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The Glass Virginal

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Innsbruck (possibly, made)
    Nuremburg (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1580-1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wooden carcase with stamped and gilt leather case. The inside is decorated with foliate and floral scrolls on plaques or frames of copper with partly enamelled silver overlays. Two of the panels on the drop-front seem to have lost their enamelled plaques, which have been substituted by cut-paper birds in the manner of Florentine <i>pietre dure</i> panels. Every internal surface not covered by these partly enamelled components is embellished with glass, mainly in the form of polychrome rods, whorls and florets. The exception is the inner face of the lid, which comprises eighteen glass relief panels, with glass titles, depicting subjects from the <i>Metamorphoses</i>, against backgrounds of faded red silk.

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 6, The Lisa and Bernard Selz Gallery, case CA1

Princely inventories of the sixteenth century occasionally refer to pieces of furniture, like tables and cabinets, covered with glass, but very few examples actually survive. The museum has this virginal and a casket, both probably from Austria or southern Germany. They are decorated with strips of glass and glass-paste tableaux that resemble examples made in about 1600 in the ducal workshops of Schloss Ambras, near Innsbruck, in Austria.

Possibly intended primarily for display in a Wunderkammer or as a property in a masque, the instrument was nevertheless designed to be played. A plucked string still produces a strong, full sound in the tradition of the Flemish virginals. This glass-covered virginal has no known parallel among keyboard instruments, and its maker and provenance remain a mystery. Being a highly decorative and mysterious object, it has acquired a number of romantic associations. These range from Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia to Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose glass virginal was seen by Paul Hentzner, a German traveller, at Hampton Court in 1600. However, what Hentzner saw was also decorated with jewels, the royal cipher and verses in Latin, none of which this instrument has.

Physical description

'The virginal is in typical Northern European rectangular form with an integral case with lid and drop-front attached. The case walls, due to the nature of the decoration, cannot be measured but are at least of 15mm thickness. The case is covered without in leather, tooled and gilt with a border of floral scrollwork and small animals. The lid contains eighteen panels, worked in high relief in coloured glass, containing scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, each identified below with a brief title. These scenes are framed with strips of white enamel bearing floral scrollwork. The inner face of the drop-front is divided into five panels, each of which was probably originally set with enamelled plates that have a blue ground and floral motifs (the colours of which have decomposed). Three of these enamelled plates remain; the second and fourth are missing and have been replaced by crudely cut-out engravings of birds and butterflies pasted to the red ground of the wooden backing. Another enamelled panel, similar but containing a head of a woman among the scrollwork, is set above the keyboard. Surrounding all these panels and covering the entire keyboard is a decoration consisting of coloured glass rods, rosettes and sequins, and of small spirals of brass wire. The soundboard is covered with glass rod decoration and contains a rose of c.112mm diameter.

Howard Schott, Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Part I: Keyboard Instruments (London, 1985), pp. 43, 45.

The eighteen panels are inscribed (upper row, from left): DAPHNÆ, ANDROMEDA, ACTEON, [missing], TRIONPHVS BACHI, NARCISVS, IO, IO IN VACAM, ARGVS (lower row, from left): TISBÆ, PIRAMVS, CORONIS, ATLANTIADES, DIANA, ARCADES, ERICHTONIVM, PARIS, BATTVS.

Place of Origin

Innsbruck (possibly, made)
Nuremburg (possibly, made)


ca. 1580-1600 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Wooden carcase with stamped and gilt leather case. The inside is decorated with foliate and floral scrolls on plaques or frames of copper with partly enamelled silver overlays. Two of the panels on the drop-front seem to have lost their enamelled plaques, which have been substituted by cut-paper birds in the manner of Florentine pietre dure panels. Every internal surface not covered by these partly enamelled components is embellished with glass, mainly in the form of polychrome rods, whorls and florets. The exception is the inner face of the lid, which comprises eighteen glass relief panels, with glass titles, depicting subjects from the Metamorphoses, against backgrounds of faded red silk.


