Long before the acclaimed Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly exhibited his colorfully light-infused work in a highly popular installation in Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum in 1999, another master glass blower was well-known in the ancient city: Ennion, who lived and worked in the coastal region of Phoenicia in the early part of the first century C.E.
It would be easy to overlook the single gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art displaying these small, elegantly shaped jars, flasks, bowls, pitchers, cups and beakers with their remarkably modern-looking geometric and floral designs. But it’s worth a detour to the mezzanine, where the exhibit is located — especially for anyone interested in glass, or in archaeology.
The colors of the 24 works gathered here range from rich cobalt blue to pale aqua, amber, brown and green. The wear of the ages has stippled the examples with shadows of goldish-brown and ash-like white. But imagine them without the visible damage of cracks and chips and broken bases inflicted through the millennia and you’d be happy to display them in your home.
Perhaps as remarkable as the survival and recovery of Ennion’s work from archaeological excavations in different locations all around the Mediterranean is the very fact we know his name. Possibly the first glass craftsman to sign his name to his work, he expanded the craft and production of glass-blowing through the use of a technique new at the time, using molds. Perhaps he even invented the process, which is still in use today.
Most arresting of all the objects is the glass jug excavated from beneath the archaeological layers of ancient Jerusalem, here on loan from the Israel Museum. This pale green-white vessel carries black soot marks and the weird look of layers of glass being pulled apart is more than a work by Ennion; it is an artifact of history. The jug was found in a townhouse destroyed when the Romans captured Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The exhibit’s accompanying catalogue provides the best description of the work reconstructed by the Israel Museum: “Although it is missing its upper part and is damaged all over, it survives today…..its own dramatic story adding depth and poignancy to the elegance and beauty of these vessels.”
“Ennion: Master of Roman Glass” is on view until April 13th at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York. An exhibition tour on Monday, February 9th at 10:30 am (tickets necessary) and a lecture, “Early Glassblowing: The Evidence and the (Likely) Processes," on Friday, February 20th at 4 pm are free with Museum admission.
Diane Cole, author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges," writes for The Wall Street Journal and other national publications and is a faculty member of the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center.