Light Bright

Sunlight is waning and winter is knocking on the door at Museum Bites. In honor of these seasonal changes, we’re going to light the lights. Join me for a brief look at four ancient lamps from around the world. We begin by dialing the clock back to the 14th century…

Mamlūk Dynasty Lamp (1250-1517), Art Institute of Chicago, Photo by cjverb (2019)
Mamlūk Dynasty Lamp (1250-1517), Art Institute of Chicago, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Festive & Fancy:  Our first lamp hails from ancient Egypt and was crafted during the Mamlūk Dynasty (1250-1517). On display at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), this gorgeous glass lamp is decorated with a festive, multi-colored enamel. The design depicts animals in combat, which according to the AIC indicate it was used to illuminate a secular building, such as a home or business. In addition to its exquisite design, this lamp no doubt cast a warm and cheery glow.

The Mamlūk Dynasty was created and governed by former slaves (mamlūk means “owned one” in Arabic). They reestablished trade routes, and under their generous patronage, art and architecture flourished. Mamlūk merchandise spread throughout the Middle East and beyond and their exceptional glasswork influenced artisans as far away as Venice. Click on this Mamlūk Dynasty link, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to view more art and lamps, from this era.

Thus is everything clothed in beauty…no words are sufficient to describe the illumination in the evening you might say that some nocturnal sun filled the majestic church with light.
~Paul the Silentiary (563 CE) describing the lamps of Hagia Sophia

Pretty Pair:  Our next exhibit features a pair of glass lamps from the Roman (right; c275-300 CE) and Byzantine Empires (left; 6th century). These two glass beauties were once perched within a polykandela, an ornate chandelier-like device comprised of a metal frame with slots for individual lights. Fueled by olive oil and a string held in place by a floating cork or chip of wood, these iridescent lamps generated a heavenly glow.

During the Roman and Byzantine eras, glass was expensive and thus, these lamps were positioned in places of honor, such as a church altar or nave. Their cheaper, more drab terracotta cousins lit the less prestigious areas of churches and secular buildings. Since fuel was also pricy, it was common for wealthy patrons to keep the lights on. According to the AIC, Emperor Constantine I (c280-337 CE) provided a substantial endowment to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome to keep 174 of its lamps burning. Click on this Museum Bites: Shatter Proof link to view more ancient Roman glass. If you’d like to gaze at more Byzantine lamps as well as art from this era, click on this Byzantine Art link, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wee Bronzed Beauty:  Our final lamp is a bronzed beauty from China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Etched with tigers and dragons, this clever gizmo is not only pretty and practical, it is palm-sized and portable. A hinge at the center allows the lid to flip up and fold over, revealing a spout that is responsible for holding the wick. Whether reading or prowling for a midnight snack, this delightful little lamp helped light the way.

Bronze Folding Oil Lamp (Deng, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE), Art Institute of Chicago
Bronze Folding Oil Lamp (Deng, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE), Art Institute of Chicago

The Han Dynasty was founded by Liu Bang (256-195 BCE). Art, literature, and Buddhism flourished during this era and books that were previously banned by the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) were revered. Bronze was a popular medium and much of this art has been preserved and is on display, like our wee oil lamp. Click on this Bronzes from the Han Dynasty link, courtesy of Google Arts and Culture for a look-see.

That concludes our look at lamps. Next week I’ll be back with more Museum Bites. Until then, have a great week!

Lamp, Photo by Hans Benn, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Hans Benn, courtesy of Pixabay.


Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago: Byzantine Lamp

Art Institute of Chicago: Folding Oil Lamp

Art Institute of Chicago: Mamlūk Dynasty Lamp

Babel: Art Institute of Chicago., Chen, M., Kelley, C. Fabens., Buckingham, L. Maud. (1946), Chinese Bronzes from the Buckingham Collection

Christies: Bronze Folding Oil Lamp

Britannica: Byzantine Empire

Britannica: Han Dynasty

Britannica: Mamlūk Dynasty

Google Arts & Culture: Han Dynasty Bronzes

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Byzantine Art Collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mamlūk Dynasty Art Collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Polycandelon

Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Art of the Mamlūk Period (1250–1517)

MIT Open Courseware: Early Mamlūk Period

Museum Bites: Shatter Proof


Wikimedia Commons

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