing a special issue containing articles by Jef Teske, former curator of Islamic decorative arts at the Gemeentemuseum, and Professor Titus M. Eliëns, the museum’s present head of collections (no. 146/2006, € 13). Vormen uit Vuur is available in the museum shop.