God in a Bottle

by Susan Arthure

Susan Arthure

This is an extract from Adelaide archaeologist Susan Arthure’s blog, reprinted here with her permission. Her fieldwork at Kapunda, South Australia was reported recently at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-10-08/irish-village-bakers-flat-a-place-of-sweat-after-famine/101499096?utm_campaign=abc_news_web&utm_content=link&utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_web. Susan can be contacted at susan.arthure@flinders.edu.au

It was only a few years ago that I first heard about the extraordinary creations known as God-in-a-bottle. So I won’t be surprised if you are crinkling up your nose in a puzzled sort of way right now. Let me put you out of your misery. The God-in-a-bottle is a Catholic object constructed along the same lines as the more usual ship-in-a-bottle – see some examples in the image below. Claudia Kinmonth (2020:415-417) says that in their most basic form, they were usually ‘a reused glass spirit, wine or mineral bottle often containing a carved wooden cross, with a ladder leaning against it inside, sometimes (but not always) filled with water’. The water was usually holy water, or at least marketed as such.

Image sourced from Kinmonth (2020:416), courtesy of Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.

Essentially, they depict the crucifixion or other religious scenes in a bottle. Sometimes they’re quite elaborate, containing the crucifixion tools such as pincers, spears or a hammer. Although they date primarily from the late nineteenth century when glass bottles were easily available, there are examples from more recent times. English examples are often associated with Irish workers on the buildings and railways of the north of England. Some featured in a 2014 Tate exhibition where they were described as ‘surreal artefacts‘.

Recently, I went snorkelling with the cuttlefish near Whyalla. That was glorious, but coming a close second was fossicking in a small antiques shop on the way home at Wirrabara. In the last room, I spied a magnificent God-in-a-bottle. It didn’t have a crucifixion scene, but it did feature both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It’s in an old flagon bottle, quite a big one, more than 30 cm tall. It includes the maker’s name on a card – Peter Coleman of Adelaide. And the shop owner told me that he thought he might have worked out of the Adelaide Arcade. I haven’t been able to find out any more than that.

But this wasn’t my first South Australian God-in-a-bottle. Sevenhill Winery was established by Jesuit priests in the mid-nineteenth century. It was the first winery in the Clare Valley. It has a tiny museum next to the tasting room, and a couple of years ago, I found a God-in-a-bottle there. As you can see from the pictures below, this one portrays the crucifixion scene. Jesus is on the cross which is mounted on decorated wooden steps. There’s a ladder, hammer, and what looks like a jug (possibly for the vinegar?), all in an old wine bottle. I was at Sevenhill last weekend and very keen to re-acquaint myself with this object. However, it has become another victim of Covid-19 – the museum has had to be dismantled for now to allow for extra tasting tables and social distancing. Hopefully, it will be reinstated in years to come, but for now, I just had to buy some wine instead.