From the Collections: A bronze lamp from Khurasan (Zohra Kalani)


This is an ornate bronze lamp, dating back to somewhere between the 12-14th centuries, most likely of Iranian origin. It is clear that the body, handle, base, and lid were cast separately by the presence of the welding marks between each individual part. The handle has a thumb rest at the top, with the figure of a mythical hybrid of a woman and bird, which was in typical fashion of oil lamps from the region of Khorasan. There are intricate geometric designs of a different metal engraved onto the surface of the lamp. These designs are fairly common of Islamic art, which use intricate geometric figures and symmetrical designs.  With closer examination, however, one can see the form of a bird hidden in the geometric and linear design on the sides of the lamp.   At the top of the lamp is a line of pseudo-Kufic script, which compliments the geometric and linear designs found all over the body and base. Though it is a dark, aged green color now, the lamp at the time of its use would have been a magnificent, gleaming bronze.

The lamp is fairly large, which suggests that it might have been used to illuminate spaces for an extended amount of time. Due to its significant weight and broad base, it was probably not carried around often. Rather, it was set down for long periods of time, possibly during dinners or get-togethers.  It was also most likely found in upper-class households due to the use of bronze casting and fine metalwork. The lamp is very ornate, and was probably only used for special occasions where one’s status was made apparent.

Some of the decorative nuances of the lamp contribute to its beauty and its purpose as a form of functional art. Some of the more striking aspects of the lamp include the engravings of the birds hidden in geometric patterns, and the hooves and hind legs of what seem to be cattle on the sides of the lamp. At first thought, one might find it peculiar that there are figural representations in early Islamic art. However, this opposition to representing living forms in art was more restricted in religious and devotional art. In the secular realm, it was quite common to portray figures of animals and people in art. This is an example of the influence of art from newly conquered lands in the Islamic empire during its expansion. Artists freely adapted figural forms in their art, and this can be seen in the unique figure of the hybrid seen at the top of lamp’s handle. Another striking feature of the lamp is the pseudo-Kufic  script that is at the top. While it was common to see this script in non-Islamic art due Islamic influence in Europe and other places outside of the empire, it is curious to see this same form in Islamic art. Perhaps the pseudo-script was used to maintain the continuity of the geometric art; perhaps the lamp was made in Iran by somebody who was not a native of the land. Nevertheless, the lamp is a stunning relic of art and utility in the early Islamic world.


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