Roman North African Christian Lamp with Balaam and the Donkey

£ 400.00

An Ancient Roman red terracotta oil lamp, featuring a long canal nozzle, a central concave discus with two filling holes, and a solid spikelike handle opposite the nozzle. The lamp’s shoulders are decorated with engraved alternating circles and squares, and within each figure there are very fine geometric designs. The discus features a moulded image of a man walking towards the handle, leading a donkey, behind him. The overall glaze is a dark brown colouring, suggesting the lamp had been over-fired slightly. The lamp is a fine example of the so-called Christian lamps in Terra Sigillata Africana (TSA), and was moulded in the Roman provinces of North Africa, modern day central Tunisia. This lamp can be classified as type Atlante X, Hayes II B. The reverse features moulded, concentric circles.

Date: Circa 4th- 6th Century AD
Provenance: From the collection of Arno Jumpertz, Leverkusen, Germany, 1924-1984. Much of the collection was exhibited at the Neus Museum, 1985.
Condition: Good, some earthly sediment inside and within the engraves on the shoulders.


Product Code: RES-113
Category: Tag:

In Antiquity, a lamp was originally called a lychnus, from the Greek λυχνος, with the oldest Roman lamps dating back to the third century BC. During the Roman Empire, it became commonplace to use lamps in funeral ceremonies and for public purposes. Over time, the manufacture of lamps increased, and so did the variation in decoration, which depended mainly on the shape and size of the lamp. With the rise of Christian influence, the lamp designs became increasingly reflective of this, and ultimately took over the once popular use of Greco-Roman pantheon designs. The lamp’s discus is decorated with the depiction of a man leading a donkey, possibly representing the Biblical tale of Balaam and the Donkey. The tale of Balaam, narrated in Chapter 22 of the Books of the Numbers, tells the story of Balaam, a prophet and magician, who was summoned by King Balak of the Moabites to curse the Israelites as Moses was leading them towards Canaan. Balaam replies to Balak’s messengers, who were asking him to join their king in Moab, to wait until the following day for God’s reply, in which he appeared and ordered Balaam not to go. After more messengers had been sent by Balak trying to persuade the prophet to leave, God himself appears to Balaam and finally grants him permission to start his journey to Moab. However, as soon as Balaam is set to depart, the anger of God is ignited and the angel of the Lord appears with a sword in his hand to hinder Balaam’s path.  The donkey, who was the only one that could see the angel, tries to divert the road three times while Balaam, infuriated and unaware, begins to punish the donkey who, due to the angel’s impediment, refuses to move. At this point the donkey miraculously receives the power to speak and complains about the treatment she received from her master. Finally, God allows Balaam to see the angel too, and immediately repents.

To discover more about the ancient origins of oil lamps, visit our relevant post: Oil Lamps in Antiquity.

Dimensions L 13.3 cm



North Africa, Southern Europe

Reference: For a similar item, The Getty Museum, item 83.AQ.377.274 .