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Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)
© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)
This bronze chandelier, intended to hang in a church, consists of a cylinder bearing a Greek inscription, "Maria, daughter of Levi," surmounted by removable branches in the form of dolphins holding drip glasses, or small containers for oil. Suspended from three long chains, it would have shed a bright circle of light inside the building, far outshining in intensity the more commonplace terracotta lamps with a single spout.
This chandelier is one of a series of chandeliers with hinged branches and a number of light sources that were designed to be suspended. The main section is formed by a broad cylinder, with a central band of open-work Greek letters encircling the cylinder and spelling out "Maria, daughter of Levi." The beginning and end of the inscription are separated by sheaf design. A base reinforces the bottom of the cylinder, so that the chandelier could be placed on a flat surface. The three long brass chains by which the object was suspended are positioned around three removable groups of four dolphin silhouettes. Each of the twelve dolphins holds a hinge in its mouth; these hinges consist of two rings attached to the main cylinder. The upturned tails of the dolphins hold rings that support the small oil containers or drip glasses (these are modern additions). The chandelier thus provides twelve sources of light (polylychnion). With its hinged branches and base, this was a practical lamp that could be moved around the church and transported with ease. Like other liturgical objects, it was stored in a cupboard. Examples of chandeliers with cylindrical bodies and hinged branches are also found in Islamic and Armenian cultures.
The dolphin theme was very common in Christian Egypt, particularly on chandeliers and lamps. The Apostles were likened to dolphins because they saved lost souls, just as dolphins save the victims of shipwrecks. The number of dolphins here (twelve) is thus not coincidental and may carry a symbolic meaning. The purely decorative function of these creatures is also important. Here, the craftsman has displayed great ingenuity in using the shape of the animal's body to suit his design.
The function of the chandelier
The chandelier's primary function was naturally to provide illumination. But its materials and dimensions, the number of its drip glasses and its inscription all indicate that it was probably commissioned by a wealthy worshipper and donor, who thus linked her name with a craft or a wish. We do not know where in Egypt this piece was discovered, so any speculation must be undertaken with caution.
BibliographyBénazeth D., L'art du métal au début de l'ère chrétienne, Paris, RMN, 1992, p. 124, 144, 145, 146, 147, 156.
Byzantine era, 5th-7th century
Cast and cut metal; open-work and turning; copper-based alloy, brass chain
H. 18 cm; Diam. 4!.5 cm (open); L. (three chains) 61 cm
E 11916 (3)
Lower ground floor
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