Incense burner

Date: ca. 1530–40

Culture: Northern Italian, probably Padua

Medium: Bronze, with dark brown lacquer patina

Dimensions: Overall (confirmed): 13 1/2 × 8 5/16 × 6 7/8 in. (34.3 × 21.1 × 17.5 cm)

Classification: Sculpture-Bronze

Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982

Accession Number: 1982.60.108


Ancient authors mentioned the sanitary benefits of fumigation and the widespread ceremonial use of incense in the rites of various religions in many parts of the then-known world. The form of this incense burner seems to have been inspired by classical Roman funerary monuments or altars. Its sculptural body supports a container with arched openings for the release of fragrant smoke, crowned by a flamelike finial representing eternal fire. As sensuous appreciation for pleasant perfumes grew, their often-exotic origins sparked the curiosity of Europeans. Incense might have improved the intellectually stimulating ambience of a Kunstkammer, thus enhancing the visual appreciation of the variety of objects displayed therein.

The incense burner is decorated with images of satyrs and sphinxes. Satyrs symbolized the mythological world of lust. They were lazy, lecherous, and misspent their time drinking and chasing nymphs, whereas sphinxes were seen as symbols of wisdom. Their combined presence here stands as a warning to avoid the temptation of worldly pleasures and quench the thirst for knowledge instead.