Antique Bronze Church Chandelier from Belgium, circa 1850

Gothic Revival style, mid-nineteenth century

Sourced from a village in the French-speaking and Southern-most part of Belgium (Wallonia), the design origins of this chandelier can be traced back to fixtures used insome of the earliest Christian churches, those dating back to the Byzantine empire in the 6th and 7th centuries. Adapted to the neo-Gothic style that influenced architecture and interior designs across the continent and British Isles in the mid-1900’s, this particular style of chandelier is still produced today by traditional ecclesiastical fabricators.

Historically used in Orthodox churches, the typical mixed metal design (bronze, brass, iron) is an amalgam of two very early Byzantine hanging fixtures, the polycandelon and the khoros, both of which date back to the 6th century. The present design has changed little over the centuries as its use spread westward into Europe and eventually into the New World.  This traditional design has Orthodox roots, but with the addition of Gothic design elements it was adapted for wider use in Catholic and Anglican churches.

Thekhoros (also choros, horos) is a crown-shaped metal or wooden circular holder for candles, oil lamps, or incense, hungsingularly or in groupsfrom the ceiling of a church. The most spectacular examples were quite large. The corona was suspended below the decorated dome of a church by a series of metal chains around the perimeter that extendedstraight upto the ceiling. This allowed congregants to have an unimpeded view of the dome’s illuminated frescos as they stood below. The more utilitarian versionsof the khorusconsist of one or more tiers of coronas, to which holders for candles or oil lamps are affixed, or suspended below. Iconographic designs or even text may be added to the design. The tiers are joined together by decorative chains that merge together into a single hanging element. The body of a metal corona chandelier isoften decorated by metal applique or open fretwork, while wooden khoros were historically embellished with painting or gilding.

The use of these hanging chandeliers before the advent of electrical power meant that they had to be easily accessible to church attendants who regularly replaced candles, trimmed wicks and refilled oil lamps. The chandeliers often had a pulley system with counter weights in order to lower and raise the fixtures.

There was also a less prosaic need for these chandeliers to have mobility.  In some Greek Orthodox rituals, the khoroi (pl) were traditionally set swinging at key points of the service, a literal liturgy of dancing lights. Depending on how they were suspended by their chains, the chandeliers could be set in a circular motion, to twirl, or to swing gently to and fro. The placement and purpose of light, natural as well as candle and lamplight in the rites and rituals of the ancient Christian church was once extremely important. To ancient Christians, light was not only utilitarian, but also highly symbolic. It was never taken for granted. The Reformation, electricity, and modern sentiments have, for better or worse, changed modern churchgoers’ perception of the use and symbolism of light.  Today, the only lighted objects that are likely to be swung in liturgical rituals are incense censors (thuribles) of the Roman Catholic, Ambrosian, and Anglican Churches. While in the past thuribles might have been suspended by chains from the ceiling, they are now hand-held.

Thisparticular chandelierconsists of main and secondary tiers, 6-10 lengths of decorative chain, and a dome shaped cap from which all the chains are suspended. The links of the chain are of varying sizes and handsomely worked. The links are interspersed with lozenge and top-shaped spacers of various sizes. The short chains suspending the secondary tier feature quatrefoil open work, while the entire chandelier is topped by a large hanging link in the trefoil shape. Adapted extensively in Gothic architecture, the trefoil and quatrefoil motifs were probably first encountered by Europeans in Moorish architecture. By the time these motifs found themselves so eloquently expressed in the stonework of Europe’s grand cathedrals they had been imbued with Christian symbolism.  The three lobes of the trefoil came to represent the Holy Trinity, while the quatrefoil came to represent the crucifix.

The main tier is comprised of the bronze corona,to which six candleholders are attached. These have been modified to hold electrical lights. The original candle holders remain, and are embellished with spiral columns and button finials. There are top and bottom appliques of running (repeated) fleur-de-lis, an ancient icon associated not only with the patrimony of France, but also with the Christian church. The lily signifies purity and chastity and is a signifier for the Virgin Mary. Many of the saints historically have been associated with the fleur-de-lis, most notably St. Joseph. Spaced between the candleholders on the body of the main tier are cutwork emblems baring the letters HIS. This symbol is a Christogram, acombination of letters that early scribes used to represent the name of Jesus. A red cloth has been attached behind the body of the corona, causing the letters to be more easily seen.

The second tier of this chandelier, also bears the fleur-de-lis applique. The entire tier takes the form of an open vessel with a long finial extending down from the bottom.  Its function, other than decorative, is open to speculation. The vessel could well have held the tempered glass bowl of an oil lamp, or perhaps even a censor for burning and wafting of incense. Perhaps the finial at the bottom was as a handle for just such a purpose? A more likely explanation is that this chandelier was once rigged to a pulley system, and such a handle was used to gently lower the fixture to maintain the candles and lamp.