On the Lamps, Candelabra and Lights of the Paleochristian Basilica

Thinking about the atmosphere of the paleochristian basilicas in the Rome of Constantine and thereafter is a subject that can be quite tantalizing if you use a little liturgical history combined with some imagination.  What were they like? In many regards they're going to be far more familiar than one might think, after all, the basilica form of architecture is something one can still find today, and while there have been modifications, the fundamental parts have changed very little.  A nave, columns, the altar (likely covered by a ciborium) and so on. The Christian basilica arrangement is a direct descendent of the Roman one, tweaked to suit liturgical worship and ecclesiastical personages instead of political and judicial ones. Effectively then, a paleochristian basilica would have looked something akin to this:

Effectively then, a long, rectangular space, frequently a row of columns to either side with an aisle to the outer edges; an apse where the altar has taken its place and the seat of the Roman official has come to be replaced by the sedilia of the bishop.  Windows were typically smaller in size, and thus the interiors were reasonably dim.

This aspect of the lighting is important because one of the more atmospheric components I wished to key in on in this article are the historical use of 'lights'' in these structures -- and after all, why not, they were frequently commented on by writers of the very era in question with a sense of awe and wonder.

One of the most interesting books for beginning to consider the liturgical art and environment of the paleochristian basilica is the Liber Pontificalis (The Book of the Popes) -- a collection of papal biographies from the time of St. Peter to -- originally -- the late ninth century pope, Stephen V.  Now this might seem like an odd place to consider the subject at hand, but for those not familiar with this important work, aside from biographical details of the various popes it also accounts for details of the various Roman churches, including liturgical furnishings donated to the same.  In many regards we are told of liturgical art which is no longer extant, such as articles which were lost in the sack of Rome in the fifth century. 

So for example, we read that:

In his time Constantine Augustus built the following basilicas and adorned them:

The Constantinian basilica [the Lateran Archbasilica], where he offered the following gifts: a ciborium of hammered silver, which has upon the front the Saviour seated upon a chair, in height 5 feet, weighing 120 lbs., and also the 12 apostles, who weigh each ninety pounds and are 5 feet in height and wear crowns of purest silver; further, on the back, looking toward the apse are the Savior seated upon a throne in height 5 feet, of purest silver, weighing 140 lbs., and 4 angels of silver, which are each 5 feet in height upon the sides and carry crosses and weigh each 105 lbs. and have jewels from Alavanda in their eyes. The ciborium itself weighs 2025 lbs. of wrought silver; a vaulted ceiling of purest gold ; and a lamp of purest gold, which hangs beneath the ciborium, with 50 dolphins of purest gold, weighing each 50 lbs., and chains which weigh 25 lbs. 


For ornament in the basilica:
  • a chandelier of purest gold before the altar, wherein burns pure oil of nard, with 80 dolphins, weighing 30 lbs.; 
  • a silver chandelier with 20 dolphins, which weighs 50 lbs.,wherein burns pure oil of nard; 
  • 45 silver chandeliers in the body of the basilica, weighing each 30 lbs., wherein burns the aforesaid oil; 
  • on the right side of the basilica 40 silver lamps, weighing each 20 lbs.; 
  • 25 silver chandeliers on the left side of the basilica, weigh- ing each 20 lbs.; 
  • 50 silver candelabra in the body of the basilica, weighing each 20 lbs.; 
  • 3 jars of purest silver, weighing each 300 lbs., holding 10 medimni; 
  • 7 brass candlesticks before the altars, 10 feet in height, adorned with figures of the prophets overlaid with silver, weighing each 300 lbs.; and for maintenance of the lights there he granted... [various estates are listed]
In this description of one basilica alone -- albeit a significant one needless to say -- there is a great deal that one could unpack, and as the inventory of the Emperor Constantine's gifts to the Lateran basilica are listed, one cannot but help to imagine how these might have looked both in their own right and in relation to one another within the basilica itself.  

I. The Broader Historical Context

One thing that night surprise people reading this is the description of candelabra and lamps with dolphin figures. How might these have appeared? What about the other lamps or the great candlesticks described before the altars? To approach this, we need to step back in time and consider what lighting was like in general in the Roman period of history. 

