NEW HAVEN >> Yale University Art Gallery’s latest exhibit is all kinds of fragile and beyond antique — displaying glass objects from thousands of years ago. Fittingly, it’s behind protective glass in cases.
The compact exhibit on the fourth floor of the Chapel Street gallery is a quick stroll until you stop and think about the times, settings and hands that made and used these pieces.
Many glass objects don’t last three or 30 years in the average household, so it’s surprising to see cups, bowls and other objects that have survived for 3,000 years (albeit glued back together in many cases).
The exhibit “Drink That You May Live: Ancient Glass from the Yale University Art Gallery,” curated by Sara E. Cole, opened recently at YUAG and runs through Nov. 12, showcasing 130 objects from the gallery’s holdings.
Cole began to plan the exhibition for her dissertation when she was a graduate student at Yale and a museum intern.
“This collection of ancient glass,” said Cole, “…is one of the best in the country in terms of breadth of time span that’s covered and also the depth of the collection. And yet it has never been the subject of a dedicated exhibition.”
The title of the exhibit, “Drink That You May Live,” is drawn from one of the objects in the exhibit — a line also seen on other Roman drinking vessels of antiquity, said Cole, who is now with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and returned to Yale for a preview last week.
“I really love this quote because it simultaneously shows you the sense of humor, the sort of whimsy that ancient glassmakers infused into their wares,” Cole said. “But it also references the functional use of the pieces in antiquity … vessels primarily used for drinking, consuming liquids, particularly wine. They could also be used to hold or transport liquids like cosmetics or perfumed oils or other materials.”
The display cases basically run chronologically and show that glass objects were tiny and/or ornamental at first (around 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia) and then grew in size with newer techniques and skills.
The techniques spread to Egypt, where glass objects were even exported; and to mainland Greece before suffering an interruption from 1200 to 800 B.C. during societal collapse in the Early Iron Age.
The eastern Mediterranean picked it back up in the eighth century B.C. and a reappearance in Mesopotamia and Egypt spread glassmaking to Hellenistic and Roman Imperial times (323 B.C. to 476 A.D.).
“The single most significant revolution that occurred in glassmaking technology,” said Cole, “was the development of free-blown glass… and this occurred in the first to second century B.C. in what is today Israel.”
Eventually, the Roman Empire expanded and improved production to make it more available to all classes of people — with glassmaking centers throughout Italy and in Cologne, Germany.
Alternatives to the first labor-intensive technique helped early glass to become a more affordable alternative to metal and porcelain objects even as glassmaking became an art form with jar handles, clear and colored glass with etching, embedded fragments, religious designs, text, gilding and other flourishes.
A couple of reproduced images from the Pompeii-area era here show a banquet where glass vessels are being used alongside silver ones.
Above the display cases on the gallery walls are ancient quotes from glassmakers who wrote recipes of how to make a certain type of glass — comparing the result to some type of precious stone as a reference for appearance. Stone, minerals and gems may be the oldest art objects, but glass stands out for its delicate beauty and inventiveness of its crafty makers, the gallery shows in this exhibit.