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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 10 of 14Last updated: 12 April 2008

On Terra-cotta Lamps
On Terra-cotta Lamps

An Edwardian Article - from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, December 10, 1906.

Robert Coltman Clephan, FSA Scot.

Vatican hill, but red clay of various shades is present all over Italy; others are what is known as false Samian ware, made of a reddish paste dipped in a solution of sulphate of iron, but this ware is vastly inferior in fineness of texture, regularity of colour and tone to the real Samian, which is a fine sealing-wax red. Lamps of this kind have been found both in Britain and Gaul. The term Samian ware is misleading, for this class, of pottery has nothing to do with the island of Samos. A grey paste was also used, though more rarely. The greater number of lamps found in Italy are of the shapes already described, those with annular bodies, and concave tops containing the subject; the nozzles, formed in semi-ovals, often enriched by mouldings; but the lamp admits of many imaginative shapes, and we find examples of forms such as bulls' heads; animals, down to the snail; triremes, and sandalled human feet. Most of the specimens of this kind date from the commencement of the Empire to the middle of the fourth-century. The ornamentation on Roman lamps is full of interest, the subjects covering a wide range, and many of them are grotesque. The Romans, who were not an artistic race, borrowed their pantheon, like their art, from Greece, merely changing the names of the deities. Among the figures of the gods, Venus and Cupid, Bacchus, Mars, Hercules, Diana and Minerva are the most popular; Jupiter, with the, eagle of the Olympian divinity, is often represented; Juno but rarely. Genre subjects are often depicted. Much Graeco-Roman work is sadly marred in our eyes by a gross spirit of licentiousness and indelicacy ; but however it may offend our sense of decency, it is never devoid of artistic merit.

Taking, as far as possible, a chronological series of mythological subjects exhibited, brings out very clearly the changes wrought in the earlier Roman pantheon by the gradual addition of strange deities adopted from foreign systems after the close of the Republic, such as Mithras the Persian Sun-god, Isis, Serapis (Osiris-Apis, supposed to contain the souls of Osiris and Ptah), Heru-pa-khrat or Harpocrates (Horus, the child), and even combinations like Helio-Serapis. This almost hopeless multiplicity of deities greatly contributed to a condition of moral unrest, and prepared the world for the advent of Christianity. The emblems of this faith do not appear on lamps very early, but when once commenced they become very common. There is a singular absence of historic subjects, owing perhaps, more than anything else, to the intense and progressive frivolity of the Roman citizens under the Empire. Probably the lamps of the best period are those with a single figure in the centre, surrounded by a plain bead or moulding ; later, the limhus becomes more elaborate, consisting often of fruit and floral ornamentation distributed around the subject, which also tends to amplify considerably; or around the crater, when a subject is absent. There is a fine collection of Graeco-Roman lamps in the British

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