When the Greek slave Euphorion enters the hall where his master, the rich Arrius Diomedes from Pompeii, celebrates, all eyes are on him. Because the blacksmith brings his last work with him: a sumptuously decorated bronze chandelier. He rests on lion's feet, on a flat disc there is an altar and a panther on which the god Dionysus rides.

Tilman Spreckelsen

Editor in the arts section.

  • Follow I follow

Finally, on the shaft is a holder, from which four also decorated lamps dangle; they represent the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Everyone in the hall cheers. Only one of the guests, the artist Menandros, pours water into the wine: Euphorion's work is only craftsmanship, not art. The slave, however, begins a fiery defense speech of his candlestick, which carries beauty into everyday life as a commodity.

This is stated in the epic poem "Euphorion" by Ferdinand Gregorovius from 1858, and an exhibition curated by Ruth Bielfeldt in Munich's collection of antiquities on Königsplatz discusses exactly this question: How did the inhabitants of Pompeii illuminate their houses, what effects did they achieve with their advanced oil and candle lights, and above all: What significance did light art have for them?

The result is a cleverly and gripping exhibition that introduces the theme through the model of a Pompeian house and a series of original and copied lamps and chandeliers. Everything seems to serve the Romans as a lamp shape, from the duck to the bat to the foot, snail shell or human head, and also luminous Phalloi are not missing. The smaller and lighter of them could be carried in front of you, even if their appearance did not reach very far. Others stood on candelabras or hung down from them, and a whole forest of such chandeliers can be seen in Munich.

The lamps were cherished

But they were not purely utilitarian objects: they were held in high esteem like a candelabra several hundred years old, probably made by Etruscans, or represented a direct hybrid between the spheres of work of art and household goods, which Menandros so liked to separate. In 1900, for example, a bronze statue came to light in a Pompeian workshop, which was damaged and was apparently about to be repaired when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The elaborate Ephebe served as a lamp bearer, as a mute servant, and in the exhibition the reproduction of a Pompeian fresco makes his role clear once again: there a feast is shown, on the right in the foreground stands a slave of flesh and blood who serves society, next to him an Ephebe with a tray. The immense richness of the exhibition in a not excessively large space is reflected in several such bronze figures. One has a hole in the right palm of the hand for the pin of a device that can hold a tray, for example, and is otherwise very similar to a statue that one might expect in public spaces.

The exhibition itself does not stop at such an inventory of the lamps. She also wants to show what could be achieved with the lamps and their accessories such as reflectors or added figurines and decorations, what effects were achieved. Because this is naturally not possible with the originals, copies were made and calculations made, and part of the ochre yellow exhibition rooms were darkened. In particular, the shadows cast on the wall – sometimes huge due to the special angle between flame and figurine – show an awareness of their authors for the possibilities of such a projection. In addition, a well-documented room of the Pompeian house of Gaius Julius Polybius was reconstructed for the exhibition with regard to its lighting conditions. The visitor walks through the room with VR glasses, lights five lamps and looks at their effect. You could get used to the soft, surprisingly bright light.

An attractive speculation, grown out of the occupation with the real finds from the Gulf region. And the skillful blacksmith Euphorion also owes himself to a visit by its author Gregorovius to the Museum of Naples; the candelabrum, which he lets Euphorion forge, he saw there among the finds from Pompeii. Finally, in the eyes of exhibition visitors, he has long since won the dispute as to whether such candlesticks are works of art.

New light from Pompeii. Munich, Antiquity at Königsplatz, until 30 April. The excellent catalogue costs 35 euros.