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Measuring almost 30 centimetres in height and cast in bronze, this bird-shaped object once served as an incense burner (known as mabkhara or majmar in Arabic and ‘ud-suz in Persian). A bowl suspended from the bird’s stomach—concealed when the bird was set upright—could be filled with dry incense, which was then lit. Perfumed smoke would have dispersed through decorative holes pierced in the bird’s neck, stomach, wings, and tail. Close examination reveals that this bird’s tail in fact takes the shape of a miniature bird, creating a playful mirroring effect between the main body of the incense burner and its extremity. Along with its considerable size, the choice of bronze for this incense burner suggests it was used in a ceremonial or palatial context.
Thurification, or the act of burning incense, was common in the medieval Islamic world. Historical accounts describe burning incense in the royal court in Baghdad as a weekly practice, allowing visitors to perfume themselves before their audience with the caliph. Likewise, empty reception halls in the Baghdadi court would have been perfumed with rosewater, burning musk, and aloe wood, amongst other preferred fragrances. However, using incense burners and perfuming were hardly elite activities. Mentions of aromatics and incense burning are included in the hadith, the collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Archaeological findings across the Islamic world attest to the production of incense burners from a diversity of materials ranging from pottery to metal, affirming the widespread use of these objects across social classes.
While incense made from aloe wood, frankincense, ambergris, or musk was coveted for its fragrant aromas, it was also thought to have health benefits. Incense burners were thus employed not only as perfuming devices but also to expel and neutralize illnesses. As a result, these aromatics, which were likely imported, were considered precious goods, not unlike other luxury items such as silks or precious metals. These aromas would have been released into the air either by burning or heating. As many incense burners had long handles or were suspended through chains, these dynamic objects could have been easily transported in order to further disperse the perfumed scents.
The avian form and large size of this incense burner likely did not allow for easy transport. Nevertheless, bird shapes were commonly found in medieval incense burners. Examples include two objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2008.460; 1972:87), as well as one in the Louvre (OA4044). All three of these bird-shaped incense burners are attributed to the 12th- and 13th-century Khorasan region (located in modern-day northeastern Iran and Afghanistan), largely considered to be a major production centre for metalwork in this period. Like the Louvre example, furthermore, the incense burner in the Aga Khan Museum Collection has turquoise bead eyes, which points to a Khorasani origin, as the region was also known for its turquoise production. This geographic origin is nevertheless difficult to fully ascertain. In addition to metal wares cast in a bird shape, such as the pigeon-shaped censer also in the Aga Khan Museum’s Collection (AKM603), medieval bronze sculptures from the Mediterranean and the Eastern Islamic world shaped like felines have been attributed to Sicily, Islamic Spain, and Fatimid Egypt, a phenomenon which speaks to the popularity of zoomorphic vessels across the medieval Islamic world.
— Michelle al-Ferzly
 Relevant publications by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture concerning this object include Spirit and Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection (Geneva: 2007), 82–83, no. 54; Geographies of Islam (Toledo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2008), 2, no. 19, Schätze des Aga Khan Museum: Meisterwerke der islamischen Kunst (Berlin: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhd, 2010), 180, no. 138; Splendori a Corte: Arti del Mondo Islamico (Geneva: 2007), 84–85, no. 54; The Path of Princes: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum Collection (Geneva: 2008), 122–23, no. 41, and Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Masterpieces of Islamic Art (Berlin: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhd, 2010), 180, no. 138. Also see Henry S. Kim et al., Pattern and Light: Aga Khan Museum (New York: Skira Rizzoli and Toronto: Aga Khan Museum, 2014), 104.
 Aga Oglu, “About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner,” 28-45; Baer, Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art, 43–60; Meyer, Sensual Delights; King, Scent from the Garden of Paradise, 1–10.
 Aga Oglu, “About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner,” 28.
 Baer, Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art, 44.
 Ibid.; King, Scent from the Garden of Paradise, 1–10.
 Le Maguer, “Typology of Incense Burners,” 173–86.
 Court and Cosmos, 105.
 Ibid.; King, Scent from Paradise, 1–10.
 Graves, The Arts of Allusion, 151-152.
 For the Louvre object, see Court and Cosmos, 105; for the second Met example, see Lions, Dragons and Others Beasts, 181.
Bird-Shaped Incence Burner, 12th – 13th century; Attributed to Central Asia or Eastern Iran; Bronze: Cast, pierced, and engraved; 2008.460. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/452378
Incense Burner, 12th century; Attributed to Iran; Brass; cast, pierced, chased, engraved. 1972.87. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/452378
 Lamm 1938. (See Court and Cosmos, cat 55 and Spirit and Life, cat 34).
 AKM603, in particular, is attributed to Norman Sicily due to its heavier casting and difference in colour. See Spirit and Life, 82; Contadini, Anna, ed., The Pisa Griffin and the Mari-Cha Lion: Metalwork, Art, and Technology in the Medieval Islamicate Mediterranean; and Balafrej, “Saracen or Pisan,” 31–40.
Relevant publications by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Canby, Sheila R; Azim Nanji; Aimée Froom. Splendori a Corte: Arti del Mondo Islamico. Geneva: 2007. ISBN: 9788885982949.
Daiber, Verena; Benoît Junod; Ladan Akbarnia; Martin-Gropius-Bau. Schätze des Aga Khan Museum: Meisterwerke der islamischen Kunst. Berlin: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhd, 2010. ISBN:9783894796037.
Graves, Margaret S; Benoît Junod. Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum. Masterpieces of Islamic Art. Berlin: 2010. ISBN: 9786054348084.
Junod, Benoit. Geographies of Islam (exhibition leaflet). Toledo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2008.
Junod, Benoit .The Path of Princes: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum. Geneva: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2008. ISBN: 9789728848484.
Kim, Henry S. et al., Pattern and Light: Aga Khan Museum. New York: Skira Rizzoli and Toronto: Aga Khan Museum, 2014. ISBN:9780847844296.
Aga-Oglu, Mehmet. “About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner.” The Art Bulletin 27.1 (1945): 28–45. DOI: 10.1080/00043079.1945.11407668
Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983. ISBN: 9780873956024.
Balafrej, Lamia. “Saracen or Pisan? The Use and Meaning of the Pisa Griffin on the Duomo.” Ars Orientalis 42 (2012),” 31–40.
Barnet, Peter, and Pete Dandridge, ed. Lions, Dragons and Other Beasts: Aqaumanilia from the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table. New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006. ISBN: 9780300116847
Canby, Sheila R. "The Scented World: Incense Burners and Perfume Containers from Spain to Central Asia." Arts of Asia 42.5 (2012): 119–27.
---, Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, and ACS Peacock. Court and Cosmos: Art from the Great Age of the Seljuks. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. ISBN: 9781588395894
Contadini, Anna, ed. The Pisa Griffin and the Mari-Cha Lion: Metalwork, Art, and Technology in the Medieval Islamicate Mediterranean. Pisa: Pacini Editore Srl, 2018. ISBN: 9788869953064
Graves, Margaret. The Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780190695910
King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise. Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden: Brill, 2017. ISBN:9789004336247
Le Maguer, Sterenn. “Typology of Incense Burners of the Islamic Period.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 41 (2011): 173–86.
Meyer, Joachim. Sensual Delights: Incense Burners and Rosewater Sprinklers from the World of Islam, The David Collection, Copenhagen 2015.
Note: This online resource is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. We are committed to improving this information and will revise and update knowledge about this object as it becomes available.