Examples of different Roman lamps

Lamps might be of a table top variety, they might be standing lamps, or they night be suspended from chains.  Those of interest to us in particular are those of the standing and especially the hanging variety. A very simple hanging Roman lamp might have looked something like this:

Sometimes these lamps, or lampada, were of very basic forms such as this, other times they might take on figurative aspects:

Here, for example, is a hanging lampada from the Christian period, shaped in the form of a dove:

As far as "chandeliers" are concerned, in the Roman era these were frequently circular rings suspended from chains (what we sometimes call "coronae lucis"):

A contemporary example of a 'corona' that utilizes candles.

So then, with these forms in mind we can begin to imagine some of the basic forms that these might have taken.  In the case of the chandeliers with the dolphins, quite likely a figure of a dolphin, much like that of the dove lamp seen above, formed a part of the circular ring or corona, the wick and flame proceeding from its body. 

The Roman-Christian poet, Prudentius, writing in the fourth century, speaks to some of the mechanics of these lamps within the churches: 
"The lamps hang by flexible cords and shine over the ceilings to which they are fixed, and the flame, fed by floating wicks, casts its light through the clear glass. You would believe that the heavens were adorned with the twin constellations of the Wain." (Cathermerinon, V)
Further, in his hymn to St. Lawrence (Liber Peristephanon II) he also makes reference to "tapers at nocturnal feasts' that "are fixed in golden candlesticks" and, still further, in his Hynmus ad Incensum Lucernae he goes on at length about the lights of the churches:
This we nourish in lamps dripping with dewy oil, Or dry torches are lit from the celestial fire; We make candles with wicks dipped in the flowery wax, From which honey was pressed, hidden in yellow combs.

Bright the glittering flame, whether a hollow urn Feeds the oil to the wick thirsting for nutriment, Or the resin of pine burns on the flaring torch, Or coarse fibre of flax drinks up the waxen round;

Warm nectar from the crown, burning with lively flame, Tears, sweet-smelling, distills, flowing down drop by drop, For the force of the heat causes the molten wax To descend in a shower from the taper's point.

Now our temples and halls shine with Thy gifts, O God, Splendid tapers ablaze, praising the Fount of Light; Their rays vie with the day gone with the setting sun And dark night, in defeat, flees in her tattered robes.


Ceilings fretted with gold gleam with brilliant light Shed from pendulous lamps swaying on supple chains; The flame fed by the oil languidly swims about, Casting flickering rays through the translucent glass.

A point worth highlighting here is the mention of clear glass. In our town time, we are more accustomed to the use of coloured glass (frequently red) but in this period, the glass may well have been without colour. As well I would make note of the mention of fragrance in relation to these lights and, indeed, in the Liber Pontificalis we read mention of the use of spikenard oil for the purposes of burning -- an oil also mentioned biblically (see Mark 14:3). To set some background here, "nard oil" (as it is sometimes referred) was an oil that the Romans and it was also used as a basis for many ancient perfumes having a woodsy, musky, slightly floral scent to it, so one can well imagine the extremely pleasing aroma the oil would have given off, particularly as the lamps burned and warmed the oil. Similarly we read of pine resin being used, which too would give off a sweet scent akin to Frankincense. Beyond the use of oil and resin to create flame, in Roman times and before, beeswax candles were also used as Prudentius also mentions here. For anyone who has ever entered a church, particularly in modern times an Eastern Orthodox church, filled as it is with pure beeswax candles for devotional as well as liturgical purposes, the sweet aroma one is greeted with from the beeswax is both pungent and extremely compelling.

II. The Ecclesiastical Context

If these then were some of the basic forms such lamps, chandeliers, candelabra and candlesticks might have taken, how were they organized within the churches? In our own time we are accustomed to seeing candles on or around the altar, smaller votive candles possibly in front of a devotional niche, and then of course the tabernacle lamp. In terms of general lighting of the church, this is accomplished by overhead electrical lighting -- often to a fault, but that is a subject for another time.  

Suffice it to say, the paleochristian organization was similar but also had its own distinctive qualities given that these lamps served not only a liturgical, devotional and ornamental purpose, but also a practical one: lighting.

Perhaps, however, it is easiest to start with the differences of that time to our own. In the first instance it must be understood that, so far as we know, candles were not placed upon the altar itself in these earlier centuries. As mentioned above in relation to Constantine's donation of seven, ten foot high candlesticks, these were placed before the altar -- much like standards are still today in many Roman and Carthusian churches and chapels. In short, lights were placed around and near the altar in the earliest centuries. In other instances we also read references to the acolytes placing their candles either before or behind the altar -- and indeed, if one thinks of some of the extant medieval usages such as the Domincan or Carmelite rites, one can still see this practice.

