The lithophane lamp in the Music Room is a hidden gem of tours at the Gibson House. In fact, while opening up the museum for the day and turning on all the lights in the house, I make it a point to leave this particular lamp off. This, of course, can sometimes lead to visitors being puzzled as to why I have gathered them in one corner of the Music Room to look at a small, seemingly simple lamp. However, the theatrics of pulling the metal chain with a dramatic flourish and waiting for the visitors to express their surprise continues to be one of my favorite parts of giving tours.
According to the Blair Museum of Lithophanes, lithophane is a Greek word that combines litho, meaning stone, and phainen, meaning to cause to appear. However, despite its deceptive name, lithophane is actually made of etched porcelain that is usually backlit either by natural sunlight or electricity. The first lithophanes were made in European factories in the 1820s by modeling a waxen image on a backlit glass panel. Craftsmen molded and etched the lithophanes so that they would appear translucent in the light; indeed, the thinner the porcelain, the more brightly light could shine through. This attention to detail is, in fact, part of what makes images illustrated in lithophane come to life in a way that no other artistic medium can imitate. They are unlike scenes you would see in stained glass, for example, because they are completely three-dimensional and depict images in off-white and gray tones as opposed to full color.
The lithophane lamp in the Music Room features six engraved porcelain panels, a rope column, and a square marble base. Although we are unaware of the exact date when the lamp was made, it is, according to our records, an original family piece. The lamp was originally gas operated and later altered to accommodate electricity. One of the panels depicts what we believe is Saint Hedwig, the patron saint of Silesia, a region in Poland. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1267 and was known for her joint effort with her husband, Henry I of Silesia, to found several monasteries across Europe. The lamp’s other panels illustrate scenes featuring a girl and three dogs, two lovers, a wistful woman next to a cage filled with birds, a young boy and old man entering a river, and a man who seems to be teasing a sleeping maiden with a feather.
Rosamond Warren Gibson may have used the lithophane lamp to create stories for her children. Rotating the piece to transition from one panel to another, she could introduce them to new worlds and narratives. Little did she know, the lamp would continue to enchant visitors young and old to the Gibson House for many years to come.
by Tiara Sharma, museum guide and intern
Blair Museum of Lithophanes. “What Is a Lithophane?” http://www.lithophanemuseum.org/lithophanes.html. Accessed 3 August 2017.
Carney, Margaret. “Lithophanes ... Not a Dead Art Form.” Ceramics Art and Perception, no. 87 Mar. 2012.
Kirsch, Johann Peter. “St. Hedwig.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07189a.htm. Accessed 3 August 2017.