Incense-burner or hand-warmer
Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira third quarter of 7th century / AD third quarter of 13th century
Bronze, gold and silver inlay.
Diameter 15 cm
Syria, possibly Damascus.
This incense-burner is decorated with courtly scenes across its pierced surface, such as were found in Mosul as early as 1220. The object’s upper part features six figures cast as medallions: a lord on a throne holding a glass of wine, a riding falconer, a lion hunter and three cross-legged musicians holding a tambourine, a flute and a lute. The slightly flattened hemisphere features a sun with concentric rays. Corresponding themes decorate the lower part. Two rows of animals run round the circumference. While the gold forms the undecorated filling of free spaces, the silver inlay is the medium in which the very detailed representations of clothes, hairstyles, animal bodies and floral elements are depicted. The medallions are set in a background composed of symmetrical arabesques.
The fact that the featured personages are depicted with a type of nimbus behind their heads does not signify that they are saints; rather it is a device to make them stand out more. It is believed that the person who commissioned the creation of this piece was of royal or aristocratic lineage, like the patron of the incense-burner in the British Museum in London, who has been identified through an inscription. Syria was extremely prosperous during this period. Pieces such as this incense-burner probably came from Damascus, following the steep decline of production in Mosul after the death of its leader Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’ in 1233. Mongols attacked Damascus in 1260 and in 1300. It is thought that this piece was created in the period between those years.
The inner mechanism consists of a small brass hanging bowl in which the incense was burnt. Suspended in the centre of two concentric rings, connected in a way that keeps them mobile, the bowl remains horizontal. It is assumed that the techniques for constructing this burner were well known in the Islamic East in the AH 7th / AD 13th century. We know of a floating compass that remains constantly horizontal, described by the Yemeni leader al-Malik al-Ashraf in AH 690 / AD 1291, and of the period’s technically complex water-clock of around 1230. The suspending mechanism, known as a gimbal, was ultimately referred to in the Western world as the ‘Cardanic suspension’ after the Milanese inventor Girolamo Cardano (1501–76).
An incense-burner such as this one testifies to the high quality of life enjoyed at the time. It is also thought that such incense-burners were used as hand-warming devices in courtly circles.
Precious-metal spherical incense-burners were fashionable luxury objects in eastern Mediterranean courts around 1290. They were made of two halves so that they could be opened to put aromatic substances on a charcoal fire in an inner cup to produce perfumed smoke.
Similar incense-burners were made in Syria in the 7th / 13th century during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. This incense-burner bears a very close resemblance to these.
Long-term loan from the Museum of Indian Art, Berlin.
It is very likely that Syria is the country of origin, due to its similarity to incense-burners made in Syria.
Barrett, D., Islamic Metalwork in the British Museum, London, 1949, no. 22, XV.
Hale, J. R., A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, London, 1981, pp.69–70.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Mainz, 2001, pp.74–5.
Sezgin, F., Wissenschaft und Technik im Islam, Vol. 3, Frankfurt on Main, 2003, pp.58–9.
Annette Hagedorn "Incense-burner or hand-warmer" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;25;en
Prepared by: Annette Hagedorn
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 33