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This is Glass! It’s hard but delicate, tough but brittle, sharp but smooth …a real contradiction, yet we don’t know how glass was discovered.

What we do know is that it’s made from a combination of sand, soda and lime, which is heated and cooled to give us glass. Humans have been making glass for 4000 years but we’ve been using it for even longer. Throughout history, artists have thought up a range of ways to use glass. Stained glass windows have illuminated holy spaces with colourful light and bible stories whilst Damien Hirst has put maggots, flies and dead animals in glass cases in the name of art. 

Obsidian is a volcanic glass made when lava cools very quickly. It can be made extremely sharp and incredibly shiny so people all over the world have used it to make weapons, like arrowheads, mirrors and jewellery.

Obsidian Glass, Courtesy: The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY
Lentoid Flask, Courtesy: The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY

Pliny, a Roman historian, wrote that the way to make glass was discovered by a group of hungry sailors. The story goes that they lit a fire on a beach and rested their cooking pot above it on blocks of natron - a natural alkali they were carrying on their ship. When these blocks and the sand were heated by the fire, out flowed streams of a clear liquid. We don’t really know who invented glass - and the sailors’ fire definitely wouldn’t have been hot enough - but we do know that the earliest glassmakers lived in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East. We still have their instructions written on clay tablets! 

The Ancient Egyptians were gifted glassmakers and archaeologists have found intricate glass sculptures, colourful beads and tiny bottles made by moulding glass around clay cores. Glass might be everywhere now but in Ancient Egyptian it was a material for the wealthy. One of the most striking uses of glass is for the blue stripes on the headdress of King Tutankamun. Tut’s tomb contained a wealth of other glass objects, including an elaborate pectoral containing a scarab beetle carved from a yellow glass formed when a meteor hit Earth millions of years ago. 

It wasn’t until the first century BC that glassblowing was discovered by Syrian glassmakers. The Romans spread the technique far and wide through their Empire. Glassblowing made production faster and easier so glass became more common and cheaper - so much so that the rich preferred to drink out of gold and silver cups to show off. The Romans didn’t just spread glassblowing, they also spread glass recycling. They even had windows - although you couldn’t see through them very well. They were green-blue in colour and had lots of air bubbles in them. 

Harry Clarke, The Eve of St Agnes (1924). Collection & image © Hugh Lane Gallery (Reg. No. 1442)
Anna Dorothea Therbusc - Self-portrait with Monocle

Stained glass windows were first created in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries and the tradition has continued for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, Harry Clarke created stained glass windows inspired by art styles and movements of the time such as Art Nouveau and the Celtic Revival. Harry created over 160 windows, including eleven windows depicting ten Saints and Our Lady of Sorrows at the Honan Chapel of St Finbarr, University College Cork. The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin has a dedicated Stained Glass Room in which Clarke’s beautiful Mr Gilhooley by Liam O'Flaherty and The Eve of St Agnes are on permanent display.

Artists haven’t just made artworks from glass - it has also been a vital tool. We know what some of the greatest artists looked like thanks to the mirrors they used to paint self portraits. Anna Dorothea Therbusch’s self portrait painted around 1782 shows another important use for glass - she’s wearing a monocle to help with her eyesight!

Words by Helena Hunt

Highlights from Glass!

Join us as we take a deep dive into Glass and discover
why people all over the world have been creating
incredible art for centuries with this amazing material.

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