This work is the oldest glass burial-society beaker in existence. Made for the Jewish community of Polin, Bohemia, it is an interesting example of Jewish acculturation through the adaptation of a Bohemian art form.
In 1584, the Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II moved his court to Prague. During his reign, the Bohemian capital became a center of Renaissance art and scholarship, attracting artists and scholars from all over Europe. Among them were specialists in the arts of cutting and painting glass. The popularity of decorated glass among members of the court influenced other groups-guilds, societies, and noble families-to commission similar pieces.
In another development during the second half of the sixteenth century, the rabbis of Prague worked at organizing the community in their care. In 1564, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi formed the first modern burial society; its regulations were codified by the great Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal (c. 1525-1609). In effect, the Jewish burial societies of Europe performed some of the same functions for members as did the Christian guilds, caring for the ill, the deceased, and the deceased's family, leading the Jewish organizations to adopt some of the guilds' trappings and rituals. One of these was the custom of holding festive banquets at which the business of the society was enacted, new members were elected, and special emblems of the organization were displayed. Some examples are the large drinking vessels decorated with vignettes of members performing characteristic activities. A drink of wine from this cup was the ceremony by which new members were admitted to the society. It is in this artistic, social, and religious context that the Polin beaker must be placed. Its decoration features a frieze of burial-society members who are marching with a bier toward the cemetery. The accompanying inscription reads:
This glass belongs to the Holy Society of Morticians of the holy community of Polin. A present from Moses, son of Rabbi Jacob Polin, Hanukkah 452 [December 1691].
The same elements (a frieze of figures and an elaborate inscription) appear on similar glasses through the nineteenth century and were imitated on the faience beakers favored by burial societies in nearby Moravia. Both types represent regional forms that differ markedly from silver beakers commissioned by Jewish burial societies in other parts of Europe.