11th-12th century CE
Materials and technique
17 x 25.5 cm
Incense was used in the Islamic world to scent people and air alike with a fragrant mix of aloes (wood), frankincense and ambergris. According to the historian al-Mas'udi, guests of the ninth-century caliph al-Ma'mun (r. 813-33 CE) were offered an incense burner to perfume themselves before meeting with him (Bloom and Blair 1997, p. 120). Metalwork incense burners were made in a variety of shapes, including animal forms such as lions and birds, which were associated with paradise and good fortune. The head and neck of this piece are hinged to facilitate the placement of the incense, which when burned would emit fragrant smoke through the body’s pierced decoration. A masterpiece of mediaeval bronze casting, this incense burner is a representation of a variety of pigeon called “scandaroon”, a distortion of the name of the Turkish town Iskenderun, itself derived from the name Iskandar (Alexander the Great). This species originated in Iraq and spread westward across the Mediterranean. While the present object is close in shape to contemporary Khurasan-style bird incense burners, its casting is heavier and more sculptural, the pierce-work holes are larger, and the colour and patination are different. It has been suggested that this bird incense burner may have been produced in Sicily in the late eleventh or early twelfth century under its Arab and Norman governors, although further research may yet indicate a different source.
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