During the Middle Ages, star-shaped hanging lamps illuminated rooms in houses and castles throughout Europe. Each lamp consisted of a shaft from which was suspended a star-shaped container for oil and wicks, and a catch basin for overflow fuel (missing on this example). In Jewish communities, such lamps were also used for rituals -- the kindling of lights in the home to inaugurate Sabbaths and festivals, and for havdalah. Havdalah -- literally, "separation" -- is the ceremony that marks the conclusion of Sabbath and holy days, that is, their separation from the workday week. By the sixteenth century, the star-shaped lamp had fallen into disuse among Gentiles, but it retained its form and function in Jewish homes. In fact, the type had become so closely associated with Jewish ritual that it was known as a Judenstern, or Jewish star.
The faceted form of this lamp is characteristic of fourteenth-century Gothic metalwork, such as the set of five nested beakers, dated before 1330, that belonged to a Jew in Kutna Hora. Like the lamp, the beakers are decorated with ridged moldings that run horizontally. On the lamp, however, the moldings are interpreted as architecture -- they become part of the cupola that serves as the lamp shaft. In this sense, The Jewish Museum's lamp follows an established practice of the time, for miniature architectural forms were incorporated into a wide variety of medieval metalwork, including reliquaries, monstrances, and censers, as well as lamps.
According to the records of the first known owner of the Jewish Museum lamp, Siegfried Strauss, it was excavated in the Jewish quarter of Deutz, a city across the Rhine from Cologne. There is a Star of David incised on the underside of the star-shaped section, but its use in the fourteenth century does not necessarily indicate Jewish ownership.