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HOME : Byzantine Art : Byzantine Metalwork : Byzantine Oil Lamp Holder (Polycandelon)
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Byzantine Oil Lamp Holder (Polycandelon) - LK.144
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 500 AD to 700 AD
Dimensions: 17" (43.2cm) wide
Collection: Byzantine Art
Medium: Bronze

Additional Information: The dimensions refer to the diameter of the larger disc.

Location: Great Britain
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In 563 AD Paul the Silentiary visited Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and described the wondrous lighting effects, ‘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.’ The church was lit by polycandela, an early type of candelabra that held glass oil lamps rather than candles. The lamps were either conical or shaped like round bowls with an elongated stem attached beneath. This example consists of two pierced bronze discs that would have been suspended one above the other. Both have the remains of three loops and parts of the metal chains from which they were hung. The larger disc features an openwork cross in the centre, surrounded by twelve circular perforations for the lamps. The majority of surviving polycandela held between three and nine lamps, so this example is particularly elaborate. The smaller disc is simpler in design with nine circles, divided up into groups of three. The design of the pierced work was crucial because when the lamps were lit, they cast a flickering shadow on the walls of the building.

The inclusion of the cross suggests that this piece was originally from a church, but they were also used in secular contexts. An effective and very atmospheric source of lighting, polycandela required considerable skill in casting and glasswork. Amidst the burning of incense and the chanting of prayers, the flickering light must have helped to inspire pious devotion. Contemporaries certainly attest to this feeling and among the surviving accounts, that of Arculf, Bishop of Gaul, is particularly affecting. In 670 he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited the Church of the Ascension, ‘…to the customary light of the eight lamps…on the night of the feast of the Lord’s Ascension it is usual to add innumerable other lamps; and under the terrible and wondrous gleaming of these, pouring out copiously through the shutters of the windows, all Mount Olivet seems not alone to be illuminated, but even to be on fire, and the whole city, situated on the lower ground nearby, seems to be lit up.’ (AM) - (LK.144)


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