Swan-shaped oil lamp

A bronze lamp made using the lost-wax technique. The body is in the shape of a sawn – not that of a duck or goose, a mistake habitually made about such pieces. The tale has a circular hole, which is where the wick would be put into the deposit. At the end of the neck, on the plumage, a bigger hole can be seen, where the oil would be introduced into the deposit, occupying the central body of the animal and thus indicating a real, not simply decorative use of the lamp.

The realism in the working of the swan is of note.: the bird is stationary, holding its head upright and turned towards its back. The plumage, the anatomical details of the head, the legs and beak area all perfect. The idea of working the lamp in the form of a swan is due to the popular Greek myth of Leda and Zeus: the latter in the seduced Leda in the guise of a swan, and she then bore the half-brothers, Castor and Pollox. In Antiquity these twins were the symbol of fraternal love. As with many Greek myths these protagonists became cult objects wherever the Romans ventured, and so the fable of the brothers found parallels in other mythologies, such as, for example, Romulus and Remus.

Leda and the Swan is a story and subject in art from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces (or in some versions, rapes) Leda. According to later Greek mythology, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. According to many versions of the story, Zeus took the form of a swan and seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched. In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.

The subject was rarely seen in the large-scale sculpture of antiquity, small-scale sculptures survive showing both reclining and standing poses, in cameos and engraved gems, rings, and terracotta oil lamps. Thanks to the literary renditions of Ovid and Fulgentius it was a well-known myth through the Middle Ages, but emerged more prominently as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones, in the Italian Renaissance.

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 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.


- Roman Oil Lamp in the shape of a swan with the representation of Castor and Pollux. Karak Museum. Jordan. Inventory number 1115.


- BAILEY, D.M. A Catalogue of the Lamps in the British Museum. IV. Lamps of Metal and Stone and Lampstands. London. 1988.

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