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Fragment of a Gold-Glass Vessel

Late Roman
second half of the 4th century
4.7 cm x 7.4 cm (1 7/8 in. x 2 15/16 in.)
gold glass

On view


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Early Christian Romans interred their dead in catacombs, subterranean corridors lined with burial niches. The tomb alcoves, or loculi, were often decorated with a variety of objects, inserted into the mortar closing the niche; among them were fragments of gold glass vessels. Generally, only the disk-shaped, decorated bases of these vessels survive, suggesting that they were deliberately broken. Although their precise function in funerary rites remains unknown, they may have played a role in funerary banquets.

This fragment once formed the bottom of a drinking cup. Three male figures stand within a square frame, bordered on its top and left sides by red and blue enamel dots and an elongated triangle; the frame would have formed a square, and each of its four sides would likely have been similarly bordered by dots and triangles. Between the figures’ heads are letters spelling APOSTOLE, suggesting that the figures are apostles, although no attributes identify them. Except for the enamel dots, the design is executed in gold, as is typical of late fourth-century Roman gold glass.

Images of this type were formed through the adhesion of gold leaf to a glass surface, typically the bottom of a vessel. A design was etched into the gold using a needle or stylus; the object was then heated again and fused with another piece of glass, from which a ring foot was formed, sealing the gold between two translucent layers. Despite the fragmentary nature of this object, its survival attests to a controlled, partial destruction, which emphasizes the image over the function of the object in the final stage of its use.

- S. Zwirn

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 132, no. 265.

M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 1, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting (Washington, D.C., 1962), 80, no. 95, pl. LV.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 92-93, no. 318, pl. 92.

J. Engemann, "Bemerkungen zu spätrömischen Gläsern mit Goldfoliendekor," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 11-12 (1968-69): 7-25, esp. 18, pl. 4b.

S. L. Smith, "Gold-Glass Vessels of the Late Roman Empire: Production, Context, and Function" (Ph.D. thesis, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 2000), 98, pl. XLVIIId, appendix B2.189.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Charles Ratton (dealer), Paris by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, October 1953.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.