Bronze Double-Wicked Oil Lamp

SKU LO.1086

11th Century AD to 13th Century AD


4.5″ (11.4cm) high




Central Asia

Gallery Location



Cast and engraved copper alloy oil lamp with a closed body,inspired by Byzantine prototypes, two long covered wicks with spade-shaped knobbed mouth, a small thumb-piece, a large ring-handle projecting straight up with a three- dimensional bird on top. The globular body flattened and bearing a wave band around the opening. In the centre a circular hole, covered by a domed lid with raised knob hinged at the back of the opening. On both sides of the body, a small lobed palmette projecting handle. The lamp is supported by a tall detachable base with large splayed foot, a feature encountered mostly in Khurasan, and a straight neck. On the foot, an incised band of downturned palmettes.

The roots of Islamic metalwork are to be found in Byzantium and Persia. In the early 7th century the Arabs took over these two great empires and absorbed local metal techniques and typologies, and contributed to a new development in metalwork by adding inscriptions in kufic script. Not much is known of the art of metalwork in Persia and Central Asia in the early Islamic period, with the exception of few large dishes datable to the Ghaznavids, until the Seljuq period, when new forms started to appear, while lavish inlays and incrustation of gold, silver and copper crept onto the surface.

This lamp was cast in separate pieces then soldered together. It was probably made of high tin bronze (also called quarternary bronze- an alloy of copper and about 20 per cent tin). This alloy was known in early Islamic times as asfidroy, literally 'white copper' and was used for bowls, stem bowls, dishes, ewers and candlesticks. Amongst the particular properties of high tin bronze is that it can be red-hot forged, like iron, and if quenched, becomes reasonably malleable when cold. If permitted to cool slowly than hammered, it shatters. Three centres of quarternary bronze manufacture are recorded in Islamic texts of the 10th-11th centuries: Rabinjian near Bukhara, Hamadan in western Persia and Sistan province in eastern Persia. Transoxiana, i.e. Eastern Persia and Afghanistan, provided the inspiration for the Hamadan industry as well and kept on producing high-tin copper alloy vessels well into the 13th century, although with less originality than before. The presence of asculptural finial of a bird, a feature often encountered on ewers handles from the Seljuq period in Eastern Iran and Afghanistan, would seem to indicate a date ranging from the 10th to the 12th century AD and a provenance further to the East, i.e. in the Transoxian area of Afghanistan. Indeed Afghanistan was allegedly the main centre of production for the most ambitious cast bronzes of the early Islamic times, as it continued its pre- Islamic tradition of Buddhist cast images with work for an increasingly non-Buddhist clientele. This beautifully decorated oil lamp, also called 'cheragh',would seem to corroborate it.

For a similar bird finial see: Allan, J.W. Metalwork of the Islamic World, the Aron Collection, 1986: pl.26, p. 117. And for a discussion on early Islamic oil lamps see, Allan, J.W. Nishapur, Metalwork from the Early Islamic Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1982: pp. 45-9.

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