The Hagia Sophia was built for Christian worshippers in Constantinople between 532 and 537, and at the time a poet described the interior: "You might say that some nocturnal sun filled the majestic temple with light."
Holding up the glass oil lamps in the church were well over a hundred polycandela -- or "many lights" -- with perforations to receive the lamps. Examples of these sorts of early chandeliers are displayed now at Dumbarton Oaks in "Lighting in Early Byzantium."
Some two feet in diameter, the polycandela on exhibit are silver and very rare. Most church-lighting fixtures did tend to be made of more precious materials, including rock crystal, semi-precious stones and gold, according to Susan Boyd, curator of the Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks.
They were sometimes decorated with dolphins. The dolphins were assated not so much with the Christian symbol of the fish -- but, from the Greeks and Romans, with a protective quality: Dolphins saved shipwrecked sailors and foretold good weather on the water.
Among the 30 items on display are clay and bronze lamps used in the home. Again dolphins appear. Christians used Roman forms on their lamps -- a god's right foot, for example -- but made them theirs by incorporating a cross or Christ's monogram in the design.
Griffin lamps -- half eagle, half lion -- were very popular in both the Roman and early Christian period. Associated with the god of light, they were powerful guardians -- of home and hearth and the light itself.
So, although these fixtures from the fourth to seventh centuries were designed to give off light, they were touched by the darkness of superstition. LIGHTING IN EARLY BYZANTIUM -- At Dumbarton Oaks through January 6, 1985.