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Canaanite Model Shrine

Date ca. 1600–1000 B.C.
Object type lamp
Medium, technique hand-modelled, painted, incised, terracotta

25.3 x 16.4 cm

Inventory number 2005.6.A
Collection Classical Antiquities
On view Museum of Fine Arts, Basement Floor, Classical Antiquity, The ancient Mediterranean

This terracotta lamp of unknown provenance, coated with red slip, is rendered unusual by is its plastically modelled stand, which forms a rectangular building open at the front and the back, and narrowing upwards with a slight tilt to the back. The wide entrance of the building is framed with incised zigzags. A bull stands in the doorway, which is decorated with a pair of carefully modelled horns, placed at the height of the bull’s head on each side of the animal. Two birds perch on the building’s roof. The pierced discs next to the birds and between the horns decorating the entrance, perhaps imitate the decoration of the façade. The lamp has a circular base, which is attached to the centre of the roof. The burn marks around the nozzle and the rim testify that it was once used for lighting. The model’s undecorated back, as well as the emphasis on the front view of the modelled motifs, point to the fact that the object was designed to be viewed from one angle.
The bull figure which dominates the entrance, the horns decorating the walls of the building, and the birds which crown the roof all indicate that the model represents a building with a religious function: a shrine. In all probability, the model does not represent the entire temple, only its most important element, the entrance. Similar architectural models, decorated with plastically modelled animal and human figures, were made in the second millennium and the beginning of the first millennium BC in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant, in the area of present day Israel, Lebanon, and the coastal region of Syria. In the case of the Budapest piece, further indications support this assumption. The lamp belongs to the pinch-spouted type frequently found in the Levant from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age (2100–1200 B.C.), whereas the modelling of the birds and the bull parallels that of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age terracotta and bronze figurines from the area of Syria and Palestine. This leads to the hypothesis that the Budapest piece was made in the Levant sometime during the Late Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age (1600–1000 B.C.).
At the time the greater part of this area was inhabited by Canaanites speaking a Semitic language related to Hebrew. The Canaanites did not form a unified state, but lived in independent walled cities. The most well-known settlement is Ugarit (present day Ras Shamra) in the coastal region of northern Syria. Excavations have brought to light the huge palace of the ruler, including the royal archives containing clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform texts that constitute our most important sources on Canaanite religion. El, the father of the gods, and his consort, the goddess Asherah stood at the head of the pantheon. The most important divinity of the Canaanites was Baal, most often represented as a standing man with a weapon in his raised right hand, or as a bull. Myths connect his figure with two goddesses: his sister, Anat, the goddess of war, and Astarte, the goddess of love, usually depicted nude and accompanied by her sacred animal, the dove. The two goddesses were identified with Athena and Aphrodite by the Greeks.
The gods of the Canaanite pantheon were worshiped in a variety of ways in the temples and domestic shrines of the different settlements. The common element in religious practice was the sacrificial offering, usually carried out at the altar situated in front of the entrance. The offering was accompanied by frankincense and myrrh. Lamps were lit during the ceremony. Lamps and incense-burners may have been placed on separate stands, or – more infrequently – they may have formed one piece. Within the latter category, those in the shape of architectural models, like the Budapest piece, are extremely rare.
Ceremonial equipment and votive gifts were placed inside the temple. When all the available space was filled, or when the objects were damaged, they were taken to storerooms situated next to the temple, or ritually buried in huge pits (favissae) nearby.
It is likely, that the Budapest example also belonged to the cultic equipment of a sanctuary, while its intact condition indicates that it may have come from a favissa or a storage room. Based on its decoration, it may be possible to link the shrine to the cult of a particular deity: the bull figure almost certainly symbolizes the god Baal, while the birds on the roof may be connected to Astarte. This model shrine may thus be a relic of the joint worship of Baal and Astarte. However, the bull dominating the entrance, and the two pairs of horns at the sides, indicate that Baal could have been the more prominent figure in the cult to which the present object relates.


This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.

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