Black Eye: Quick Bite

Halloween is on the horizon so today on Museum Quick Bites we’re breaking out the face paint. Crafted from hand blown glass, this mint-green confection once held kohl, an ancient eyeliner. Both pretty and practical, this delicate cosmetic container has a whimsical flair.

Byzantine (Syria) Kohl Container (c5th-7th Century BCE), Art Institute of Chicago, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Zoom in and take note of the curved handle supported by a series of decorative loops that cascade down in a swirly flourish. No doubt this sweet piece added a splash of color and style to some lucky Byzantine’s beauty routine.

Byzantine (Syria) Kohl Container (close up; c5th-7th Century BCE), Art Institute of Chicago, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Kohl has a long and rich history, beginning with the ancient Egyptians. Men and women used a specially designed stick to outline their eyes with the black concoction, a mixture of soot, antimony and saffron. In some cases, they also brushed kohl on their lashes, lids and eyebrows.

Left: Bust of Nefertiti (c1340 BCE) by Thutmose, Nofretete Neues Museum, Photo by Philip Pikart, Wikimedia Commons

Right: Egyptian Double Kohl Tube & Stick, (1315-1201 BCE) Los Angeles County Art Museum

The Egyptians used kohl to enhance their appearance, but also as a form of eye protection. Similar to the modern-day athlete’s eye black, kohl reduced the desert sun’s piercing glare. It prevented sand and grit from entering the eyes and also had antibacterial properties that could reduce eye infections.

Left: King Tut Burial Mask (c1323 BCE) Photo by Roland Unger, Wikimedia Commons

Right: Eye Black on Andrew Maxwell by Maize & Blue Nation (cropped), Wikimedia Commons

The kohl fashion trend took off and was passed down through the ages. People from various parts of Africa, Central and Eastern Asia, Greece, Rome as well as the Byzantine Empire included kohl in their beauty routines. Ingredients varied but often included galena (lead ore) or green malachite (copper ore). It was then mixed with soot and some form of liquid such as oil, water or milk. Some recipes also called for ground almonds or crushed gems. Shinier kohl in some cultures was a status symbol, because it was concocted from more expensive ingredients.

Left: Byzantine Courtiers (kohl close up; c547) Basilica di San Vitale, Photo by Roger Culos, Wikimedia Commons

Right: Roman (Syria) Glass Kohl Tube (c4th Century BCE) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kohl containers also became a fashion statement. Crafted in many shapes and styles, they range from modest to extravagant. If you’d like to view a variety of examples, click on this Kohl Container link, courtesy of Google Arts & Culture. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into kohl’s antibacterial properties, click on this Antimicrobial Kohl Eyeliner in Ancient Egypt link courtesy of Discover Magazine.

Left: Bronze Kohl Tube (c550-330 BCE) Western Iran, Los Angeles County Art Museum

Right: Egyptian Stone Kohl Jar (c1550-1069 BCE) Art Institute of Chicago

That wraps up our look at ancient cosmetics. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. In the meantime Happy Halloween! Be kind, stay safe, and take care 🙂

Cover photo by Efes Kitap, courtesy of Pixabay.


Ancient History Encyclopedia: Cosmetics

Art Institute of Chicago: Byzantine Kohl Container (5th-6th Century)-1

Art Institute of Chicago: Byzantine Kohl Container (5th-6th Century)-2

Britannica: Cosmetics

BBC: How Ancient Egypt Shaped Our Idea of Beauty

Discover Magazine: Antimicrobial Kohl Eyeliner in Ancient Egypt

Google Arts & Culture: Kohl Tube

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Byzantine Kohl Container (5th-6th Century)


Wikimedia Commons

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