Dutch wine glass – a secret love token

Made in the Netherlands around 1735 to 1750, this special wine glass reveals a hidden message of love between two men. 

The engraved decoration on this wine glass suggests that it was intended for proposing toasts at special occasions. The inscription reads 'David en Ionadhan' (David and Jonathan) and 't glassie van vrindschap' (the glass of friendship). Deeper knowledge of the social and cultural background against which this glass was made reveals a hidden message of love between two men, which the glass was designed to covertly celebrate.

Wine glass, 1735 – 50, Netherlands. Museum no. C.16-2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Our glass depicts a dramatic scene from the Bible story of David and Jonathan. Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of the Israelites as told in the Old Testament (I Samuel 15-20), and David was the handsome shepherd boy who was anointed to become the future king of the Israelites. David is summoned to play harp for King Saul, who is feeling low as the good spirit of God has departed from him. While at court, David slays the philistine giant Goliath with his sling shot and becomes a successful soldier and the people's favourite. He meets Saul's son Jonathan and the two men form a very strong bond. Increasingly jealous of David's popularity, Saul finally hurls a spear at David which causes him to flee from the court, and David and Jonathan depart for good:

David arose from a place toward the south, fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times. And they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so. Then Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, since we have both sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, May the Lord be between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants, forever'.

I Samuel 20:41-42

The departure of David and Jonathan is depicted on several Dutch 18th-century glasses. Another glass in the V&A collection shows the scene of Jonathan firing arrows as a message to David, warning him it is not safe to return to court, while the same goblet depicts the two men sealing their friendship and love, shown as a flaming heart. Other examples show the pair embracing or sometimes kissing, with accompanying inscriptions 'amicitia' or 'vrindschap' (friendship). One example in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam contains the inscription 'friendship and love'. The Bible repeatedly describes David as very handsome and the love between the men as profound and wonderful.

Goblet, 1725 – 1745, Netherlands. C.456-1936 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the Netherlands in the 18th century it was customary to propose special toasts using glasses with engraved scenes and mottos appropriate to the occasion. Countless glasses offer toasts to the prosperity of the home, a trading ship or other business venture. Many refer to the love between man and woman, including marriage, childbirth and sometimes sex. Historic evidence strongly suggests that depictions of Jonathan and David on drinking glasses would have been used to convey a secret message alluding to same-sex desire.

Wine glass, 1735 – 50, Netherlands. Museum no. C.16–2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Court records from the time indicate that this was a period of extreme homophobia, in which those accused of homosexuality in all ranks of society could face the death penalty. This object is therefore a rare survivor of same-sex declarations expressed through public toasts, with goblets which bear imagery containing a coded message. If we look carefully at the David and Jonathan glass, we see that the man on the right has placed his foot on top of the other's. Precious evidence about the meaning of this 17th-century gesture comes from a court case in 1689, in which four men were tried because, posing as homosexuals, they blackmailed and molested men who sought homosexual love. It was stated that "according to one of them it was practiced there that men who sought sexual contact tread on each other's feet."

We can imagine two gay men drinking from the glass without the need to publicly say more than a general toast to friendship. It is very possible that they might have trod on each other's foot while doing so. This object illustrates how individuals may have interpreted the bible to justify their sexual orientation and used beautifully embellished objects with a hidden message to celebrate their love, while safeguarding themselves where possible from public condemnation and prosecution.

Discover more object stories revealing diverse gender and sexual identities in our Out in the museum trail.

Background image: Wine glass, 1735 – 50, Netherlands. Museum no. C.16–2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London