Up in Smoke

Incense, Photo by Dinmix, Pixabay
Photo by Dinmix, Pixabay

Take a deep breath because today on Museum Bites we’re striking a match and lighting up some incense. This ancient form of aromatherapy dates back to the Egyptians and has been used to call forth the gods, chase away demons, offer up prayers, purify a room, honor ancestors, enhance meditation, and so much more. I’ve come across a variety of incense burners on my museum travels. Join me for a closer look at three delightful examples. We begin by rolling back the clock to the 6th century…

Heavenly Scents:  Our first censer is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and was lit during Coptic Christian services. Hot coals were loaded into the base and incense made of spices or wood gum was sprinkled on top. A chain attached to the lid allowed the priest to swing the censer back and forth while offering prayers. The church was infused with the pungent aroma of the incense, thus enhancing the religious experience for parishioners and priest.

Cast in bronze and decked out in Maltese crosses, this crafty little censer looks like a mini church. The dome is supported by eight columns and tiny windows allow for the sweet scents to waft out. It is a clever example of functional art.

Frankincense& Myrhh, Photo by Sputnikcccp, Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Sputnikcccp, Wikimedia Commons

Fun Fragrant Fact:  Frankincense and myrrh of three-wise-men fame, were commonly used for incense. But did you know frankincense and myrrh were also used in a variety of ancient products including, cosmetics, insect repellant, perfume, and toothpaste?

Mindful Scents:  Our next incense burner hails from Japan and is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Handcrafted from gilt bronze and etched with lotus flowers, this lovely censer was used by Buddhist monks to purify a particular space. Three Sanskrit cutouts (one is the sacred om used in meditation) decorate the lid and allow the aromatic smoke to billow out like drifting clouds. Only 11 inches in height, this decorative incense burner is pretty, practical, and portable.

Posh Scents:  Our final incense burner was made in China (c1700-1800) during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and is on display at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). Made of highly prized Chinese porcelain, the lid sports oval cutouts and is rimmed with a series of triangular shapes resembling a mountain range. The finger loops attached to the base are a handy and decorative touch. This sleek, mint-green incense burner is not only pleasing to the eye, it no doubt produced captivating scents.

Porcelain Incense Burner (c1700-1800), FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)-2
Porcelain Incense Burner (c1700-1800), China, FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

That concludes our look at incense burners. Next week, I’ll be back with more Museum Bites. Until then, have a lovely week.

Incense, Photo by Fr. Romain Marie Bancillon, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Fr. Romain Marie Bancillon, courtesy of Pixabay.


Britannica: Incense

Britannica: Incense Burners

Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)

Detroit Institute of Art: Bronze & Gold Incense Burner

Flint Institute of Arts (FIA)

Flint Institute of Arts: Porcelain Incense Burner



University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA)

University of Michigan Museum of Art: Bronze Incense Burner

Wikimedia Commons


Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: