roman oil lamp
roman oil lamp
roman oil lamp

24. Roman North African Oil Lamp

'Tree of Life'

A very large ancient Roman North African redware mould-made pottery oil lamp, 4th – 5th Century A.D.

The discus is finely decorated with a dove above a palm (Tree of Life) within a perimeter of geometric designs. The lamp stands on a low ring base.

Condition: Excellent.

Dimensions: 14.5cm x 8cm appox.

Provenance: Ex. private collection, UK. Purchased at UK auction.


Tree of Life

The Tree of Life was a mythological symbol across many cultures (including Semitic, Mesopotamian and Greek and Rome), where it appears to derive its iconic connection to oases and water, and to food and fertility. The Tree offered immortality, a fresh start, positive energy, good health, and a bright future to those who partook of its fruit. The tree grows old, yet it bears seeds that contain its very essence, with the tree attaining immortality in this way.

This type of lamp, made from a mould, with a solid handle, was popular from the third century AD and onwards and the design is typical of those made within the Roman colonies of northern Africa. North Africa had become a major production center for oil lamps. Tunisia and Carthage were especially noted for their red-ware lamps, which were exported all over the Holy Roman Empire. These Christian lamps of the 5th and 6th Centuries often depicted animals and humans, and even Jesus and the Saints. Others used the popular Christogram, a Greek letter monogram for Christ. Many other North African lamps featured animals, with some of the older Roman trends reappearing, such as running lions and birds, but now with altered symbolic significance. Fish, an obvious Christian motif, were also popular. Not all lamps were religiously decorated; scenes with soldiers, fighting animals, and other more secular activities were also common place. Few lamps from this period had erotic scenes, such as those found on earlier Roman lamps.

Across the Roman Empire, a lamp was originally called a ‘lychnus‘, from the Greek for a light or lamp, with the oldest Roman lamps dating back to the third century BC. It is thought that the Romans took the idea for lamps from the Greek colonies of Southern Italy. Over time, the manufacture of lamps increased, and so did the variation in decoration, which depended mainly on the shape and size of the lamp. Common decorative themes depicted on the discus were entertainment scenes (such as gladiators in combat), common myths, and animals. Pottery oil lamps could be made in three different ways: handmade, wheel made, or by mould. The use of the mould (which was made from clay or plaster) quickly became popular, because one mould could produce several lamps.

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