I attended a lovely reception last night (April 20) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Randall Library for the opening of “Illumination,” a one month show focusing on research conducted by UNCW Art History students, under the guidance of Professor Nick Hudson, on a group of 100 ancient oil lamps and pottery vessels from the Levant. The lamps and vessels were a gift I arranged for one of my long term clients to make, and I worked closely with Prof. Hudson on completing this gift. The show continues through May 30 and is well worth a visit if you are in Wilmington. Here are a few images.
In January of this year I wrote a brief article for this Blog dealing with my own experiences as both a dealer in ancient Mediterranean art and an artist myself, and the influence one has upon the other. The article was inspired by an exhibition that was a collaboration between the British Museum and Turner Contemporary at Margate, England. Turner Contemporary has commissioned artist Hannah Lees to respond to a group of Roman Samian Ware bowls, part of the BM’s collections, that had been washed ashore from a Roman shipwreck quite near Margate. The result was a thoughtful collaboration between modern art and the art of antiquity, offering modern viewers a new level of insight into the art and artifacts of the ancient past, while also recontextualizing the modern work.
In that January article I compared some of own work to ancient and later works that had influenced my approach, even if I had not been fully aware when I was making it. In this article I’d like to continue exploring that theme. When I first began to make art of my own a few years ago, I made a very conscious effort to avoid copying or even allowing myself to be influenced by the types of art and artifacts I handled and sold every day as an antiquities dealer. Of course, one cannot entirely block out all influences. These will surface, as they did in my case, whether one likes it or not. So at some point I began to make, not copies but stylistically similar objects in some media, such as ceramics, to those I found appealing, not just from antiquity but the more recent past, as well. A good example is comparing the 13th Century French medieval tankard (top) with my own stoneware tankard with a pie crust foot (below), though mine was influenced perhaps more by medieval English types.
As I continued with this theme, I found great value in learning how ancient and other more recent works had been made from a technical standpoint. It is widely known that relatively few people in the field of art history have much practical experience in studio art. Having spent so much time the last few years working in various media in a studio setting, I can say with certainty that a more substantial studio art regimen should be a requirement for art historians. The insights gained from the practical side of “doing” art lend themselves well to finding answers to the many technical questions art historians must ask about individual works or whole classes of objects. Below is a series of images of English slipware, some marbled, some trail decorated, from the late 1600s to early 1800s. Below these, my own reinterpretations of these styles and techniques.
Medieval pottery of all sorts has long been an area of interest for me. So when I decided to make a “medieval” plate of my own, I added some personal touches. I simplified the central design so that it stood out against a cream to white plain background. I also set one of the fleur-des-lis in the surrounding “frame” off center, so as to eliminate any possibility of the piece being interpreted in a religious framework. Below are two examples of medieval to post-medieval plates of the sort I might have imagined when I was creating my own work, which is shown beneath them.
Still on the subject of pottery, closed form vessels have long been symbolic of many things to many cultures. One common thread is the notion of the female form as a vessel or of a vessel being analogous to female fertility. This last idea was widespread in popular – as opposed to official – religious thought in both classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. The transport amphora, the incredibly common pottery vessel used from at least the 7th Century BC through to the Byzantine period, and in some parts of the Mediterranean world right up into the modern era, certainly can be equated in many ways with the female form, in all its variety. Amphorae came in all shapes and sizes, depending on the products they carried, popular style preferences and by time period. Look at some of the examples below:
I have always had a strong personal response to this form. In 2015 I made the collage piece below. It involves simply colored paper and watercolors on a board backing. I found the act of repeating the small amphora shape over and over irresistible.
My favorite medium is glass, in all its forms. This includes glassblowing, flame or torch working, slumping, casting and enameling. Perhaps no other form of glass is so strikingly beautiful to my eye as the ancient glass inlays produced in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. Expensive to produce and time consuming to make, the astonishingly precise, technically accomplished small scale works were used as furniture inlays, architectural components and enhancements to a variety of small objects. Having worked in glass myself – torch work, blowing and enamels – I can fully appreciate the extraordinary technical skills of the ancient craftspeople who made these objects, using relatively simple technology. In making enamel pendants, I’ve had the opportunity to use a clean white enamel background against which to set simple multi-colored canes of glass. The effects are quite pleasing, though they seem paltry compared with the extraordinary mosaic glass products of post-dynastic Egypt. Below are two examples of Egyptian glass inlays from the Ptolemaic (305-30 BC) Period and very early Roman Period (30 BC-100 AD). Below them, two examples of my own work using enamel on copper with glass canes.
