Animal flask

Object Name: Flask

Date: late 7th–8th century

Geography: Attributed to probably Syria

Medium: Glass, yellowish and pinkish; blown, applied decoration

Dimensions: Ht. 3 3/8 in. (8.6 cm)

Classification: Glass

Credit Line: Purchase, Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 1999

Accession Number: 1999.145

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 451
During Roman and early Islamic times, animal‑shaped vessels were made using an intricate decorated double or quadruple glass tube. Decorated with trailed glass threads, the tubes are carried on the backs of domestic animals and the trailed threads appear to imitate protective cages. Such vessels were probably used as containers for kohl or perfume.
Two Zoomorphic Bottles (69.153 and 1999.145)
Like the blue bottle decorated with applied threads of blue glass (X.21.210), the playful utilitarian objects 69.153 and 1999.145 testify to the transition between two glassmaking traditions, the Roman and the Islamic, along the coastal zone of the Mediterranean region. They are also examples of the versatility and flexibility of glass as a medium, which poses no restrictions on the creativity of the glassmaker. Here, two simple vessels, small bottles for ointments or valuable liquids such as essences and perfumes, are transformed into zoomorphic figurines that "carry" the container as part of their burden.

Once a bottle had been blown and shaped, the rest of the figure was constructed around it from trails and blobs of hot glass, forming the stylized body, legs, head, and burden surrounding the functional vessel. The quadruped with a bottle (69.153) is typical of early Islamic production and is probably slightly earlier than the camel (1999.145) because it follows more closely the Late Antique, eastern Roman tradition. It combines a figure that supports a slender tubular flask known as balsamarium (container for balm) and is in turn encased in a cage. This latter feature evolved from extremely accomplished third- to fourth-century bowls known as vasa diatreta, in which vessels encased in open cages were produced by cutting the glass when cold. In their imitations (known as pseudodiatreta) produced in Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, the cage was constructed from hot-worked glass trails.[1] Evidently the idea of constructing a cage around a vessel was adopted by the early Islamic glassmakers and fused with features of a balsamarium container.

The bottle no. 69.153 was built entirely with one batch of amber-colored glass whose surface has taken on an iridescent hue due to weathering. Many of these animal-shaped bottles, now preserved in various collections around the world, carry a cage made of different trails from two contrasting colors— usually nearly colorless and dark blue glass[2]—thus also offering a pleasant chromatic variety. In this example, the figure is given a more whimsical appearance by its double head and by the addition of four protruding stylized heads atop the cage, almost as if it is meant to represent an entire caravan of horses, donkeys, or camels carrying their precious goods.

On the other hand, figurine no. 1999.145 is atypical for this group because the burden that surrounds the bottle is solid. The surface of the glass is entirely weathered from long burial in the ground, but when viewed through transmitted light the object is revealed to have been made of two different colors. Unmistakably a camel, feet well planted on the ground and ostensibly conscious of its mission, this lively piece is evocative of the vital role played by these animals along the caravan trade routes of western Asia in a time of transition between two empires.

Stefano Carboni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. For the diatreta, see Glass of the Caesars. Exhibition, The Corning Museum of Glass; British Museum, London; Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne 1987, nos. 134–39. Catalogue by Donald B. Harden and others. Milan, 1987

For the pseudodiatreta, see "Arte del vetro. Bussagli, Mario and Maria Grazia Chiappori. Rome 1991, fig. p. 65.

2. See Carboni et al 2001, pp. 112–14, nos. 29, 30.

Four Animal Flasks (David Collection, Copenhagen 40/1979, Toledo Museum of Art 1923,2048, and MMA 69.153 and 1999.145)

The first of these four objects (David Collection 40/1979) is made up of a globular flask enclosed in a trailed openwork cage that rests on a four-legged platform. The flask is of almost colorless pale green glass, and a bluish green trail is applied around its rim; the short neck
is cylindrical. The cage is composed of two tiers of trails–the upper dark bluish green, and the lower pale green–both tooled in a wavy pattern. The forepart of a pale green stylized horse or donkey with long bluish green ears protrudes from the platform. On the opposite side, an applied curved bluish green tail completes the figure.

