Vintage view: Ancient crystal chandelier

Mid 19th century Bohemian lead crystal chandelier from the staircase of the Van Loon mansion, Amsterdam. LED candle-bulbs deliver an authentic, more candle-driven atmosphere.
Vintage view: Ancient crystal chandelier

A large, shrubby chandelier, launched into any space, is a centuries-old statement which loses none of its flash.

Refracting natural and artificial light, crystal chandeliers remain the stately glass galleons of light fittings.

They were designed for open, unashamed, dazzle as a signal of conspicuous wealth and reassuring visual confidence — nothing else quite simulates the joy and exuberance of sunshine, even lit with an army of well-behaved LED candle bulbs.

Starting with the name, chandelle, or candle-holder, it’s easy to overlook the fact that simply having enough candles to load up a chandelier marked you out as a luminary in high society.

In the Middle Ages, candles were not to be snuffed at — and the interior sets of BBC period dramas blaze like a four-lane highway.

However, in a modest to middling household, even in Georgian times, candles, reeds or faggots of wood were generally used singly.

They were carried in holders or set in strategically-placed wall sconces right into the late 1800s, carefully snuffed out when windows or firelight could provide sufficient light.

Candles were a considerable expense, and horribly messy to make at home using beef fat saved from the kitchen. Rendered tallow, unsurprisingly, gave off a revolting acrid smell and smoked like Keith Richards.

The making of candles was a protected guild craft in Britain from the 14th century and only the well-off could afford pure beeswax candles with their delicious smell and smokeless burn, which finally gave way to commercially-made paraffin and stearin.

You can find the first play with central light lovelies as far back as the Byzantine polycandelon in the 6th century.

By the Golden Age in the trade-enriched lands of Holland and Belgium, churches, public buildings, and the homes of town burghers, bristle with majestic Gothic brass chandeliers in the Dinanderie style (from the Flemish town of Dinant).

Early chandeliers, not rooted to electricity, could be raised, lowered, and moved from room to room by an army of servants, the designs propping the candles out into the expanses of the space or stairwell.

However, it’s the popularity from the 17th century of Italian-made crystal candle-holders in ormolu and glass, that sees the multi-faced wonder as we know it, swing into sight.

By the 13th century, craftsmen on the isle of Murano in Italy, and the Venetians were already using a thick treacly soda glass and natural crystal in all sorts of wall, table and central candle holders.

The effect of the wick-ed light transmitting through glass elements such as flowers and fruit was mesmeric, and the Italians were highly skilled at creating rich gem-like colour with metals and foils.

Eighteenth-century, Italian-made chandeliers in blown, shaped and twisted glass are fabulous bouquets and largely museum treasures today.

The 17th century rock crystal chandelier is a relatively quiet affair, far from crystal clear, and softened by natural dirty inclusions in the minerals.

Even in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, it’s the scale and beauty of the floor-mounted guéridons and 33 magnificent rock crystal pendants commissioned by Louis XIV, that’s so eye-watering.

Now rudely wired to modern bulbs, we can only imagine it blazing with 1,000 candles in 1684. Jewellery of the air, the supporting chain could be left on show or dressed in braid or a silk cover.

You can still see this practice in museum collections and great houses open to the public across Europe.

What makes our contemporary crystal chandeliers special is the cut to the glass, the ability to refract and split white daylight and candlelight into the colours than make it up.

Lead crystal is not crystal at all, but a form of glass. Discovered in the mix by George Ravenscroft in England in 1674, lead crystal could be worked in a way not possible with older, calcium-rich glass. It was tough, took a great polish and had a high refractive index, allowing it to scatter light in certain prismatic cuts in drops and beads.

The brilliant modern age of the chandelier, that would light royal courts, aristocratic ballrooms and Hollywood palaces was on, many still reflecting the Marie Therese style of c1743 (a Louis-look widely produced for the high street today).

With the increased lumens of gas and later, searing electric, a lavish addition became available to just about every household with enough ceiling height, and this dazzler has never lost its commercial sparkle.

The Bohemian makers working in the towns of the Jizera Mountains were famed for their work in cut glass with wax catching cups, thick hand-blown glass arms set with crystal, and topaz buttons on pins, all dribbled in tiers of hand-wired drops.

Czech-made examples command a premium, if you’re buying a new piece, and retain much of the 19th century hand-crafting for an heirloom finish.

Ireland retains a proud, if politically and commercially troubled heritage in chandelier-making, (a glorious tale for another day).

A great place to start your glassy-eyed journey is at the House of Waterford Crystal, an essential tour of the resurgent studios and not simply for bus-borne Americans.

Don’t miss the cases of early glass at the Waterford Museum of Treasures while you’re in the city. Combined admission from €8 for the museum and the Bishop’s Palace.

The fascinating survey of John M Hearne (A graduate of UCC, and senior researcher in the Biographical Research Centre at Waterford Institute of Technology), Glass making in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Contemporary is now just €31.50 from the Irish Academic Press.

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