Length: 1523 mm, Depth: 430 mm, Height: 260 mm closed, Height: 415 mm lid when raised vertically, Depth: 420 mm body, Depth: 245 mm front flap when folded out, Height: 920 mm whole object

Object history note

From 1871 to 1872 this instrument was on loan to the Museum from the Comte de Sartiges, who had been the French Ambassador to the Holy See in the 1860s. At the same time Sartiges lent the 'Golden Harpsichord' from Michele Todini's Galleria Armonica in the Palazzo Verospi in Rome, which entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1889 as part of the Crosby Brown collection.

In 1872 the Museum purchased the virginal for £140, presumably from Sartiges. When the Museum acquired it, the instrument was described as a spinet and was thought to have been made at Murano, near Venice. However, it is now thought to have been made in Northern Europe; its decoration bears a close relation to that of a casket in the Museum's collection (C.20-1923). The wood casket is decorated with glass rods, whorls and florets and lamp-worked glass reliefs set against faded red silk, directly comparable to the virginal, and was probably made in Venetian glassworks in Hall-in-Tyrol, Austria, in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The similarity between virginal and casket was noted in 1946 by W. B. Honey, who linked them to a third object in the V&A, a glass relief of the Last Judgment (C.105-1947) with lampworked glass figures, probably made in Innsbruck, Austria, in the seventeenth century.

When acquired by the museum this instrument had a traditional association with Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, the daughter of James I of England, however this claim cannot be substantiated. The virginal has also been linked with a description written in 1598 by the German visitor Paul Hentzner, translated from the Latin by Horace Walpole, of a musical instrument at Hampton Court: 'Here besides is a certain cabinet called 'Paridise' where besides that everything glitters so with silver, gold and jewels, as to dazzle ones eyes, there is a musical instrument made all of glass except the strings.' However, another description of the instrument at Hampden Court by Baron Waldstein in 1600 rules this out, by mentioning jewels as well as glass, the Queen's cypher, and two Latin couplets as part of its decoration.

Historical context note

The lampwork panels: stories and print sources

There are 18 lampwork panels, captioned as follows:
Upper row, from left: DAPHNÆ, ANDROMEDA, ACTEON, [panel title missing], TRIONPHVS BACHI, NARCISVS, IO, IO IN VACAM, ARGVS

In theory, the titling of the panels should make them easy to read, but in fact their legibility is severely compromised by the many losses, especially of figures. Identification of the print sources used could help reconstruct each panel (as well as the dating of the instrument). An exensive survey (spring 2014) of pre-c.1620 printed scenes depicting scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses suggests that where the influence of a printed design can be found, the lampwork panels tend to follow figures and elements of composition (such as trees) rather than replicate a print comprehensively. The lampwork craftsman/men tend(s) to add prominent architectural features, trees, foliage and ‘rockery,’ presumably because these lent themselves to representation using lampwork techniques.

Some of the lampwork panels do appear to show the influence of specific prints in certain details (as listed below), but the panels do not follow any single source consistently, and one scene - Erichtonium - is not illustrated in any of the Metamorphoses series surveyed.

Woodcuts by Virgil Solis (1514-1562), a German draughtsman and printmaker from Nuremburg, for METAMORPHOSES OVIDII, ARGVMENTIS QUI//dem soluta oratione, Enarrationibus autem & Allegoriis Elegiaco uersu accuratissime expositae, summaque diligentia ac studio illustratae, per M. IOHAN. SPRENGIVM AVGVSTAN. una cum uiuis singularum transformationum Iconibus a Virgilio Solis, eximio pictore, delineatis. Frankfurt: G. Coruinus, S. Feyerabent, & haeredes VVygandi Galli, 1563. Solis had relied heavily (and reversed) illustrations by Bernard Salomon (1506-1561), a French draftsman and engraver, for the Métamorphose Figurée (Lyon, 1557). The influence of one or other (in general Solis) may be observed seen in 6 panels: Andromeda, Actaeon, Narcisus, Thisbe, Pyramus, Atlantiades - and possibly in Io, Io in vacam and Argus.

