Early Christian Terracotta Oil Lamp - CHI RHO - c. 450-550 AD



Early Christian Terracotta Oil Lamp with CHI RHO SYMBOL, Eastern Roman/Byzantine, Circa 450-550 AD.

A large mould made terracotta oil lamp with raised designs covering the top of the body. The primary design in the discus is the CHI RHO – an early Christian Symbol. Surrounding the shoulder are twelve circles, possibly signifying the 12 Apostles. Overall length 5 3/8 inches.

This distinctive high quality lamp of red clay was made in Northern Africa (Tunisia),  at Carthage or Thysdrus (El Djem). Lamps from these North African workshops were exported through the Byzantine Empire. Carthage was an important center and had a Byzantine Imperial mint from c. 533-695 AD. 

This is a rare lamp with Byzantine Christian symbolism. Similar lamps are depicted in Harvard Divinity School, 2002 “Light from the Age of Augustine”, # 9, 52 (with retrograde chi rho as on this example) and 54. Other lamps with similar features are in British Museum Catalog III, #Q1753-1774, and as exhibit 11.7.4 and 11.7.5 in the 2005 exhibition catalog "Kreuz und Kruzifix"., Diocese Museum of Friesing, Germany

Excellent condition, with minor pitting and evidence of use.

Provenance: formerly Howard Rose gallery NY. Ex Michael Shubin collection, AZ - acquired Superior Auction Gallery, Beverly Hill, CA, 1970's.

In the villas, palaces and shops of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine Empires terracotta oil lamps were the primary means of artificial lighting. They were usually filled with olive oil and held a wick (linen was the most often used material). They burned for hours to light up the ancient world. The rich, in their villas, needed hundreds; the poor had only a few.

  • Inventory# PA-3305