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Rosemarie Lierke
Antike Glastechnologie / Ancient Glass Technology

The Hedwig beakers


I planned to add a page about the enigmatic Hedwig beakers to my website. For a long time, they were one of my favorite objects of research. Unexpectedly, the preparation of this page became a matter of breathtaking suspense. The exhibition ‘Nobiles Officinae’ at the KHM in Vienna 2004 - about the workshops of the Norman rulers in Sicily - led to an assumption about the unknown origin of the beakers. After additional research, an answer to this old question became visible indeed. A small book was the result: ‘Die Hedwigsbecher - das normannisch- sizilische Erbe der staufischen Kaiser’. A summary of this book may now take the place of an introduction to the subject.

112 pp., 42 figs., 2 plates, ISBN 3-938646-04-7, F. Rutzen Verlag, Mainz/Ruhpolding, 28,-¥



The Hedwig beakers -
the Norman-Sicilian Heirlooms of the Staufen Emperors

English Summary

In the preface, Robert Koch provides a survey of 150 years searching the unknown origin of the attractive Hedwig beakers. Koch is an authority on these glasses. He wrote, for instance, about the famous Coburg beaker, and the find of two fragments in Weinsberg. In the seventies of the last century already, he assumed a Sicilian origin of the beakers, but he dropped the idea in view of earlier dated archeological findings which later turned out not to be as closely related as they at first appeared to be.

The book begins with a description of the beakers - the only relief decorated glasses which are found in the middle of Medieval Europe. All known surviving beakers and excavated fragments are illustrated. A legendary former owner of such vessels was St. Hedwig, the patron Saint of Silesia and Poland. It was told that in one of her glasses water miraculously turned into wine. A peculiar kind of notches in the typical footrings of most beakers shows that all extant metal mountings replace an earlier mounting. The first mounting probably was that of a chalice, comparable to the one from the 15th century of the Hedwig beaker in the Cathedral treasury of Cracow. The dated finds of fragments provide the first hints about the time when the beakers in reality must have been made. A dating of the beakers to the late 12th c. appears most likely, and is already widely accepted in the literature today.

The manufacturing method of the Hedwig beakers is debated. The traditional explanation favors a method which could be used today to make a vessel of this kind: blowing a thickwalled blank, cutting the deep relief, and engraving the small parallel and cross hatched lines (in reality, even today a deep relief is usually pressed and only finished by cutting). Some features raise doubts about the applicability of the assumed method in Medieval times, and an alternative method is described in aggreement with these features [see technics/Hedwig beakers]. The final decision which method was used is left to scientifically controlled experiments. An important precondition of such experiments would be the use of raw glass which was molten the ancient way [see problems of experiments].

Stylistic and iconographical observations give the most important clues about the unknown origin of the beakers. Their faceted background obviously deserves attention. The facets seem to echo the luxurious faceted rockcrystal vessels which were ascribed to Sicily, 12th c., by Rudolf Distelberger in the ‘Nobiles Officinae’ exhibition catalogue of 2004. There is also a close parallel on a 12th c. Sicilian art object to the peculiar lion manes on many Hedwig beakers, or another one to a heart shaped decorative pattern on one of them. The heraldic animals eagle, lion, griffon - which are a typical decoration of Hedwig beakers - appear together on the ceiling of the Stanza Normanna in the Norman kings palace in Palermo. All these observations together suggest an Sicilian origin for the beakers. But, there is also one feature, which gives more certainty to such an assumption: All surviving figuratively decorated Hedwig beakers feature one or two lions. All lions (only the lions!) are accompagnied by a little shield with a triangle [see drawing]. This triangle could not be explained so far. It is shown now that this triangle most certainly stands for Sicily [see Additional Information ], making the lion the heraldic lion which represents the Norman kings of Sicily - comparable to the lions on their famous lion coat which is preserved today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The making of the beakers must have taken place during the reign of the last Sicilian king Wilhelm II who died 1189 without children. The heir of the throne was the German emperor Heinrich VI. who was married to the Sicilian princess Konstanze, daughter of the first Sicilian king Roger II. The mother of Konstanze came from Namur - and this is one of the places were Hedwig beakers survived. Most other beakers are also found in a direct connection with the family of Heinrich VI.. They may have come to the north with Konstanzes dowry 1185, or when Heinrich VI. finally conquered his inherited Sicilian kingdom 1194 and Sicilian treasures were ‘brought to safety’ to Heinrichs castle Trifels in Southern Germany.   

The book is supplemented and enriched by a contribution of R. Distelberger. In addition to his contribution about the luxurious faceted rock crystal vessel in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Nobiles Officinae’, he describes here the mutual influence of the rock crystal vessels, and their art of stone cutting on one side, and the appearance of the Hedwig beakers on the other.       

(07.11.05; illustration added and small changes 07.01.06)


Additional Information and reactions to the book

At first two corrections:
Footnote 44: The web address here provided should read correctly www.henry-davis.com/MAPS (an appreciated information from F. N. Allen).
Footnote 37: Please, read R. Bauer instead of Andoloro.