Engravings by Crispijn de Passe for Metamorphoseon Ovidianarum (Cologne, 1602-04). De Passe made use of Goltzius’ designs and copied some of their Latin verse captions. Both Goltzius and de Passe seem to have made use of Antonio Tempesta, Metamorphoseon ... Ovidianarum (ca. 1585, but published 1606), as well as Solis/Salomon. The influence of de Passe is seen on 3 panels, in the use of composition and buildings: Daphne, Actaeon and Narcisus, and less clearly in two others - Io in vacam(?), Pyramus(?). and possibly Andromeda.

Engraved illustrations to Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Hendrik Goltzius, published in Haarlem in 1589/90/1615, may have influenced 2 panels (beyond the extent to which Goltzius himself had used prints by Solis or Salomon): Battus and Arcades, and possibly Io in vacam.

In this complex situation, with lampwork panels that show the influence of various sources (and occasionally none), it appears most likely that the designer of the lampwork panels made use of a range of prints by Virgil Solis (Bernard Salomon), Crispjn de Passe, and Goltzius – or a later, composite source that has not yet been identified - which would suggest a terminus post quem of 1602-4 for the glass virginals. The lack of any identified illustrative source for the story of Erichthonius suggests that at least one other source was used for the instrument. The hypothesis of a range of sources, perhaps used alongside other personalised workshop drawings, might be said to match the proposed circumstances of its creation in a highly design-literate court workshop, well versed in scenes from Ovid worked in a variety of media, undertaking an ambitious commission in a relatively experimental (and graphically limited) medium, that of lampworked glass.

Upper row 1; DAPHNÆ
The story: Daphne changed into a laurel tree by her father, Peneus, in order to escape the amorous advances of Apollo who had been struck by a gold-tipped arrow from Cupid. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 451-567]
Possible print source(s): De Passe possibly the strongest influence, but Solis also possible.
Upper row 2; ANDROMEDA
The story: Andromeda, a Greek princess who was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster; ultimately rescued and married by Perseus. Andromeda is typically featured chained to a rock. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV, 671-761]
Possible print source(s): Solis and De Passe.

Upper row 3; ACTEON
The story: Actaeon, while hunting, comes across Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting, who is bathing naked in a grotto. He is then changed into a stag by the goddess, and consumed by his own hounds. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 139-252]
Possible print source(s): Salomon or De Passe

Upper row 4; caption missing
The figure of a man running through wooden landscape cannot be identified with confidence.

The story: The Triumph of Bacchus usually features a procession full of movement and life with Maenads and Satyrs celebrating with pipes and cymbals.
Possible print source(s): Losses preclude confident identification, but possibly Salomon

Upper row 6; NARCISVS
The story: Narcissus, by divine intervention, fell in love with his own reflection. Not realising it was just an image, Narcissus wasted away until death, unable to leave the pool with the projection of his beautiful reflection. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 407-510]
Possible print source(s): De Passe or Salomon

Upper row 7; IO
The story: Io, the first priestess of Juno, wife of Jupiter. Jupiter fell in love with Io and after he raped her, changed her into a white heifer in order to protect her from the wrath of Juno. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 585-611]
Possible print source(s): no obvious source and losses preclude confident identification.

Upper row 8; IO IN VACAM
The story: Io, the first priestess of Juno, wife of Jupiter. Jupiter fell in love with Io and changed her into a white heifer in order to protect her from the wrath of Juno. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 585-611]
Possible print source(s): Losses preclude confident identification - the panel is presumed to be missing the reclining figure of Jupiter (L) and a heifer (R). Furthermore, the absence of a chariot in Solis and de Passe undermine the case for a source print in Solis (Salomon) or de Passe.

