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  • image S114

An early Christian oil lamp with the christogram symbol, from the late Roman period.

Late antique


Height (excluding base): 16cm
Length (body): 23cm, maximum

Museum number: S114

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 448help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

The handle of this lamp, the top of which preserves one of the original suspension loops, is fashioned into the head and comb of a griffin and joins in stylized foliage to the body. At the opposite end appears a long vent-shaft which likewise joins the body in a foliate band. The oil-hole at the top of the body is covered by a small, foliate cap joined with a pin; the Christogram [Christian symbol in the form of a monogram or combination of letters that are an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ] appears on one side of the body between the curled "leaves".

This was a popular late Antique, early Christian, form of lamp, and a number of museums own very similar lamps which vary in the details of loop suspension and the introduction of a small cross on the top of the comb. A nearly identical lamp, said to be in the celebrated Museo Kircheriano, is engraved in Piranesi1 and may have been worked on by him; this piece appears to have the chain and loop for suspension intact. There is also a similar object among the early Christian antiquities in the Vatican. Two exact parallels, testimony to the popularity of this type (one is said to come from Sicily), are a pair from the J.P. Morgan collection now in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford (USA). The first also has the suspension chain as originally mounted2. An identical lamp of unknown provenance, in the Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, Munich, is discussed by Alföldi3 as a link between the last monuments of Paganism and Christianity in Pannonia. Closely allied in form and style is a bronze lamp with loops for suspension, with similar handle, and Chi-ro monogram on the head, in the British Museum and possibly from Herculaneum, indicating a very early Christian date for some of these objects4. The form of these lamps ultimately became that of the sixth century bronze lamp in the Walters Art Gallery, which is fitted on a tripod lampstand5. Another example, this time of a rather individually decorative, foliate lamp shape with an early Christian monogram is in the Musée de Mariemont6.

1 VCC, pl. 9 B.C.D.
2 Walters Art Gallery, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Baltimore 1947, no. 239f., pl. XXXIX; see also the preceding plate.
3 Alföldi, in: Numizmatikai Közlöny, 1931-2, p. 1ff, fig. 3, (German extract: "Einige Denkmäler des Pannonischen Urchristentums"), p. 102.
4 Dalton, BM, Early Christian Antiquities, no. 502; see also 501.
5 M.C. Ross in Archaeology, March 1952, p. 30 ff., figs. 5 and 2; compare also Baltimore 1947 Exhibition No. 252.
6 Musée de Mariemont, p. 190, S 12, pl. 65.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Purchased by John Soane at the Charles Yarnold Sale (auctioneer Mr. Southgate), 11 July 1825, Lot 56, An ancient bronze lamp with a very early Christian monogram, externally fine, £6.10.0.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk