Cup with wheel-cut decoration

Kathleen Corrigan, Associate Professor of Art History, Dartmouth College

And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes:
and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
John 11:43-45  
(transl. Interlinear Greek-English New Testament)


Fig. 1 Cup with wheel-cut decoration, view with the Raising of Lazarus

Many glass bowls and cups such as the Yale example have been preserved from antiquity. Their wheel-cut decoration includes pagan as well as Christian subjects. A large number can be dated to the 4th century and attributed to an active workshop in Cologne.

The Yale cup offers many possible avenues of investigation. Next year I plan to have the students in my course on Early Christian Art study this cup in some detail. We will focus especially on issues of function, technique, and iconography.




Fig. 2 Cup with wheel-cut decoration, alternate view


Glass cups such as this could have served a variety of functions. Even the simplest would have been luxury items, probably given as gifts. They were undoubtedly meant to be displayed or used on special occasions. Many were subsequently buried with their owners. The burial context relates well to the scenes depicted on the Christian examples. Images of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and the Raising of Lazarus are common among the scenes depicted in Christian funerary art. The extent to which these cups belong primarily to a funerary context is a question we will need to explore.

We can’t, however, dismiss the possibility of our cup having served as a lamp. Glass vessels in shapes similar to the Yale cup were placed in circular openings in chandeliers and filled with oil (Fig. 3). Questions to be considered here are:  Is the profile of our vessel comparable to the known lamp shapes?  Was it common to use vessels with figural decoration as lamps?  Does there need to be evidence of oil or carbon residue in order for the cup to be classified as a lamp?
Fig. 3 Polycandelon with Crosses



I’ve always been struck by the crudeness of the figural decoration on many of the 4th-century wheel-cut glass bowls and beakers. I’d like my students to study the history of Roman engraved and cut glass in order to understand how the artists developed this technique and why they chose it over other possibilities.

There are many different ways to get figural decoration onto a glass vessel, including carving and polishing cast glass, blowing glass into a carved mold, and engraving, free-hand cutting, or wheel cutting free-blown glass. Various techniques of cutting and faceting became very popular beginning in the 1st century C.E., perhaps, as is often said, as a cheaper alternative to cut rock crystal. Ancient glass workers achieved astonishing results using many of these techniques.
Fig. 4 The Lycurgus Cup

While the wheel-cut glass seems less accomplished, there are also variations in quality and technique within this category of glass vessels. The Yale cup belongs to a group whose decoration is done in broad, parallel strokes resulting in somewhat blocky and inelegant figures. But there are many other wheel-cut vessels, some earlier and some contemporary with the Yale cup, that are more subtly carved.
Fig. 5 Glass cup or bowl

Fig. 6 Glass bowl decorated with a hunting scene

One has to ask why the cruder technique was used for many of the wheel-cut vessels.  Was it simply easier?  Were the artists less skilled?  I imagine that faceted and wheel-cut decoration was desirable especially for the way in which light played across the fractured surface, which is very different from the effects of light on the smoother surface of mold-blown glass, for example.  Perhaps the cutting didn’t need to be refined in order to be effective.  This will be an interesting problem to explore.

A good introduction to glass-making techniques can be found in the videos on the Getty Museum website:
The J. Paul Getty Museum Videos: Making Art



Teaching with objects often prompts questions we might not otherwise consider. In my course on Early Christian art I always choose some biblical scene as a model to study the methods of iconographical analysis. The Yale cup will be a good teaching tool since its image of the Raising of Lazarus has some interesting peculiarities for us to study.

One generally begins an iconographic investigation of a biblical scene by comparing the representation to the text on which it was based, asking such basic questions as: To what extent can the imagery be explained by the text? In what ways does the image deviate from or expand on the text? What artistic conventions does the artist draw on in order to create the image? Every representation in some way offers an interpretation of the text; how is that true in this particular case?

