Islamic Bronze Incense Burner in the Form of a Feline

SKU LO.1324

1100 AD to 1200 AD


13.4″ (34.0cm) high x 11.6″ (29.5cm) wide




Central Asia

Gallery Location



This beautifully made open-work incense burner is an elite interpretation of a form widely spread across Central Asia in the 11th to 12th centuries. While zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations were forbidden under Islamic religious law, the so-called “principle of improbability” was employed to create animals that were so far removed from reality that they could not be argued to be in any way representational of nature; thus were the strictures avoided. Unlikely animals were created by manipulation of proportions and postures, incorporation of imagined elements (or those taken from other creatures) and flamboyant decoration using floral and abstract geometric motifs. The current piece takes the general form of a cat (either a lion or a lynx) and displays all of these methods in a technical and aesthetic tour de force.

The creature has a round head, a cylindrical body, and extraordinarily fine, flexed legs with hooves rather than paws. The whole animal is hollow, the body liberally cut-away to provide a fretwork pattern, the remaining struts carefully decorated with geometric and floral scrollwork designs. The head, which is hinged at the chest, can be removed to permit the introduction of incense into the animal's body. The head is surprisingly wide, with a flat superior aspect and cut-away, almond eyes. The face is adorned with an extravagant moustache-like array of whiskers and emphatic teeth. The nose comprises an elevated crest, amply decorated with foliate scrollwork, running down the centre of the head, in a T-bar format that joins the nose to the brows and thence to the ears. Each cheek is decorated with a floral cut-out circle, and there is a small zoomorphic eminence on the nape of the neck. The lines of the body are fluid, contrasting with the block-form haunches and shoulders with their discordant legs. The tail is quadrangular in cross-section and curls up the back towards the head before lifting towards the tip.

These highly stylised felines are typical of items produced in the workshops of Khurassan under the Seljuk dynasty (1037-1194 AD), in the eastern territories of ancient Persia. Lions and lynxes are common motifs in Islamic art, although lions themselves are a rarity in the regions concerned, and are thus treated as legendary creatures. They were also familiar motifs in the iconography of kingship or nobility, symbolising strength, courage, and royal magnanimity. The lion is also clearly associated with the zodiac and astrology, a practice that was frowned upon throughout the Middle Ages, but which nonetheless enjoyed great popularity. The size of the piece – especially considering the enormous value of incense as a trade item – and the outstanding nature of its manufacture indicate that it was intended for an elite, wealthy household. There are few comparable specimens; the few that do exist can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hermitage Museum, the Musée du Louvre and the Khalili Collection. This is a rare opportunity to purchase a truly outstanding piece of ancient Islamic art.

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