A Hanging Tale: The History Of Chandeliers

Sarthak Gupte, FY BSc

    Picture this: In the bygone era, when the evening warmly embraces the world, a captivating view unfolds itself. The flickering candles cast shadows that transform the ambience of the place in its entirety. Placed within the intricate metalwork of chandeliers, they gracefully illuminate the room. These chandeliers become the radiant centerpiece of soirees and gatherings.

    The evenings bathed in the soft glow of these candles, beckon us to remember a time when time itself paused, inviting reflection upon the beauty of artistry and craftsmanship. Such is the legacy of chandeliers, which continue to grace our world with timeless elegance.

     The word ‘chandelier’ is derived from the French word ‘chandelle’ which implies a candle holder. Similar to a girandole or candelabra, but distinct from pendant lights, the function of a chandelier earlier was only restricted to lighting up the room. Chandeliers back then weren’t as ornate as they are today. In the 14th century, their design was very simple – a wooden cross with a spike at each end holding a candle. The Byzantine polycandela is said to be the earliest form of chandelier. 

    The earliest candle chandeliers were used by the wealthy in the medieval times and could be moved from room to room. From the 15th century, more complex forms of chandeliers became a distinctive element in palaces and homes of aristocrats. There is much evidence of the existence of ivory chandeliers in the palace of the King of Mutapa and can be seen in a 17th century description by Olfert Dappler. Their astronomical prices made them a symbol of wealth and luxury. 

    The 16th and 17th century were when chandeliers began to become a common sight in all households; the major difference: the wealthier families had chandeliers made from brass which looked more elegant and cost more whereas the poorer had them made from wood, wrought iron or tin sheets. Today however, they can be manufactured from a variety of different materials such as, wood, glass, iron, brass, copper, plastic, ceramics, steel, stainless steel, wrought iron, deer antlers, etc.  

    The 18th century saw ornate cast ormolu forms with long, curved arms and many candles in the homes of the growing merchant class The developments in the glassmaking industry in the 17th century paved way for the addition of lead crystals in these aesthetic structures. The cut-glass chandeliers were the new norm at least until 1900. In the mid-19th century, candle chandeliers were converted to work with gas. These branched fixtures were called ‘gasoliers’. The introduction of electric light forced them to adjust with electricity making them ‘electroliers’. Nowadays, these are the most commonly available forms and are referred to as chandeliers.

    Let us take look at some of the various styles of chandeliers:

    Flemish Chandeliers

    The Flemish town of Dinant (a Dutch speaking region) in Belgium became known for its Dutch style brass chandeliers in the 15th century.  The distinctive feature of this chandelier is the central ball stem which consists of a large brass sphere, or series of ascending spheres, which support arms curving upwards.

     Rock Crystal Chandeliers

    France did not manufacture high quality glass until the 18th century. Chandeliers were produced with rock crystal, a form of Quartz. This kind comprises a metal frame adorned with rock crystal pendants, drops and rosettes. The image below shows some crystal chandeliers hung in the Palace of Versailles.

    Rococo France

    The Rococo style gained popularity during the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774). Typical chandeliers of this period were made of bronze and contained intricate designs featuring soft curves, irregular swirls and leaf-like motifs.

    Venetian Chandeliers

    In 1291, the Venetian Republic ordered its glassmakers to shift their furnaces to the small island of Murano, located to the north of Venice. This led to the rise of the famous glassmaking industry of Murano, which up to this date, is the main industry of the island. The classic Murano chandelier comprised of a central metal axis from which emanated numerous arms decorated with polychromatic or transparent flowers, leaves and fruits, as well as moulded crystals. 

    The Indian Story

    From the 15th century, chandeliers became well-known among Indian royal families. The Royal family of Gwalior, the Royal family of Baroda, the Nizam of Hyderabad were some of the important buyers of these magnificent structures. During the British Rule, international chandelier companies started looking for new markets. They exhibited their products to Maharajahs, who were greatly influenced by the European styles of chandeliers. The Governor’s House and abodes of other important British officials were also lit up by these shiny fixtures. Lord Curzon, during his tenure as the Viceroy of India, commissioned two chandeliers to be installed at the Taj Mahal. Having keen interest in ancient monuments, he himself was involved in deciding the designs of these lamps. These lamps had a message engraved on them in Persian which translates to: “Presented to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 1906”

    During the 20th century, chandeliers had gone out of fashion as people preferred minimalistic decor. This gave rise to the modern style chandeliers which are comparatively smaller in size, use LEDs and differ completely from the conventional types. Chandeliers have stood the test of time as they are still very much coveted by all strata of the society. May it be the traditional style classic chandeliers or the contemporary kind suited for smaller rooms, they continue to be a sign of aristocracy, grandeur and extravagance. Today, these ‘ceiling roses’ serve the aesthetic need of the interior of one’s living space. They are very much a part of the history and culture of a country and need to be preserved. The evolution of chandeliers from being mere candle holders to the production of crystal chandeliers is a story worth being told. 


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