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Early Christian Lamps

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Of the various classes of remains from Christian antiquity there is probably none so numerously represented as that of small clay lamps adorned with Christian symbols. Lamps of this character have been found in all the ancient centres of Christianity, but the Roman catacombs are especially remarkable for the large numbers of these fragile utensils they contain, many of which, however, bear no intrinsic mark of their Christian origin. These clay lamps belong to two categories; the more ancient manufactured in the early imperial period, and the type of the Constantinian epoch. Even in this not very conspicuous department of arts and crafts there was a notable decline between the first and the fourth or fifth century; the clay lamps of the former period are of far superior workmanship to those of the latter. In form also there is a difference between the two species; lamps of the classic period are round with an ascending perforated handle, whereas the lamps typical of the Christian period somewhat resemble a boat or a shoe with an unperforated handle running to a point. In lamps of Egyptian origin the handles were soldered on after the lamp itself was molded. The favorite symbol, though by no means the only one adorning lamps of Christian origin, was the monogram of Constantine. In some instances they were adorned with the figure of a saint, occasionally accompanied by an inscription.

Bronze lamps of Christian origin have also been found, and, though far rarer than the clay lamps described, they are of much greater interest. One of the most remarkable is a bronze lamp of the fifth century, now in St. Petersburg, which takes the form of an early Christian basilica. Of equal interest is a bronze lamp in the Uffizi gallery at Florence, it has the form of a ship, with inflated sails and two statuettes of bronze, supposed to represent St. Peter and St. Paul, at the prow. Bronze lamps also exist in the forms of a dove, a duck, a peacock, a crow, etc. The museum of Algiers contains a specimen of a lamp mounted on a pedestal, of excellent workmanship ornamented with the apocalyptic Greek letters A and D, and a dolphin. Many of the gold and silver lamps presented by Constantine the Great to the Lateran Basilica were also in the form of dolphins, as the "Liber Pontificalis" informs us; lamps in the form of the symbolic fish were probably common, though only one of terra cotta is known. The lamps presented by Constantine to the Lateran—a truly imperial gift—comprised altogether 174 chandeliers and candlesticks, which furnished, it is calculated, 8730 separate lights. The most precious of these is the chandelier "of purest gold", weighing fifty pounds and ornamented with fifty dolphins, which hung from the Ciborium; the chains in addition weighed twenty-five pounds. Before the principal altar stood a silver chandelier, weighing fifty pounds, adorned with twenty dolphins. The nave was lighted by forty five silver standards (fara canthara), the right aisle by forty and the left by forty-five. Besides these chandeliers for lamps, the nave contained fifty silver standards for candles, while before each of the seven altars of the basilica stood a candelabrum ten feet high, made of copper inlaid with reliefs in silver representing the Prophets. Gifts of precious candelabra, though fewer in number, were also made by Constantine to the basilicas of St. Peter, St. Paul, Santa Croce, St. Agnes, and St. Laurence ("Liber Pontificalis", ed. Duchesne, I, 172 sqq.).


BABINGTON in SMITH AND CHEETHAM, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (London, 1875-80), s.v. Lamps; LOWRIE, Monuments of the Early Church (NEW YORK, 1901): LECLERCQ, Manuel d'Archeologie Chretienne (Paris, 1907); DE WAAL in KRAUS, Real-Encyklopadie der christlichen Alterthumer (Freiburg, 1882-86), s.v. Lampen.

About this page

APA citation. Hassett, M. (1910). Early Christian Lamps. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hassett, Maurice. "Early Christian Lamps." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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