In this post I present the photos of the Christian gold-glasses from the Vatican Library.
This post is also available in Russian.
Gold-glasses became popular in Rome in the 4th century AD. The images etched in gold leaf were fused between two layers of glass, usually into circular bottoms of drinking vessels. Most of these gold glass roundels have been found in Roman catacombs, impressed in the mortar which sealed the burial niches. The cups are likely to have been in private use; apparently they did last service to their owners by decorating and marking their graves. The walls of the cups were broken off.
The subject matter varies from pagan mythology and portraits to purely Christian imagery. The use of pagan figures (such as Hercules) does not mean that pagans buried their dead in the catacombs. The catacombs were purely Christian cemeteries, hence it was not necessary to mark person’s religion on his grave. The use of pagan subjects and allegoric figures for decoration was common in Christian households at that time and was not regarded as idol worship. In this post I present only the glasses with Christian subjects. Although these can be seen as prototypes for later iconography, they were not used as icons in a modern sense and were not intended for veneration.
The themes of Christian glasses match those of the frescoes in the catacombs and of the reliefs on the sarcophagi. We see “salvation themes”: Noah and the Ark, the righteous men of Israel in the fiery furnace, Daniel in lion’s den, miraculous healings. The portraits of saints are also frequent. Jesus is depicted as a beardless young man, often with long hair. Long hair was a sign of Divinity : indeed, human males in Roman art wear short haircuts. Jesus usually appears in narrative or multi-figure compositions - the tradition of his sole representation, such as “the Holy Face” or the Pantocrator, had not yet been formed. Crosses and crucifixes are absent as well. In these images, Jesus works wonders with the help of a wand, i.e., he is shown as a magician  (or, possibly, as Moses of the New Testament?). The saints in gold-glasses are Roman martyrs of the 3rd century: St. Laurent, St. Timothy, St. Sixtus, St. Agnes, a Carthage martyr St. Cyprian, and also apostles Peter and Paul. All the glasses except for one (first image) are referred to the 4th century AD, but the dating is not precise. It is commonly believed that mass interment in catacombs stopped in early 5th century, so the glasses are thought to originate earlier.
But let us go on to the glasses. To begin with, have a look at these 3 portraits.
Figure 1. This family portrait is the best in the collection. The glasses with Christian topics never reach this level of mastery.
Figure 2. On the left: a couple, on the right: male portrait. The glasses of these two kinds shall be referred to as “white” and “blue” (actually, dark blue, almost black). These two kinds of glasses shall be presented separately. Unfortunately, my photos are w/o scale, so the size is not obvious. In reality all white glasses are as large as a bottom of a tumbler (about 5 cm), while the blue ones are smaller, more like a 2 euro coin (2-3cm). It is commonly accepted that white glasses were circular bases of drinking vessels, while blue glasses were inserted in the sides of larger bowls or plates.
D. Whitehouse divided gold glasses into four groups . His first group consists of relatively large carefully finished medallions with portraits (Fig. 1). These were not mass-produced and were not part of drinking vessels. The second group includes vessel bases with gilded-rod inscriptions only, but no images. This category is not represented here. The third category includes fragments of vesses with gold foil roundels under colored blobs. These are referred in this post as "blue glasses" (Fig 2, right). The fourth category is the largest:roundels with grozed edges (vessel bases, referred to as "white glasses", Fig. 2, left).
K. Lutraan in her thesis presented complete translation of the inscriptions on all registered glasses . I referred to her list of deciphered and translated inscriptions where applicable. In particular, left portrait in Fig. 1 reads: "Maxima, vivas cum Dextro", which means: "Maxima, live with Dextro!" (see , C.5).
Let us now proceed to the glasses with Christian subjects. We begin with a group of white glasses.
Figure 3. The sacrifice of Abraham. The inscription «zeses» occurs on many glasses and is part of the Greek toasting formula “ΠΙΕ ΣΗCΗC" (‘drink and live’) transcribed in Latin as "pie zeses”. "Cumtuis" means 'with all relatives', "hilaris" means 'joy', and "spes" means 'hope' (, C.152). I would suggest a translation: "Hope that you and your relatives will live!" Remember that such images were not icons in a modern sense; they decorated drinking vessels intended for mundane use.
Figure 4. Adam and Eve. The inscription is decoded as "Dignitas amicorum pie zeses", which means "Be the honour to your friends, drink, may you live!" (, C. 151).
Figure 5. Resurrection of Lasarus. Here "zesus" could be intentionally ambiguous pointing both at the name 'Jesus' and at the toasting formula 'zeses' (, C.156). "Christus" is the most typical naming of Jesus used in gold-glasses.
