Incense Burner of Amir Saif al-Dunya wa’l-Din ibn Muhammad al-Mawardi

Ja`far ibn Muhammad ibn `Ali
Object Name:
Incense burner
dated A.H. 577/ A.D. 1181–82
Found Iran, Taybad
Bronze; cast, engraved, chased, pierced
OveralL. H. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 cm)
L. 32 1/2 in. (82.6 cm)
W. 9 in. (22.9 cm)
L. from heel of back foot to toe of front foot: 22 in. (55.9 cm)
L. from toe of front foot to tip of nose: 4 in. (10.2 cm)
L. from heel of back foot to tip of taiL. 7 in. (17.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1951
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453
Zoomorphic incense burners were popular during the Seljuq period. This lion-shaped example is exceptional for its monumental scale, the refinement of its engraved ornament, and the wealth of information provided by the Arabic calligraphic bands inscribed on its body. These include the names of the patron and the artist, as well as the date of manufacture. The head is removable so that coal and incense could be placed inside, and the body and neck are pierced so that the scented smoke could escape. The lion certainly would have been at home in a palatial setting.


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Each element of this monumental incense burner, a demonstration of the excellence achieved in metalwork under the Seljuqs, was cast individually and then attached with solder; the head remained removable so that incense could be inserted and lit, then waft from the figure, perfuming the air. This piece, and others like it, would have probably been used in domestic, secular settings, as their zoomorphic and aromatic attributes would have made them unsuitable in a religious context.[2]
The object exhibits an elaborate decorative program that combines openwork patterns and epigraphic bands. The neck, body, and upper part of the thighs are pierced with trefoils, creating a latticelike design. The scrolling vine motifs that mark the ears of the animal are mirrored in the upturning of the corners of the eyes, and the snout is incised with stylized whiskers. Epigraphic bands in foliated kufic script run along the base of the neck and the chest, giving the name of the patron, Saif al-Dunya wa’l-Din Muhammad al-Mawardi; of the artist, Ja‘far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Ali; and the date, A.H. 577/1181–82 A.D. In addition, the words happiness, prosperity, and well-being appear on the three round bosses located on the chest and on the two sides of the lion’s front paws.
Zoomorphic vessels gained popularity in the medieval period, and lion-shaped incense burners were especially common in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, though this example is larger than most of them and belongs to a small group of related works.[3] The group shares common features, including openwork decoration on the body, stylized facial features, incised eyes and whiskers, and upturned tails. The related examples differ most dramatically in their scale, in the pattern of openwork, and in the modeling of the body. The Metropolitan’s example is the largest of this group and exhibits robust modeling and smooth joinery that together convey a sense of musculature. Another example, in the Cleveland Museum of Art, while much smaller in scale and lacking the copious inscriptions of the Metropolitan’s lion, has a similar robustness and comparable features, and its long curving tail provides a sense of how the Metropolitan’s burner may have looked when intact.[4]
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
2. Blair and Bloom 2006 2006–7, p. 197.
3. Other examples can be found at the Cleveland Museum of Art (no. 1948.308.a), in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (no. IR-1565), and in the David Collection, Copenhagen (no. 48/1981). A list of the examples is given in Baer 1983, p. 58 n. 114. To them a further example in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (no. 2007.1301.A,.B) should be added.
4. See n. 3 above.
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in kufic script around neck and continued on chest:
امر به الامیر العادل العالم/ سیف الدنیا والدین بن محمد/ الماوردي
Ordered by the just and wise prince Saif al-Dunya wa’l-Din ibn Muhammad al-Mawardi

(The family name Mawardi is written on the chest between the name of the metalworker and under the name of the prince, so it is not clear to which one of them it applies. Although the word al- Mawardi means "the rosewater-seller," the size of the inscription corresponds to that of the prince and not that of the maker, which is considerably smaller)

Inscription in Arabic in kufic script on left and right bosses and boss on chest:
السعاد ةالاقبال السلامة
Happiness, prosperity, well-being

Signature in Arabic in kufic script at left, on chest, and on right foot:
عمل جعفر بن محمد بن علي سنة سبع وسبعین وخمسمائة
Work of Ja‘far son of Muhammad son of ‘Ali in the year A.H. 577 [1181– 82 A.D.]
[ Khalil Rabenou, New York, until 1951; sold to MMA]
James, David, and Richard Ettinghausen. Arab Painting. 3, vol. 29. New Delhi: Marg Publications, 1977. p. 9, ill. p. 9 (b/w).

Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 39-41, ill. fig. 27 (color).

Ferrier, Ronald W., ed. The Arts of Persia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. pp. 171, 173, ill. pl. 5 (b/w).

de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 316, ill. fig. 11 (color).

Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. p. 78, ill. (color).

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. "Islamic Art from the David Collection,Copenhagen." Cosmophilia (2006).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 85, pp. 6, 129-131, ill. p. 130 (color).

Canby, Sheila R. "The Scented World : Incense Burners and Perfume Containers from Spain to Central Asia." Arts of Asia vol. 42 (2012). pp. 124-125, ill. fig. 11 (color).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. p. 129, ill. (color).

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan Bloom. By the Pen and What they Write. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 36–40, ill. pls. 31, 32.