By the time of the fourth century,  the prominence of the altars would come to be enhanced by the great ciborium magnum placed over them and from these not only would drapery come to be hung, but also from them were frequently hung lamps around and sometimes over the altar (as it mentioned in relation to Constantine's donation to the Lateran). This is an aspect that frequently can be found in medieval frescoes and illuminated miniatures. The following frescos, dated to the ninth century and found within the lower basilica of San Clememte in Rome, are two of the many such that show just such practices:

Note not only the lamps on the edges of the ciborium, but also the corona hanging over the altar itself

As regards the curtain, for those not familiar, a contemporary approximation of this was featured at one time in the basilica of S. Nicola in Carcere in Rome (and take note as well of the hanging lamps between the pillars of the nave):


Paulinus of Nola, the 4th and 5th century Roman-Christian poet, sets the atmosphere of these basilicas in his fourteenth poem of the Natalica of St. Felix:
Now the golden threshold is adorned with snow white curtains and the altars crowned with crowds of lanterns. The fragrant lamps burn with waxed wicks of paper, and are ablaze night and day, so that the night shines with the brightness of day, and the day, too, is bright with heavenly glory, gleaming the more since its light is redoubled by the countless lamps.
Take note of his effusive description of altars "crowned with crowds of lanterns" and of "fragrant lamps." Indeed, Paulinus of Nola elsewhere mentions that on feast days, extra lights would be lit, thus demonstrating that from early on these lights had not only a practical purpose, but also an ornamental and liturgical one.  

But if the altars were so crowned and surrounded by burning lights, what of the rest of the church building? 

Descriptions of Hagia Sophia speak to the silver coronae which hung from the ceilings and speak to rows of standards that were placed down the length of the church, as well as giant candelabra.  (See D.R. Dendy, The Use of Lights in Christian Worship, p. 9). Similarly, Bede the Venerable, writing around the turn of the eighth century, speaks to how: "You will enter by night some great building, surely a church, of unusual breadth, length and height, filled with an immense supply of burning lanterns, in honour of the martyr whose day it is. Among these are two of the largest size, of splendid workmanship, each hanging from the roof by chains." (De Temp.  Rat. 24). Similarly, the 7th century life of St. Desiderius of Cahors (d. 652) speaks to how "the crowns of light shine, the candelabra are brilliant; there are also standing candles." 

In short then, the lights, whether by lamp or candle, stood upon the floors, were hung from ceilings and ciboria, and were also at times fixed upon brackets from the walls. Their forms could be similar to the type of sanctuary lamps we are familiar with today, they could be coronae hung from chains, they might have been candlesticks or candlebra. 

III. Imagining the Experience

So then, if we were to imagine walking into one of these paleochristian basilicas, what scene might have greeted us? We would come across a typical basilica arrangement, a long rectangular, open space (sans chairs or pews), crowned by an open-timbered roof visible above, while great crowns of light, possibly of silver, the coronae lucis, were suspended from above, shining down with their warm, flickering rings of light. Down each side of the nave we would see a long row of columns and between them might hang more silver lampada, further penetrating the dim interior. The basilica itself would be clothed in ornamental marble revetements of various colours, with carvings both decorative and figural.  Down the great nave might be more great standing candelabra, shining in gold or silver and host to many more flickering flames of light. As we looked toward the direction of the altar we would see the great apse, ornamented in all likelihood by a monumental mosaic depicting Christ and his apostles and saints, its gold and other colours warmly catching and reflecting the candlelight found above and below. Beneath it we would find the altar itself, covered over by a great ciborium magnum set on four pillars, and hanging above and/or around it, more lamps, and standing around it, great candelabrum magnum. In the midst of these visual delights we would also be greeted by an olfactory one: the smell of the fragrant oils used for burning, lending a woodsy, spicy scent, to the interior, along with the sweet scents of the beeswax and pine. 

Were we to enter while the sacred liturgy was taking place, we would also hear those hallowed walls reverberating back to us the sounds of the old Roman chants while the sacred ministers performed their ceremonial rites, clothed in their sacred vestments, the scent of the incense further wafting around us, its smoke lingering and catching the beams of sunlight. 

It is, in many regards, a scene which we can say is at once antique and yet also strikingly familiar -- or at least it can be with liturgical orthopraxis that is.

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