02 March 2008

A Sephardic glassmaker's odyssey

The Hebrew History website is packed with incredibly fascinating stories of Jewish arts, artisans and history.

This paper on Juan Robles and the Inquisition is subtitled "The Odyssey of a Sephardic Glassmaker."

The Robles family tree, displayed by Juan Robles, until his death a resident of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The family traces back through Amsterdam to Spain, where another Juan Robles, scion of a glassmaking family, was condemned in absentia to eternal damnation for heresy by a tribunal of the Inquisition in 1535. Until 1492 the Iberian glassmaking industry was essentially Judaic.


Other members of Sephardic glassmaking families followed the same route through Amsterdam to the Virgin Islands. Prominent families included the Robles, Medina, Salas and the da Costa families which intermarried over four centuries.

The art of glassmaking was born near the city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham, about 2400 BCE. It remained a uniquely Semitic, and subsequently a Judaic art through the early centuries of the Common Era. In Spain, the Jews remained predominantly the glassmakers until the horrendous massacres of 1391 ushered in a drive for conversion. Some Jews left Spain, others converted, and most others feigned conversion. Finally, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 made the continuation of the art by professed Jews impossible.

The enlightening story of master glassmaker Juan Robles has been preserved in the Inquisition proceedings as one of eight cases concerning glassmakers in the town of Cadalso de los Vidrios (Cadalso, the Glassmaker's Town); they were conversos accused of Judaizing.

Cadalso de los Vidrios was a center where Jewish glassblowers dominated the art, carrying it with them from Alexandria under the Greeks, continuing it under the Moslems in old Cairo, fleeing from Moorish-dominated North Africa and then into Moorish Spain.

Burgos was another important glassmaking center of Christian Spain, "a gathering place for Moorish and Jewish glassmakers during the late years of the 15th century." All three major glassmaking centers in Spain, Barcelona (Cataluna), Toledo (Cadalso de los Vidrios) and Burgos (Medina del Campo) were also Jewish population centers.

When the pogroms and persecutions of 1391 began, Jews sought a better climate. Many converted by force and those who resisted then converted in 1412. In 1492, with no options, most Jews left Spain, leaving their assets. Accusing conversos of Judaizing was a good way of eliminating the glassmasters.

Juan Robles, son of Hernando Robles and Maria Alfonso, was born in the town Cadalso de los Vidrios in Toledo province. Hernando was a Converso, whose father had been forced into conversion. Maria was likewise born into such a family, but her family had abandoned heritage and never told her.

Hernando, however, secretly taught his son as his father had taught Hernando, and he eventually got caught up by the Inquisition.

His case, which dragged on for five years, is well-documented and the paper provides much information on his testimony. Juan Robles, alias Abraham the proselyte, was convicted, burned in effigy, on December 21, 1535.

The story continues and mentions the other glassmaking families, extending the saga into other countries, including the Netherlands, the Caribbean, Italy, France. The Salas family was the outstanding glassmaking family in Barcelona and after 1492 moved into Europe (Venice) and appearing in the records of Panama, Suriname, Curacao and St. Thomas.

Community archives indicate the intermarriages between the Robles, de Medina, Salas and other families. The paper's notes are extensive and provide more sources and references.

Read the entire paper here.

Other titles at the site include Glassmaking, Photography, the Silk Route, Iron Working, Navigation, Music, Medicine, Artisanship and Literacy, Craftsmanship, Nomadic Jews, Silkmaking, gold and Silver, Carpets, Jews in Africa, Beads, Dyemaking, Venetian Glass, Jews of Brescia, Florence and Cremona, the da Costas, Jewish Traders and more.

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