The reactions to ‘Die Hedwigsbecher - das normannisch-sizilische Erbe der staufischen Kaiser’ are very gratifying. What pleases me most are several letters with additional confirmation, especially also to the salient point of my story, the explanation of the lion-accompanying shields which show a triangle in the shape of the Greek letter Delta. I explain them as a sign for Sicily, supported especially by the shape of Sicily on medieval maps. There appeared a supplementing paragraph on this subject in the Annals of the 17th congess AIHV L2009a. The equation Sicily = triangle really goes back to Greek mythology and is connected to the star constellation Triangulum.

Dr. R. Koch , author of the preface, found Sicily compared to the triangular Greek letter Delta in Pomonius Mela, Kreuzfahrt durch die Alte Welt (bilingual ed. by Kai Brodersen p. 134/135). Sicily = triangle or Sicily = Triangulum is also mentioned by Strabon and Hyginus and perhaps other ancient authors.

Francis N. Allen, author of ‘The Hedwig Glasses - a Survey’, 1987, became stimulated to look up “+sicily +triangle” in the Internet, and he was very pleased by the result. He writes: “About the triangles. I do believe you are absolutely correct about them. The origins of the Hedwig Glasses, at least the Lion ones, were right there for us to see all along - just like a trade-mark!”

Dr. I. Krueger, RLM Bonn, provided important information about the assumed role of the bishop Jacques de Vitry. It is usually handled as a fact that he is the one who brought two Hedwig beakers to Namur. But, the list of his gifts does not include any glasses! It is only an assumption of F. Courtoy (Annals de la Socièté Archéologique, Namur 36, 1923, p. 157) that the beakers were containers for the relics on de Vitry’s list of gifts. In my book, I considered the role of de Vitry as dispensable because of the family ties of the Staufen emperor to Namur. Since de Vitry was active in the early 13th c., he would be rather late as donor of new glasses.

Dr. H. Trnek, KHM Wien, draws attention to a new essay of Francesca dell’Acqua (Römisches Jb. der Bibliotheka Hertziana 35/4, 2003, 49-79, München, Hirmer 2005). He concludes from the provided evidence by dell’Acqua (e. g. small colored glass stars or roundels as panes or  inlays in different places in Palermo), that indeed in Sicily, Saracens worked with glass in an Islamic tradition. The only evidence about glass and/or glass working in Sicily available to me so far (see footnote 57) concerned thinwalled blown glass - quite different from the beakers. But, small glass panes were usually not blown. They were most likely pressed to fit into the desired shape - a manufacturing method much better related to the proposed alternative manufacturing method for the beakers.

I thank all persons mentioned or not mentioned here for their enjoyable and encouraging mails!

  (09.11.05, last changes and small additions 30. 9. 06)

In the fall of 2006 appeared A. Hagedorn, ed. “The Phenomenon of ‘Foreign’ in Oriental Art”, Wiesbaden 2006 with the reports of the Orientalistentag in Halle 2004. It contains the updated contribution of Dr. Jens Kröger, director of the Islamic Museum in Berlin: ‘The Hedwig Beakers: Medieval European glass vessels made in Sicily around 1200’.

Quote, p. 34: “ In 2005 Rosemarie Lierke reproduced the 13 Hedwig beakers for the first time in colour and catalogued both the beakers and fragments from archaeological excavations, analysed the techniques of their production and assembled evidence for a manufacture in Sicily during the reign of William II of Hauteville who reigned from 1166-1189, and thus gave the studies on the Hedwig beakers a decisive direction.”

Dr. Kröger concentrates in his comprehensive investigation especially on the pattern of the ornamentally decorated beakers. This is  ideal since in my book mainly figurally decorated beakers are treated. His new title and his support of the Sicilian provenance cause hope that 150 years of scholarly debate about the provenance of the Hedwig beakers may finally have come to an end.

 (1. 12. 2006)


One more proof for the Sicilian provenance of the beakers

In Philip Grierson, Lucia Trapani, Medieval European Coinage Vol. 14, Cambridge 1998 you’ll find two coins from the reign of the last Norman king of Sicily with part of a motive of the Breslau beaker [illustrations]. This motive had no known parallel so far. You see on the coin the crescent with three stars above the Initial W for William II. Other coins of this king show a lion passant , a lions head, or a griffon (more about this in the Annals 17th congr. AIHV L2009a). The reign of the last Norman king William II is exactly the time when the beakers must be dated, according to the excavated finds and other considerations. The coin motives are an excellent confirmation of this attribution.

(16. 9. 06, English 27. 9. 06)


An erroneous attribution : 2010 two books appeared by D. B. Whitehouse about ‘Medieval Glass for Popes, Princes, and Peasants’, and about ‘Islamic Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass Vol. I’. Both books contain a short chapter about the Hedwig beakers. While D. W. fully accepts my explanation about the possible provenance of the beakers from Norman Sicily, under the reign of William II, and about the way how the beakers came to the middle of Europe, D. W. erred in his attribution of this explanation to Rudolf Distelberger and Jens Kröger. Rudolf Distelberger indeed gave an important foundation for this explanation with his contribution about the rock crystal vessels in the exhibition catalogue ‘Nobiles Officinae’of the KHM Vienna, and he kindly supported my book with his contribution to this topic. Jens Kröger was the first to accept my attribution of the beakers to a Norman-Sicilian provenance. He is quoted here. D. W. kindly apologized for his error in the meantime: “ My error was inadvertent and, if I ever refer to Hedwig beakers again, I shall be sure to make amends.” 

(August 2010)




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