By the sixteenth century, only Jewish homes continued to use the star-shaped lamps that had been popular throughout medieval Europe. Because of the strong sense of tradition that dominates Jewish life, these lamps were used well into the modern era-often with more elaborate designs and in finer materials than their medieval precursors. The basic form of the lamp, however, remained unchanged: a star-shaped container for wicks and oil suspended from a shaft; and, below, a catch basin for dripping fuel.
Johann Valentin Schüler fashioned this elaborate baroque lamp for a member of the Frankfurt Jewish community. Together with his brother Johann Michael (1658-1718), with whom he shared an atelier, Schüler also produced many other types of silver Judaica: Hanukkah lamps of various shapes, candleholders, spice containers for havdalah, Torah shields, and elaborate covers for prayer books. The works of both brothers are similar in style and often incorporate pieces cast from the same molds, so it is impossible to tell which Schüler was the author of an unmarked work. The Judaica of the Schuler brothers seem to have served as models for younger Frankfurt silversmiths such as Johann Adam Boller.
Above the radiating arms that form the star of this lamp rises a complex and intricately worked grouping of figures, animals, and objects. The cylindrical shape of the lower shaft, decorated with masks and spouts, evokes the design of medieval fountains in public squares. Guido Schoenberger suggested that the fountain symbolism was especially appropriate for Sabbath lamps, since the Sabbath is greeted as a "fountain of blessing" in "Lekha dodi" (Come my friend), a hymn of welcome to the Sabbath that was incorporated into the synagogue services of Frankfurt during the first half of the seventeenth century.
The small figures atop the "fountain" of the lower shaft were cast from stock molds and modified to fit the Jewish purposes of the lamp. Each holds aloft symbols of the holy days of the Jewish year. The figure bearing matzah and a matzah iron represents Passover; Sukkot is marked by a lulav and an etrog; Shavuot by the Tablets of the Covenant; Yom Kippur by the knife and chicken used in the kapparot (atonement) ceremony; Hanukkah by a menorah and an urn for oil; Purim by a grogger and scroll case; Rosh Hashanah by a trumpet and "Book of Life"; and the Sabbath by a flaming havdal candle. Such symbolic figures appear on other types of Judaica made in Frankfurt during the eighteenth century to mark the times when the objects were used. The small figures of animals and zodiac symbols at the top of the shaft, as well as the rampant lion, appear on other works by the Schülers and their contemporaries.
In 1902/03, the lamp was transformed into a ner tamid (eternal light). Various additions were made, most of which were removed when the piece was acquired by The Jewish Museum, New York. Only the two flags held by the lion remain, because they bear an inscription recording the donation of lamp by Mathilde Freifrau von Rothschild in memory of her husband: "Shimon, known as Willie Freiherr von Rothschild."