Upper row 9; ARGVS
The story: Mercury killing Argus. Argus was sent by Juno to guard Io, who had been turned into a white cow by Jupiter. Argus was killed by Mercury and his eyes were set into the feathers of Juno’s peacocks. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 624-88; 722-3]
Possible print source(s): No source identified.The lampwork has lost most of the figures except the crowned figure (top left) probably representing Juno, and the goats (lower right), making identification very difficult.

Lower Row 1; TISBÆ
The story: Thisbe fleeing the lion. Thisbe was a young Babylonian girl in love with Pyramus. The young lovers defied their parents by conversing through a crack in a wall. Thisbe kills herself after discovering the lifeless body of Pyramus. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV, 56-166]
Possible print source(s): Solis/Solomon. The ‘TISBÆ’ panel is missing the lion and fleeing Thisbe. Salomon and Solis show the very distinctive full moon and stars seen in the panel (and PIRAMVS).

Lower Row 2; PIRAMVS
The story: Suicides of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, a young Babylonian boy in love with Thisbe. On believing Thisbe had died from wounds given by a lion, Pyramus commits suicide; Thisbe returns to find his body and commits suicide herself. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV, 55-166]
Possible print source(s): Solis/Solomon with de Passe possibly inspiring the pose of Thisbe. The ‘PIRAMVS’ scene featured on the virginal, with the suicide of Thisbe and fleeing lion is presumably missing the body of Pyramus, and possibly a statue on the column fountain.

Lower Row 3; CORONIS
The story: Coronis, a woman of unrivalled beauty who was loved by Apollo, however, Coronis loved another. Apollo discovered this news from his raven, at the time white in colour, ‘pure as the swans whose home is the rivers’. With the delivery of the news of Coronis, Apollo turned the raven black for eternity. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII, 542-7; 598-632; 603-11]
Possible print source(s): No source found.

The story: Probably depicting Mercury (also known as Atlantiades) and Herse (Ovid, Met., 2:708-832) Mercury is usually shown flying above 3 sisters with baskets on their heads (with one of whom Herse, Mercury is enamoured), returning from the temple of Minerva. Mercury later turns to black stone another of the sisters Aglauros who obstructs their union out of envy.
Possible print source(s): Solis (Mercury enamoured of Herse), but with a belltower(?) elaborating the temple .

Lower Row 5; DIANA
The story: possibly depicting Diana discovering the pregnancy of Callisto rather than Diana bathing
Possible print source(s): no source found and losses preclude identification.

Lower row 6; ARCADES.
The story: Arcas was the son of Jupiter and Callisto, king of Arcadia and a great hunter. Diana changed Callisto (after her seduction by Jupiter) into a bear. When Arcas unknowingly was about to kill his mother, Jupiter turned them both into constellations – the great and little bears. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, II, 496-507]. The lampwork panel is missing the central figure of Arcas with a bow.
Possible print source(s): possibly de Passe or Goltzius. The print after Hendrik Goltzius helps to identify the sky figures of the bear and Arcas received by Jupiter (?) with his eagle.

Lower row 7; ERICHTONIVM
The story: Erichthonius was a son of Vulcan, born without a mother. He was the King of Athens and a skilled charioteer. He is said to have built a temple to Athena on the Acropolis, the Erechtheium, and is represented by the constellation Aurgia, the charioteer. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, II & IX, 553-62; 423.
Possible print source(s): No source found.

Lower row 8; PARIS
The story: Paris, a Prince of Troy, his abduction of Helen brought about the Trojan War. He also judged a beauty contest between the goddesses Venus, Juno and Minerva. The award was a golden apple. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII, 599-609]
Possible print source(s): no source found and the loss of figures makes identification of the source much harder. Subject not included in Salomon or Solis.

Lower row 9; BATTVS
The story: Battus, an old herdsman, watches Apollo’s cattle get stolen, shown to be a liar and turned into flint by Mercury. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, II, 267-707]
Possible print source(s): possibly Gotzius or de Passe reversed.