The next question usually focuses on the historical development of the iconography. How, for example, do representations of the Raising of Lazarus change over time, and where would one place the image on the cup within this development? Are there some elements in the cup’s image not found in other representations of the subject?

Finally, we can look into how changes or unusual elements in the iconography might relate to new interpretations of the story by post-biblical writers, to liturgical influences, or to political and social issues.

Teaching with objects often prompts us to ask questions we might not otherwise consider, questions concerning the relationship between iconography and the form, or function of the object, and between the iconography and the demands of the medium and production technique.


The Yale cup image

The scene depicted on the Yale cup is Christ Raising Lazarus from the Dead as reported in John 11:1-45 (see full text below). Christ appears at the right facing Lazarus who is wrapped in his shroud and standing upright under an arch. The rest of the cup is filled with four standing figures, three men and one woman. The woman and one of the men have their hands raised in the orant, or praying, position. The Raising of Lazarus was extremely popular in the Early Christian art, especially in catacomb painting, sarcophagi, and other forms of funerary art. Lazarus’ triumph over death provided a model for Christians seeking salvation for themselves and their deceased relatives.
Fig. 6 Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ

The following are some questions about the iconography of the Yale cup that are suggested by the analysis of this particular object:

• To what extent might particular details of the iconography rely on conventions disseminated by generations of glass cutters?  Images of the Raising of Lazarus on other wheel-cut objects look very similar to the one on the Yale cup.  This brings up the question of workshop practices and the use of model books or other means of circulating designs.
Fig. 7 Glass Dish with an Engraving of the Raising of Lazarus

• Can some of the iconographic details be seen as a function of the possibilities or limitations of the technique? For example, we can point to the unusual way of delineating the body of Lazarus with the large ‘X’ across his torso, which is probably the result of the glass cutter trying to find an efficient means of representing the bands of linen wrapped around the body of the deceased as they are shown in other media. We can also ask ourselves how light effects relate to or enhance aspects of the iconography.

• What iconographic peculiarities can be related to the function or format of the object? The Yale cup is unusual in a couple ways. In most cups with the Raising of Lazarus, this scene is one of several, and generally includes only the figures of Christ and Lazarus. The Yale cup has only the Raising of Lazarus, which means there was additional space on the cup the artist had to fill. This space is taken up by the four standing figures. They are most often described as ‘onlookers,’ probably because later representations of the Raising of Lazarus introduced disciples and other onlookers into the scene, thereby creating a more elaborate narrative.
Fig. 8 Rossano Gospels, Cathedral Treasury, Rossano, Italy, 6th century

But the probable funerary function of the cup leads us to see the four orant, or praying, figures not as actors in the story, but as people offering prayers for the salvation of the deceased for whom the cup was made. The orant is a common figure in early Christian funerary art and can represent either the deceased or those offering prayers for the deceased. One might interpret the female orant on the cup as one of Lazarus’ sisters who asked Jesus to save their brother; one or both of the sisters is often shown crouching at Jesus’ feet (Fig. 6). However, her orant position and placement on the other side of the cup suggest that she and her companions are not there to fill out the biblical narrative. Instead they relate to the world of the early Christian viewer.

Family members of the deceased might have seen themselves in these figures. Besides its focus on life after death, the Lazarus miracle is also a story of family devotion. Lazarus’ sisters begged Jesus to save their brother, and while they waited they  faithfully attended to his tomb. As such they served as a model of piety and devotion for contemporary Christians who properly buried their family members and continued to visit their tombs.


John 11:1-45

1 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.

2 (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)

3 Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.

4 When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.

5 Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.

6 When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.

7 Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again.

17 Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.

18 Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off:

19 And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.

20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.

21 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

22 But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.

23 Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.

24 Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:

26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

27 She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.

28 And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee.

29 As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him.

30 Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him.

31 The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there.

32 Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.

34 And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!

37 And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?

38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.

39 Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

40 Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?

41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.

42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

43 And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.


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