Unlike the first object, the second (Toledo Museum of Art 1923.2048) is elongated and has a dark trail around the neck; its cage is composed of two purple trails surrounding another of green.

The cage of object MMA 69.153 is more elaborately constructed than that of other vessels, being composed of four tiers of trails topped by four protruding stylized animal heads. The forepart of its quadruped is two-headed, and its elongated short-necked flask has a trail applied in a spiral pattern around the body.

The last flask (MMA 1999.145) is surrounded not by an openwork structure, as are the three previous objects, but by a piece of solid glass
tooled with vertical ribs. The object is cylindrical and has a splayed opening; its quadruped, although stylized, can he identified as a camel.

These four charming trinketlike figurines had both functional and decorative uses. Although tubular balsamaria (multipurpose containers for kohl, perfumes, or essences) mounted on zoomorphic figures were made in the Syrian region in Roman times, these more elaborate objects
belong to the early Islamic period. When used as vessels for kohl, they were provided with a spatula of bone, metal, or glass. Here, the protruding necks, the dimensions, and the shapes suggest that their contents were meant to he poured; a stopper would seal the precious perfume or balsam securely inside the flask.

Such vessels have been described in the past by several different names, including horse balsamaria, animal ''dromedary" flasks, and animalistic vases. "Cage" flasks, the name deriving from the openwork structure that surrounds and protects the bottle, is perhaps the most successful. Yet the object in the shape of a camel with a solid burden (MMA 1999.145), which clearly belongs in the same class, attests that the group is not completely homogeneous. In fact, the ultimate inspiration for such objects may well be the celebrated third- and fourth-century cut-glass vasa diatreta, or "cage cups," the most famous of which are the so-called Trivulzio Bowl, the Lycurgus Cup, and the Situla Pagana.[1] These Roman vessels were later imitated in Alexandria, Egypt, where hot-worked trails were used to build the openwork cage around the cup. Usually known as pseudodiatreta, the Egyptian objects provide a more direct source of inspiration for the cage flasks.[2] The idea of supporting such small flasks with a four-legged animal form probably evolved from the everyday production of glass toys and figurines.

More than twenty intact cage flasks may he found in museums around the world. Among the most lively and distinctive glass objects made in the early Islamic period, they are all one of a kind, spontaneous creations, as a comparison of the present four flasks makes clear. For example, the quadrupeds may he paired and have multiple heads; one, two, or three differently colored glass hatches may form the object; or a solid section may replace the ubiquitous cage. Combining a high degree of artistic sophistication with an almost naive appearance, these popular objects were produced in great numbers and were probably affordable to a broad segment of society. Stylized glass quadrupeds hearing burdens may also have been appealing as symbols of the trade and exchange of goods on the caravan routes, where
glass containers filled with all kinds of valuable liquids (from perfumes to oils, from wine to rose water) traveled packed inside wicker baskets insulated with generous amounts of straw.

Stefano Carboni in [Carboni and Whitehouse 2001]


1. Donald B. Harden, Hansgerd Hellenkemper, K.S. Painter, and David Whitehouse. Glass of the Caesars. Exh. cat. The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning N.Y.; British Museum, London; and Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne. Milan, 1987, nos.134–39.

2. Mario Bussagli and Maria Grazia Chiappori. Arte del vetro. Rome, 1991, fig. p. 65.
[ Art market, Israel]; [ Taiyo Ltd., Tokyo, until 1999; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part IV: Figural Representation," September 16, 1999–January 30, 2000, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Glass of the Sultans," October 2, 2001–January 13, 2002, no. 32.

Carboni, Stefano, David Whitehouse, Robert H. Brill, and William Gudenrath. Glass of the Sultans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. no. 32, pp. 112–14, ill. p. 113 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 14B, p. 37, ill. (color).

Canby, Sheila R. "The Scented World : Incense Burners and Perfume Containers from Spain to Central Asia." Arts of Asia vol. 42 (2012). p. 119, ill. fig. 1 (color).

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