De Passe's series is reproduced separately in a 1980 Garland reprint in Ilja M. Veldman's Profit and Pleasure: Print Books by Crispijn de Passe, tr. M. Hoyle and C. Klein (Studies in Prints and Printmaking, Vol. IV), Rotterdam, 2001, 73-84, 189-241, 317-84. References given here are to the Solis and Goltzius plate nos. in the New Hollstein edition, and for de Passe to the Veldman fig. nos. Note that Goltzius' series is reproduced in The Illustrated Bartsch, 165 vols., New York, 1978- (Vol. III, 313-38, "After Goltzius" 31-82 [104]), as are series by Solis (Vol. XIX/1, 7.0-178) and Tempesta (Vol. XXXVI, 638-787).
Hollstein’s German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts 1400-1700, Volume LXVII – Virgil Solis, Part II, compiled by Dieter Beaujean, edited by Giulia Bartrum (Rotterdam: Sound and Vision Publishers, 2006).

The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts 1450-1700, Volume VIII – Hendrik Goltzius, Part III, compiled by Marjolein Leesberg, edited by Huigen Leeflang (Amsterdam: Sound and Vision Publishers, 2012).
Examples for the illustrations on Goltzius can also be found on the LACMA website. ‘Hendrik Goltzius (after)’, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, accessed 16 May 2014, http://collections.lacma.org/node/156458.
Goltzius may also have made use of ills by Antonio Tempesta, Metamorphoseon ... Ovidianarum (ca. 1585, 1606); later used as engravings in Johan Wilhelm Baur, [Ovidii Metamorphosis] (ca. 1641), but possibly published as early as 1639.

Descriptive line

A virginal in a stamped and gilt leather case, decorated internally with eighteen scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses lampworked in glass relief. The keyboard of forty-five keys.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington Museum, Lent during the Year 1871 (London, 1872).

W. B. Honey, Victoria & Albert Museum, Glass (London, 1946), p.138.

Astone Gasparetto, Il vetro di Murano dalle origini ad oggi (Venice, 1958), figs.97-99.

Peter Thornton, Musical Instruments as Works of Art (H.M.S.O., London, 1968), fig. 21.

Simon Jervis, "Glass reliefs at Schloss Ambras and the Victoria & Albert Museum", Burlington Magazine, Vol. CXXXII (May 1990), pp.351-353.

Labels and date

Glass Virginal

Princely inventories occasionally mention furniture decorated with glass. This instrument was perhaps intended for display in an elaborate collection, but it was also designed to be played. It is the most ambitious surviving examle of glass decoraion, showing the variety of virtuoso effects that could be achieved on a miniature scale. The ducal workshops of Shloss Ambras, near Innsbruck, were a centre for the technique.

Austria (Innsbruck) or Germany (Nuremberg)

Softwood, partly gilded glass, and silk; enamelled silvered plaques (two replaced with paper); stamped and gilded leather case

Museum no. 402-1872 [2015]
Possibly Austrian; c. 1600
The body and keys are covered with slips of enamelled copper, edged with coloured glass and the inside of the lid consists of 18 panels of coloured glass in high relief representing tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The instrument's range is forty-five notes, C/E - c3 and the jacks and quills largely original.

Keyboard Catalogue No.: 10

There was a "Musical instrument made all of glass, except the strings" in the hall of Hampton Court, mentioned by Paul Hentzner, a German traveller in 1600. A few comtemporary European objects of about that date survive that were decorated in this way and probably under Venetian influence. There is a similar glass covered casket on display in Gallery 3, thought to have been made in Innsbruck.

402-1872 [pre September 2000]


Glass; Pine; Brass; Ivory; Ebony; Copper; Leather


Enamelling; Tooling; Joining; Adhering; Lampworking; Technique


Musical instruments


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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