Egyptian mosaic glass griffin inlay. Ptolemaic Period, Circa 2ND-1ST Century BC
I could not review my personal relationship with and interpretation of the art of past without a brief visit to the shrine of Mark Rothko. In my opinion, Rothko was the greatest painter since Turner; certainly the greatest of the 20th Century. I can remember being quite young and visiting the Berkeley Art Museum, standing in front of several large Rothko canvases. I was stunned but didn’t know at that age how to articulate what I was seeing and experiencing. In fact, it was decades more before I really could. I have never tried to “copy” or in any way imitate Rothko. But his influence on my response to the visible world is always present and beyond my control. Perhaps it is no surprise that he was also a great lover of antiquity and also of Renaissance art. Below are two fine examples of his large canvases. Below them, two pieces of mine in very different media that I think are directly influenced by my reaction to Rothko’s work.
I am more convinced than ever that taking time to explore linkages in visual language and modes of expression in cultures separated by great distances in time and geography can help viewers appreciate more deeply both the ancient and modern.
This Blog has many links to Clio Ancient Art’s online stores. To access my personal artwork, go to (opens in a new tab or window): https://www.etsy.com/shop/PastPresentArtCraft
Our object of the week is an unusual type of pottery oil lamp dating from the later years of the Roman Empire, not long before the full transition of the Empire’s eastern half to what we now call the Byzantine Empire. This general type of pottery lamp seems to have been manufactured at workshops in northern Syria, and possibly further south into what is now Lebanon, over a period of nearly 200 years. Our example seems to date to the earliest phase of production and features some quite unusual characteristics, outlined below.
The most obvious and uncommon aspect of this lamp is the long, pointed handle. Most late Roman and early Byzantine period lamps manufactured in the Near East feature short handles of spike or thumb shape. The long, rather delicate form of this lamp’s handle is both aesthetically pleasing and uncommon.
The other interesting aspect of this lamp is its combination of decorative elements. The raised pellets around the central fill hole were a common theme on this broad category of lamps over a long period. But the cross-like image in low relief at the rear of the lamp, and continuing upward onto the handle, is puzzling. At first glance, this appears to be a Patriarchal cross, a type featuring two cross bars over the central vertical bar. But this type of cross did not appear in any numbers until the 9th and 10th Centuries in the Byzantine Empire. An alternative explanation might be that this was an attempt to depict the so-called “Tau” cross, the simple T-shaped crosses on which criminals were sometimes executed in the Roman Empire. But the image is still vague. In our opinion, any attempt to assign this cross-like relief image to a specific type of Christian iconography is no more than guess work.
Just as baffling is the maker’s mark or decorative element on the lamp’s flat base, shown below. Connected to a stylized palm frond that runs the length of the nozzle’s underside is a radiating sixteen pointed element set inside concentric raised circles with simple hatching between them. At first glance, this starburst design looks for all the world like the Union Jack on flags from Great Britain. But closer inspection shows another set of eight spokes in much lower relief between the eight main spokes. Is this a maker’s mark or is it simply a pleasant design? And in either case, does it carry any early Christian symbolism, as it resembles both a cross and a Chi-Rho symbol or Christogram?
In view of the date at which this piece was made, around 400 AD, and the combination of decorative elements (a possible cross on the upper surface, a palm frond – an image re-purposed from Pagan antiquity – and the cross-like design on the base,) it seems most likely that this lamp was made for sale to Christian customers. However, it is worth noting that at least in the Levantine region, pottery lamp makers did not seem to favor a specific category of client. Whether Christian, Jewish, Samaritan or Pagan, lamp makers seem to have created products for all types of customers and with all types of imagery.
This lamp is available in our eBay store here – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Late-Roman-Pottery-Oil-Lamp-AD-400-Holy-Land-/132102302002?hash=item1ec1e92932:g:BMoAAOSwCGVX8ENH
and in our Etsy store here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/292086487/late-roman-pottery-oil-lamp-ad-400-holy?ref=shop_home_active_11
This week’s featured object does not come from the Mediterranean, Classical or Near Eastern worlds but from Southeast Asia. It represents an important phase in Asian history in which China retreated from the world stage, leaving smaller kingdoms to fill the resulting gap in international trade.
In a Blog article earlier this month (https://clioantiquities.wordpress.com/2016/10/01/distant-connections-contact-and-object-exchange-between-mediterranean-and-far-east-asian-civilizations-in-the-first-few-centuries-ce/) we explored recently unearthed connections between the Mediterranean world and East Asia, focusing on portable objects found many thousands of miles away from their points of origin. This week’s antiquity ties in well with that theme.
