Oil lamp in the form of a theatre mask

A bronze oil lamp made by the lost-wax technique. The fuel chamber has the form of the head of an actor wearing a theatre mask representing tragedy. His face brings to mind one of the masked male faces depicted in the mosaic of two masked faces from the 2nd Century AD, which is conserved in the Musei Capitolini in Rome.

There were various types of mask depicting comedy, tragedy and satire. The first were rather rough, with crossed eyes, twisted mouth and ravaged cheeks. The tragic masks were notably larger and had look of fury, with curled hair and deformed forehead or temples. The masks of satire were more grotesque, representing extravagant and fantastic figures like cyclopes, centaurs, fauns and satyrs.

The mouth of the mask serves as the pouring hole. Below this and projecting forward is a nozzle with a circular hole for the wick. On both sides and the mouth we find two very small circular holes so that the lamp could be hung up with a chain. A hollow square can be seen at the back of the head where the handle of the lamp would have been inserted. Today this piece is lost.

Ancient Roman lamps were small utensils, normally made from clay, but also made in bronze, which were used by the ancient Romans and later by the Visigoths to provide artificial light. They were fuelled with olive oil and had from one to a dozen wicks. Some had handles so that they could be moved easily from one room to another. They could also be carried by participants in ritual activities or by actors in plays, as is the case with this piece, as can be seen by the theatre mask decoration.

Different types of scenes could be seen in relief on lamps: erotic scenes, ones with gladiators, motifs from mythology or floral patterns. These lamps became very popular as they were not expensive. They were produced en masse using moulds instead of being individually produced by craftsmen.

The culture of the theatre flourished in Ancient Greece between 550 and 220 BC. It would seem that Greek theatre began in circular spaces in the open air, normally taking advantage of slopes in the terrain or on the side of a mountain and so making the construction of terraces of seating relatively easy. Later, Roman culture absorbed this cultural element and introduced it into their cities. Through the use of semi-circular arches the construction of theatres could be carried out in the centre of a community: there was no need to use mountain sides.

The popularization and great attraction of theatre led to the creation of a series of artistic objects based on this theme. Common among these were the masks in terracotta and stone carved as decorative elements, and various sculptures on a small scale of actors were also common. Even the rites and scenes from theatre were represented in mosaics and frescos.

Greek masks to be used in the theatre were made from hardened linen and then painted in polychrome. The material was not very resistant and so no mask has been conserved to the present day. We can only imagine what they must have looked like from the representations in terracotta, stone and bronze. Their distinct and exaggerated features made characters recognisable at a distance and helped amplify the voice. However, the most significant role of the mask was that of transformation: an ordinary man could go beyond his real identity and become a mythological hero or a lusty satyr, a foolish old man or a beautiful young woman, a god or a slave. In this disguise he could say and do things that could not be said and done in everyday life, and could present to the audience events, actions and ideas that were horrifying or ridiculous, fantastic, inspiring or even politically incorrect.

Throughout the Greek world, performances of plays were usually connected with worship of the god Dionysus. It is the idea of transformation that lies at the root of this association. Although Dionysus is often thought of simply as the god of wine, it is the transformational power of wine that most characterises him. Dionysus was fundamentally the god of changeability: grapes become wine, sober becomes drunk, human becomes animal, order becomes chaos.

The technique of lost-wax casting is a sculptural procedure using a mould made from a prototype of the piece to be worked, and this prototype is usually made from beeswax. This is covered with a thick layer of soft material, usually clay, which then solidifies. Once this has hardened it is put in a kiln where the wax inside melts and leaks out through expressly made holes in the clay. In its place molten metal is injected and this takes on the exact form of the mould. To release the final piece the mould must be removed.


- BIEBER M. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton. 1961.
- HART, M. L. The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles. 2010.

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