Figure 6. Top: resurrection of Lasarus; bottom: miracle in Cana.
Figure 7. Resurrection of Lasarus once again; this version is similar to later iconography.
Figure 8. Miracle in Cana
Figure 9. Maria – orans, surprisingly similar to later iconography: even her Protecting Veil is here.
Figure 10. Miracle of the loaves. Note the Chi Ro symbol: this was the main Christian symbol of the 4th century, which was employed in about the same manner as the cross came to be used later on. Here the disciples stare with perplexion at 7 remaining baskets with bread pieces (in accordance with Mk. 8:1-9; Mt. 15:32-39). Jesus is not depicted directly, but is represented with the Chi-Ro.
Figure 11. The slumber of Jonah under a tree. With this subject Roman artists could show their skills in depicting nudes and vegetation.
Figure 12. St Agnes praying.
Figure 13. Saints Sixtus and Timothy, crowned by Jesus with the laurels of martyrdom (sign of victory). Timothy is not an associate of Paul, but a Roman martyr of the 3rd century. Note that though Jesus is in the central position, he does not dominate the image, but rather looks like an angel. A later tradition to show Jesus as a "Pantocrator" ('All-Powerful') or a Heavenly Judge had not yet been formed.
Now let us proceed to ‘blue’ glasses. These are smaller and are thought to had been fused in the sides of bigger vessels, which could possibly be liturgical. We often see these medallions grouped in pairs or triples, which formed a complete composition.
Figure 14. Moses struck a rock with his staff and water gushed out …
Figure 15. Noah
Figure 16. Noah releases a dove.
Figure 17. Resurrection of Lazarus
Figure 18. Resurrection of Lazarus, a pair of medallions
Figure 19. Healing of the woman with the issue of blood.
Figure 20. Healing of the paralytic
Figure 21. Daniel praying in a lion’s den, a group of 3 medallions (one is absent).
Figure 22. Righeous men of Israel praying in a fiery furnace. Notice their "phrigian" caps and non-hellinistic style of clothes, which points at Persia as a place of action. Noah (see above) wears similar clothes.
Pair-wise images of Peter and Paul were quite popular, so I placed them in a separate group. In some glasses Peter and Paul are shown in a dialogue, with a clear implication of certain differences of opinion or even an element of opposition; but two great men are ultimately united in Christ. Notice that the faces of Peter and Paul in the glasses vary significantly. Sometimes they exhibit physiognomic traits characteristic for later iconography, while in other cases are quite different. The images of Peter and Paul were clearly “romanized”, which shows that the two apostles were viewed not only as founders of the Church but also as local Roman martyrs. The glasses with Peter and Paul (as well as other glasses with saints ) are remarkably devoid of toasting formulas. Could we see in this the first steps of icon veneration?
Figure 23. Apostles Peter (left) and Paul (right). Here Paul looks similar to the iconographic standard, while Peter is quite different.
Figure 24. Peter and Paul absorbed in a theological debate (each of them holds a scroll)
Figure 25. Jesus crowns Peter and Paul with laurels. Both are depicted in togas as Roman citizens.
Figure 26. Peter and Paul under a common laurel. Here they smile at each other, but are still somewhat in opposition.
Figure 27. Peter, Paul, Jesus.
Figure 28. Here Peter and Paul don’t argue at all; they are even so similar, that you cannot tell who is who :-).
Peter and Paul with St. Agnes
I can recommend an excellent Wikipedia article "gold glass",
1. Cambridge Medieval History by J.B.Bury. Ch. XXI Early Christian Art.
2. Judy Rudoe. "Reproduction of the Christian Glass of the Catacombs": James Jackson Jarves and the Revival of the Art of Glass in Venice.
3. Early Christian Glass. In: Journal of Sacred Literature, October 1864, p. 253 - 256
4. O.M.Dalton. The gilded glass of the catacombs.
5. K. L. Lutraan. Late Roman Gold-Glass: Images and Inscriptions. McMaster University, thesis, 2006.
6. D. Whitehouse. Glass, Gold, and Gold-Glasses. Expedition, vol. 38, 2, 1996, p. 4-12.
7. Th. F. Mathews. The clash of gods. A reinterpretation of early Christian art. Prinston University Press, 2003. Ch. 3. The Magician, p. 54-91.
8. Three glasses with judaist subjects (probably from Jewish catacombs in Rome).
This post is also available in Russian.
- Christian gold-glasses from the Vatican museum