This gorgeous glass bowl is astonishing to me both for its artistry and its sheer survival. Commissioned by the Rasulid rulers of Yemen (1228–1454) and created by artisans in Syria, its impressive scale (approximately punch bowl size) and amazing condition boggle the mind. How could it have survived over six centuries without a scratch, chip, or crack?
What attracted me first and foremost is the beauty of the object. Its thick, golden, glass walls are strewn with tiny bubbles glinting like stars. A band of winged griffins, lions, and unicorns gambol among swirling vines on a cornflower blue field. They circle around the shoulder of the bowl like animals on a carousel. Delicately drawn and playfully animated, they have the character of pets, with wings depicted in bright enamel of lime green and yellow. The remainder of the bowl is decorated with delicate lines of deep red, loosely drawn to create lacy bands of abstracted leaves and vines. For me, this contrast heightens the transparent nature of the glass, pushing the eye forward and back.
If you come to see this bowl in the Freer (and be sure to come before the museum closes for renovation on January 4, 2016), you’ll find it grouped with several other examples of glass from the Mamluk period (1350s–1400s). These include an enormous beaker and a four-handled vase from Syria and a mosque lamp from Egypt. This treasure trove gives me hope. If these beautiful, fragile objects could survive century after century, perhaps there is hope for the very fragile part of the world that gave birth to them.