To put this object in context, it is worth reviewing the early years of China’s Ming Dynasty. The Ming were of true Chinese ancestry, unlike the previous Yuan Dynasty of Mongol origin. The third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, asserted Chinese authority, from the Mongol regions to the north, the Tibetan Plateau to the east, Korea and Japan to the west and Southeast Asia. He was also responsible for assembling the vast naval flotilla of ocean-going ships that would sail under the Imperial Eunuch Zheng He, reaching points as far away as India, Yemen and the Middle East and even the east coast of Africa. Zheng He, despite being raised in the Imperial Court, was born Muslim in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, a background that made him uniquely qualified to lead the famed “Seven Voyages.”
Despite great interest aroused by overseas expeditions, the Ming were facing difficulties with their expansionist policies. Attempts to subdue Japan and Vietnam proved costly and unsuccessful, while extravagance at home, including construction of the new Capital at Beijing and its Forbidden City, drained the state coffers. Conservative Confucian elements succeeded in reversing Ming internationalist policies, even banning construction of seagoing ships. Zheng He’s travel chronicles were officially condemned and forgotten. Export of Chinese products, especially much valued porcelain, dried up.
Stepping into the resulting market void were newly resurgent states, including the Kingdom of Ayudhya (also spelled Ayutthaya) in what is now Thailand. Conveniently for the Kingdom, the neighboring Khmer Empire (centered in what is now Cambodia) collapsed just as the last of Zheng He’s Seven Voyages was underway. Ayudhya and its predecessor Kingdom of Sukhothai, which became its vassal, were fortunate to be located in a region with converging river systems that provided the clay needed for pottery production and the transport system for exporting finished ceramics. With the Ming Chinese largely out of the trade picture, Thai ceramic artists produced great quantities of high-end celadon wares, underglaze wares, including blue floral underglaze wares to imitate Ming porcelains, and simple stonewares with thick glazes of brown or green. This week’s featured object belongs to this last category. These wares were produced at hundreds of known kiln sites around Sawankalok in Thailand’s north-central region. This has resulted in some confusion, with the place names, pottery types and phases becoming interchangeable, to include Sawankalok, Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai (another location with a concentration of kilns). All of these ceramic types were widely exported, with finds not only throughout Southeast Asia but as far away as the Philippines to the west, Indonesia to the south and even the Islamic world. Our example was found as a burial offering in the Philippines in the early 1960s.
To learn more about this antiquity or to acquire it, visit our online stores –
There have been several exciting antiquities related developments in the news over the past month, particularly in the field of Roman archaeology. Here is a roundup of some we found especially interesting (links open in a new tab or window). –
* A great short video on one artifact from The British Museum’s multicultural Sicily exhibition – https://youtu.be/rLhfKLGEY2U
* Rare discovery of Late Roman official buried in Leicester –
* Roman Ceramic Factory Found in Israel – http://www.livescience.com/55523-roman-pottery-shop-israel-photos.html
* Bronze figure of Roman goddess unearthed at Arbeia
in South Shields – http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/bronze-figure-roman-goddess-unearthed-11673851
* August Blog update on excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort – http://www.vindolanda.com/_blog/excavation
Many of the ancient oil lamps we offer at Clio Ancient Art are Byzantine, mainly from the Levant (what is now southern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel / Palestine). Unlike Roman hard fired ceramic red slip lamps of earlier centuries, Byzantine lamps tend to be made from low fired pottery and their designs often reflect early Christian symbolism. Our object of the week is the superb Byzantine pottery oil lamp shown above.
This object dates to the 6th or beginning of the 7th Century AD, just before the advent of Islam in the region. It was probably made in that part of modern Israel / Palestine that is often referred to as Samaria. It measures just under 4 inches in length and remarkably well preserved, with very crisp surfaces. It is formed of slightly pinkish buff clay and rests on a flat base. The upper surfaces are decorated in relief with alternating groups of vertical lines and stylized bunches of grapes inside circles. It has a small saddle shaped handle and more grape motifs on the nozzle and wick hole, which also has slight indications of carbon black from use.
On lamps of this type the large circular discus typical of earlier Roman lamps that had served as a kind of “canvas” for decorative images is gone. The decoration here is focused on the shoulders of the lamp. This rule applies to several classes of low fired pottery lamps produced during the very late Roman period, throughout the Byzantine period and into the early Islamic period in the Levantine region. The well preserved surface decoration on this example includes bunches of grapes, an early Christian motif suggesting rebirth. The same motif was widely used earlier in Roman iconography in association with Dionysus, the god of wine.
