Your Collection: Lamp with Psyche

Unknown, Lamp with Psyche (1st4th century with French early 19th century mounts), sardonyx with silver gilt and gilt bronze mounts, 24 x 42.5 cm. NGC

Upcycling is all the rage these days in both art and craft, but many National Gallery visitors may not realize that one of the most exquisite objects on display in the international galleries is an example of brilliant 19th-century upcycling.

This spectacular oil lamp began life more than two millennia ago, in the ancient Mediterranean world, as a stone drinking vessel. Carved from banded agate — so named for its striped appearance — the shallow bowl originally featured handles on two sides. Vessels carved from “hardstone” such as agate were the height of luxury in both Hellenistic Greece and ancient Rome; despite its simplicity of design, this was a rare, costly and beautiful object from the outset. Although the exact date and place of the vessel’s origin is unknown at present, it has been tentatively dated to the reign of Augustus to the early Empire (27 B.C. through the first century A.D.).

Both the interior and exterior of the stone bowl feature incised grapevines; in the interior, these are shown springing from an elaborate vase. This decoration could be original, but is more likely a later change, indicating that the object was already being altered more than 1,500 years ago. Grapevines were a symbol of Christianity, and it is believed that the bowl’s new Christian owners added the vine decoration sometime in the 4th century A.D. Ancient objects were commonly repurposed for Christian use — in this case, transforming the bowl from bacchanalian drinking vessel to a ritual cup, or perhaps simply a precious object stored in a church treasury.


Unknown, Lamp with Psyche (detail), 1st—4th century with French early 19th century mounts, sardonyx with silver gilt and gilt bronze mounts, 24 x 42.5 cm. NGC

Passing from hand to hand over the years, the cup was damaged. It was also always repaired, suggesting that it remained highly valued. Ancient hardstone objects like this were avidly collected during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Valued for their rarety and artistry, they were viewed almost as talismans of the ancient world. During both periods, new hardstone works were also commissioned as the epitome of aristocratic taste.

At some point in the early 19th century, the object was altered again. By this time, one of the handles had broken off. This sparked an inventive solution: the addition of gilded silver and bronze mounts, giving the cup the appearance of an ancient oil lamp. The bowl would be filled with oil, with the wick set in a spout added over the broken handle. Interestingly, this was never actually used as a lamp. Instead, it served as a rather witty object: an ancient drinking vessel transformed into an ancient oil lamp for a Neoclassical owner.

The idea for the lamp likely came from early 19th-century illustrations of designs by the ubiquitous Percier and Fontaine, favourite architect-designers of Napoleon I. Under Napoleon, Neoclassical style was all the rage, as he sought to link his own greatness to the greatness of Classical emperors. The name of the artist responsible for the mounts is unknown at the moment, although a recent lead suggests that it might be the work of Claude Galle (1759–1815), a Parisian bronzesmith.


Unknown, Lamp with Psyche (detail), 1st—4th century with French early 19th century mounts, sardonyx with silver gilt and gilt bronze mounts, 24 x 42.5 cm. NGC

The new mounts add another Classical dimension to the work, evoking a story from The Golden Ass by Apuleius (A.D. 125–180). The female figure kneeling on the bowl’s rim holding a ewer is the mortal woman, Psyche. Sent to destroy Psyche, Cupid, son of Venus, falls in love with her instead. Seeking atonement from Venus, Psyche is given four impossible tasks, one of which involves collecting black water spewing from the inaccessible source of the Underworld rivers Styx and Cocytus. The bowl of the lamp thus becomes the source of the water Psyche kneels to collect.

The underside of the spout is also elaborately decorated, with a Medusa head — another popular Neoclassical motif. When depicted with wings, as in this example, it recalls the Medusa Rondanini, located in Rome, which would likely have been familiar to anyone taking the Grand Tour.


Unknown, Lamp with Psyche (detail), 1st—4th century with French early 19th century mounts, sardonyx with silver gilt and gilt bronze mounts, 24 x 42.5 cm. NGC

The lamp has had a rather peripatetic history. Although little is known of its earlier provenance, it is first documented in the collection of the celebrated Russian collector, Anatole Demidoff (1812–1870), 1st Prince of San Donato, who lived near Florence. It was sold after his death, after which the trail goes cold until the lamp turns up again in the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), one of the greatest of American collectors. It seems somehow appropriate that two of the most legendary collectors in recent times — both with a passion for precious objects and the decorative arts — should have owned this exquisite object.

The National Gallery purchased it in 1977, adding to an already strong collection of Neoclassical French art. Themes and stories from Greek and Roman mythology were particularly popular at the time, as can be seen in works such as the painting Bacchus and Ariadne (1826) by Antoine-Jean Gros and the sculpture A Nymph Carrying the Infant Bacchus (1799) by Clodion. Other works on view — including the painting Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows (1809) by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Dancer (1818–1822) by Antonio Canova — go far beyond this, drawing inspiration from the Ancient World, only to transform it radically. NeoClassicism is a living thing, adapting the past to new interests and desires. The Lamp with Psyche transformed an ancient relic into something new, and something broken into a masterpiece of decorative art.

Lamp with Psyche can be seen in Gallery C209 at the National Gallery of Canada.

Share this article: 

About the Author