Lighting Vessels in Antiquity
Oil lamp on candlestick, bronze, Byzantine period, 5th - 6th centuries CE
Lighting Vessels in Antiquity
December 9, 2006 - July 1, 2007
Curator: Avshalom Zemer
From earliest times man has tried to banish the dark. In art, darkness symbolized death and evil, and the only way to conquer it was by means of light. From this has arisen the symbolism of light as the source of life and salvation.
A legend in the Babylonian Talmud is a faithful description of this: "When the first man saw how the light fades and disappears, he said ‘Alas, because I have sinned, the world is dark and returned to chaos. And is this the punishment inflicted on me from heaven?' For eight days he fasted and repented. When, in the month of Tevet he saw the days grow longer, he said ‘Thus it is in the world'. And he went and celebrated for eight days" (Avoda Zara 8a).
The ability to create fire and control it revolutionized the life of early man. Fire protected him against wild beasts and against the cold, and provided illumination in the dark. The lamplight extended activities into the night.
Fire was contained in small vessels used exclusively for lighting. They could be moved from place to place, and the flame could be controlled. This was the oil lamp. Its place of origin is unknown. Shells used as lighting vessels, dating from prehistoric Mesopotamia, have been found. The hollow of the shells held the fuel, and the fluting on the edge held the wick. Originally, stone bowls were used to hold the fuel, until they were replaced by pottery.
At first there were small oil lamps, for illumination only. These were to be found wherever humankind existed - in the home, the street, the theatre, the temple, the church, the monastery, in the synagogue and the mosque. Oil lamps were used by seamen who sailed the seas by day and by night. The Greeks and Romans lighted oil lamps at their public functions during the Roman and Byzantine period (1st-7th centuries CE). Lamps made of clay, metal, and glass have been found. There is evidence in the literature of the period that other articles were also used for lighting - cups, bowls, even a wick wound round a walnut (Tosefta, Shabbath 2:4; 3:13). The same type of lamp was used in both religious and everyday contexts. The custom of lighting a memorial candle probably derives from that of leaving lamps in tombs to light the route of the departed to the next world.
Sometimes a light was placed between two bowls - the lower intended to retain the oil spilling from the flame and prevent waste, and the upper bowl to control the flame and prevent it from spreading (Mishna, Shabbath 3:6).
Inscriptions on oil lamps initially comprised the potter's name or the name of the workshop. Later a blessing was added. A Roman custom was to give a lamp with a blessing on it at the new year - possibly the origin of inscribed blessings on lamps. In the Byzantine era, the Samaritan lamps carried verses from the Torah, and Arabic inscriptions or decorations were used during the Islamic period. In the past, as today, the written word had magical powers, and this was apparently the purpose of the phrases or even single letters inscribed on oil lamps.
The oil lamp is composed of a receptacle for the fuel and a wick that both conducts and burns in the burning oil. The flame requires a constant supply of air. The fuel consisted of vegetable oil, crude oil from the ground such as kerosene, or fish oils. Pure olive oil was considered the best fuel, and was thus the most costly. The wick was made of fine fibres, the best of which was flax. One end of the wick was placed at the mouth of the lamp, which required constant trimming and replenishment, especially when made of fibres other than flax. To achieve brighter light and reduce the heat of the flame, it was customary to add salt to the fuel.
Construction improved over time, until it became a pleasing object. The decoration gave expression to the artistic ability of the various generations, and reflected their culture, and from them we learn about changes in tastes and fashions.