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Lamp in the Form of a Peacock

Early Byzantine
6th century - 7th century
15.4 cm x 13 cm (6 1/16 in. x 5 1/8 in.)

On view


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Bronze-casting lends itself to the creation of objects emulating other shapes and forms. Artisans made lamps in a variety of shapes, resembling buildings, boats, pine cones, feet, griffins, and birds. Among the many bird lamps, peacocks figure quite prominently, surviving in almost twenty examples. The attraction of the peacock is both aesthetic—because of the flamboyant plumage with the “eye” design—and symbolic. Because peacocks were thought to shed their tail feathers in the winter and regrow them in the spring, and because their flesh was thought to be incorruptible, the peacock appears in a wide variety of contexts as a symbol of resurrection. At Dumbarton Oaks, the sixth-century hexagonal silver censer (accession no. BZ.1965.1.5) has legs in the form of peacocks. They also appear among the vegetation and fountains of paradise in the illuminated canon tables of our Gospel Book (Manuscript 5; accession no. BZ.2009.033, fols. 3v, 4r).

In this clever use of the motif, the neck and head form the handle, and the tail forms the spout for the burning wick. The fill hole in the bird’s back is covered by a separately-cast hinged door, camouflaged by a relief pattern and engraved details which help it to blend in with the wing feathers. There is a square hole in the bottom of the lamp so that it can be mounted on a pricket lampstand (cf. accession no. BZ.1933.3) where it may have appeared to be nesting.

- J. Hanson

Pagan and Christian Egypt; Egyptian Art from the First to the Tenth Century A. D, exhibition catalogue, Brooklyn Museum, January 23-March 9, 1941, (Brooklyn, 1941), no. 93.

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 42, no. 74.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 39, no. 79, pl. p. 50.

M. C. Ross, "Byzantine Bronze Peacock Lamps," Archaeology 13 (1960): 134-36, esp. 136, fig. p. 136.

M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 1, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting (Washington, D.C., 1962), 39, no. 41, pl. XXVIII.

K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst; die Spätantike in Ägypten, 1 ed. (Recklinghausen, 1963), 27, fig. 19.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 33, no. 116.

A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 322, fig. pp. 326,327.

Byzance: l'art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, 3 November 1992-1 February 1993, (Paris, 1992) 122.

L. Bouras and M. G. Parani, Lighting in Early Byzantium, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 11 (Washington, D.C.:[Cambridge, Mass.], 2008), 18, 60, 61, no. 12, and front cover.

Exhibition History
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum, "Pagan and Christian Egypt," 1940.

Cambridge, Fogg Museum, "A Selection of Ivories, Bronzes, Metalwork and Other Objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, 1945.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Joseph Brummer (dealer) by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, March 26, 1940;

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, March-November, 1940;

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.