This lamp comes from a very large private collection assembled by a United Nations peacekeeping officer serving in Jerusalem in the mid-1960s. At the outset of the 1967 war, the collection was crated up and shipped to the United States, where his surviving relatives only opened the crates in 2012.
If you are interested in acquiring this object, which is modestly priced, you may find it on our eBay shop here (new tab or window) – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Superb-Byzantine-Pottery-Oil-Lamp-/131818636494?hash=item1eb100c4ce:g:rEQAAOxy69JTAkNE
Or on our Etsy shop here (new tab or window) – https://www.etsy.com/listing/265229854/byzantine-pottery-oil-lamp-6th-7th?ref=shop_home_active_18
There are a number of excellent online and print resources for ancient oil lamps, and especially for Levantine examples of this period. In print, we recommend: Rosenthal and Sivan, Ancient Lamps in the Schloessinger Collection, Jerusalem, 1978 (this is an older work and some issues pertaining to exact dates and locations of manufacture are still debated but overall still an excellent reference). Online, we recommend the RomQ Reference Collection (opens in a new tab or window): http://www.romulus2.com/lamps/index.shtml
Customers. Friends and Fans:
We have updated the Clio Ancient Art with some very fine Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman antiquities in faience, bronze, glass and ceramic, as well as Roman, Byzantine and medieval coins. The Egyptian and Hellenistic items in particular have an exceptional provenance. Here they are with links to each item –
- An Egyptian Bronze Statuette of Nefertum – http://clioancientart.com/ancientegyptianartandantiquitiesforsale.aspx
- An Egyptian Blue-Green Faience Lion Amulet – http://clioancientart.com/anegyptianblue-greenfaiencelionamulet.aspx
- A Large Hellenistic Wheel-Made Ceramic Oil Lamp – http://clioancientart.com/alargehellenisticwheel-madeceramicoillamp.aspx
- A Group of Two Hellenistic Ceramic Oil Lamps – http://clioancientart.com/agroupoftwohellenisticceramicoillamps.aspx
- A Large Late Roman Trail Decorated Barrel Shaped Glass Bead – http://clioancientart.com/alargelateromantraildecoratedbarrelshapedglassbead.aspx
- A Large Late Roman Trail Decorated Spherical Glass Bead – http://clioancientart.com/alargelateromantraildecoratedsphericalglassbead.aspx
- A Romano-British Bronze Fibula (Brooch) – http://clioancientart.com/aromano-britishbronzebrooch.aspx
- An Early Roman European Bronze Fibula (Brooch) – http://clioancientart.com/anearlyromaneuropeanbronzefibulabrooch.aspx
- A Roman Bronze Bow Fibula (Brooch) – http://clioancientart.com/aromanbronzebowfibulabrooch.aspx
- Roman Empire, Silver Denarius of Gordion III http://clioancientart.com/romanempiresilverdenariusofgordioniii.aspx
- Kingdom of Armenia, Levon IV, 1320-1342 AD, Bronze 13 mm – http://clioancientart.com/kingdomofarmenialevoniv1320-1342adbronze13mm.aspx
- Byzantine Empire, Bronze Follis of Justin II and Sophia, AD 565-578 – http://clioancientart.com/byzantineempirebronzefollisofjustiniiandsophiaad565-578.aspx
- Byzantine Empire, Bronze Follis of Constans II, AD 641-668 – http://clioancientart.com/byzantineempirebronzefollisofconstansiiad641-668.aspx
Thank you for visiting our site. We can also be found on Etsy, Ebay and on Shopify via our Facebook page.
Chris M. Maupin
Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities
Regular customers of Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities know that in addition to antiquities, ancient artifacts and ancient coins, we also offer a wide range of books, catalogs and journals dealing with ancient art. We’ve just updated that section of our website with some excellent titles, some out of print and hard to find, dealing with such diverse topics as the artistic and architectural heritage of Constantinople / Istanbul, Parthian and Sassanian Mesopotamia and Iran, Cypriot antiquities, the Etruscans, Greek and Etruscan pottery, and much more. Most titles are in the $10 – $15 or less price range. Our Books section may be accessed here (opens in a new tab or window): http://clioancientart.com/framedandun-framedartbooksandpublications.aspx
Here is another in our series of short, informal videos dealing with various aspects of antiquities collecting. In this video, a brief look at ancient oil lamps (opens in a new window or tab): https://youtu.be/hQq_zBME874