The oil lamp, at its core, is quite a modest object. Roughly the size of your hand and made of clay or metal, it really needs to hold only fuel and a wick to fulfill its duty. But while the basic engineering of oil lamps remained the same for thousands of years, the forms of their vessels were ripe for artistic experimentation. Oil lamps became highly decorated wares, featuring designs that play with the shapes of their handles, nozzles, and bowls.
The evolution of the oil lamp from crude container to sculptural masterwork is captured in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which owns one of the richest troves of lamps from the ancient Mediterranean world, all produced between 800 BCE and 800 CE. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these 630 or so lamps are typically not on view. To make these stunning objects more accessible, the museum recently published a free, digital catalogue by lychnologists — lamp scholars — Birgitta Lindros Wohl and the late Jean Bussière, which provides a technical study of every single lamp.
Although geared more towards academics, Ancient Lamps in the J. Paul Getty Museum is also fascinating for general perusal. The imagery carved onto lamps is incredibly varied, from motifs to depictions of daily life and mythology; there are reliefs of landscapes, people at work, sporting events, and even explicit scenes of fornicating couples carved into these small vessels.
“You’re really seeing popular culture right before your eyes, in a very intimate and direct way,” the museum’s Curator of Antiquities Claire Lyons told Hyperallergic. “It’s that variety that I think gives you an insight into what people found funny, what was topical.”
Early clay lamps were wheelmade and resemble pigs’ ears, shaped like a saucer with a pinched corner for a wick-rest. But once artisans began working with molds — a faster technique that also allowed for mass production — they could introduce all kinds of figurative elements and ornate decorations. It was during the Hellenistic period when lamps began to be more than common domestic artifacts and took on increasingly creative exteriors. Their shapes, too, changed. Some look like bulbous teapots or jugs; some feature extravagant handles that resemble people. And then there are the lamps that look nothing like lamps. One that’s shaped like a seated man reading a book scroll seems more pipe-like; another that features three connected phalluses looks oddly like an ancient precursor to the fidget spinner.
That saucy lamp is one of about 250 in the Getty’s collection that has no known parallel in the world thus far. The majority of the collection was acquired from Hans-Klaus Schüller, a private collector in Germany who travelled primarily across Asia Minor as well as in Egypt, Italy, and Greece and acquired lamps along the way.
Most of those he found were simple oil lamps, but in the collection are also suspension lamps that would have hung from elaborate stands. There are also a handful of lampstands with built-in depressions for lighting wicks but also shallow bowls for burning incense to fill the house with aroma.
The museum is currently in the process of reinstalling its antiquities collection at the Getty Villa. When these galleries open again, only two bronze lamps will likely go on view, Lyons told Hyperallergic. They will appear in a room devoted to Roman art and interiors to give visitors a sense of how a Roman residence might have been furnished. Thinking about the lamp in this original context also emphasizes the importance of its role to simply let people appreciate the elaborate things they own.
“That small, soft, flickering flame brings to life and animates all the art, imagery, textures around you, creating a very intimate and perhaps even sensual environment,” Lyons said. “This is something that even ancient authors have noticed — in some literary works, the lamp is personified as if it’s the confidant of its owners. And the lamp observes everything that’s going on, quietly. It’s a very sensual understanding of this simple household artifact that brings it even more to light.”