In Antiquity, a lamp was originally called a ‘lychnus‘, from the Greek ‘λυχνος’, with the oldest Roman lamps dating back to the third century BC. It is thought that the Romans took the idea for lamps from the Greek colonies of Southern Italy. During the Roman Empire, it became commonplace to use lamps in funeral ceremonies and for public purposes. Over time, the manufacture of lamps increased, and so did the variation in decoration, which depended mainly on the shape and size of the lamp. Common decorative themes depicted on the discus were entertainment scenes (such as gladiators in combat), common myths, and animals. Pottery oil lamps could be made in three different ways: handmade, wheel made, or by mould. The use of the mould (which was made from clay or plaster) quickly became popular, because one mould could produce several lamps. As the Byzantine Empire prevailed, lamp decoration was strongly influenced by Christianity, which was the predominant religion in the Byzantine world. Into the early Islamic period, lamp decoration became more abstract, featuring lines, crosses, dots, and geometric shapes. Lamps like this one have also been called “animal head” lamps, due to the appearance of the knob on the handle, or “slipper lamps,” referring to the overall shape.
To discover more about Byzantine art, please visit our relevant blog post: The Byzantine Empire, Art and Christianity.