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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Lamp or Censer with Scenes from the Life of Christ
Ritual Implements
Work Type
6th-9th century
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Africa, Egypt?
Byzantine period
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Mixed copper alloy
Cast, lost-wax process
h. 8.3 cm x diam. 8.1 cm (3 1/4 x 3 3/16 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: ICP-MS/AAA data from sample, Mixed Copper Alloy:
Cu, 72; Sn, 2.83; Pb, 12.38; Zn, 11.97; Fe, 0.21; Ni, 0.04; Ag, 0.09; Sb, 0.2; As, 0.28; Bi, less than 0.025; Co, 0.013; Au, less than 0.01; Cd, less than 0.001

J. Riederer

Chemical Composition: XRF data from Artax 1
Alloy: Mixed Copper Alloy
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, lead, zinc
Other Elements: iron, nickel, silver, antimony, arsenic

K. Eremin, February 2014

Technical Observations: The patina is a dark brown and green with brown deposits and thick encrustations on interior. One of the ring extensions from the loops on the rim has been bent inward, and a crack runs from the rim to the figural area where there are two areas of metal missing. The censer was cast, probably by lost-wax casting, and has tool marks from finishing and engraving on the worn surface.

Carol Snow (submitted 2002)


Recorded Ownership History
Hagop Kevorkian collection (by 1947), gift; to the Fogg Museum, 1975.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of The Hagop Kevorkian Foundation in memory of Hagop Kevorkian
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This vessel consists of a bulbous body resting on a hollow, slightly flared foot. Three suspension loops project from the rim and would originally have been attached to chains. This object belongs to a relatively large corpus of sixth- to seventh-century CE Byzantine censers, many from Egypt, that depict vignettes from the life of Christ (1). The scenes rendered in relief around the body of this vessel include: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Baptism, the Crucifixion, and the Women at the Tomb. This iconography evokes Christian sacred history as well as the physical sites to which medieval pilgrims traveled in order to commemorate these holy events (2). A band with an incised floral design decorates the neck and is bordered by a ridge above and below. Small crosses decorate the bases of the suspension loops; a rosette is incised in the bottom of the bowl. Although usually identified as censers, vessels like this could also serve as lamps by filling them with oil and affixing a wick holder to the side of the bowl (3).

In the Byzantine world, luxury aromatic substances were used in liturgical and court ceremonies as well as in the home (4). In the domestic context, incense served the practical purpose of warding off pests and odors. But this utilitarian role also held deeper significance because foul smells were associated with evil powers and demons (5). By repelling pests and alleviating smells, incense served to protect the home from malevolent forces and was even thought to be a cure for physical ailments. Incense was also burned in the prayer corner of the home, thereby uniting its sacred and secular applications. In liturgical and court practices, incense was used to mark ceremonial pathways and to enhance the luxury and display of lavish rituals.

A bowl-shaped body, either open or covered, is the most common form for censers. Footed censers sat on tables or other surfaces and were sometimes fitted with handles; those with loops along their upper rims were equipped with chains and intended to be suspended or swung or both. Censers were cast in various shapes and decorated with diverse abstract and figural motifs. Those ornamented with religious iconography would have been well suited to a liturgical context, but might also have been used in the home as an embellishment for personal prayer or as a particularly efficacious apotropaic device.


1. Compare O. Wulff, Altchristliche und mittelalterliche byzantinische und italienische Bildwerke, 1: Altchristliche Bildwerke (Berlin, 1909) 202-204, nos. 967-70, pl. XLVII; Romans and Barbarians, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, 1976) 198, nos. 231-32; Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art Third to Seventh Century, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1977) 626-27, nos. 563-64; S. Campbell, ed., The Malcove Collection. A Catalogue of the Objects in the Lillian Malcove Collection of the University of Toronto (Toronto, 1985) 92-93, nos. 118-19; S. Ćurčić and A. St. Clair, eds., Byzantium at Princeton (Princeton, 1986) no. 56; K. Sandin, “Liturgy, Pilgrimage, and Devotion in Byzantine Objects,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 67.4 (1993): 45-56, esp. 47-48, fig. 2; and L. Wamser and G. Zahlhaas, Rom und Byzanz: Archäologische Kostbarkeiten aus Bayern (Munich, 1998) 44-45, no. 30. For discussion of the group and its morphology, see V. Elbern, “Zur Morphologie der bronzenen Weihrauchgefässe aus Palästina,” Archivo Español de Arqueología 45-47 (1972-1974): 447-62.

2. Regarding loca sancta imagery in Byzantine art, see K. Weitzmann, “Loca Sancta and the Representational Arts of Palestine,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 28 (1974): 33-55.

3. See L. Bouras and M. G. Parani, Lighting in Early Byzantium (Washington, DC, 2008) 3-4, fig. 5; and 28, fig. 27.

4. For a discussion of secular and sacred attitudes towards and uses of incense in the late Roman and early Byzantine worlds, see B. Caseau, Euodia: The Use and Meaning of Fragrances in the Ancient World and Their Christianization (100-900 AD) (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1994); ead., “Les usages médicaux de l’encens et des parfums: Un aspect de la médecine populaire antique et de sa christianisation,” in Air, Miasmes et Contagion: Les épidémies dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Age, eds. S. Bazin-Tachella, D. Quéruel, and E. Samama (Langres, 2001) 74-85; and S. A. Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley, 2006).

5. E. D. Maguire, H. P. Maguire, and M. J. Duncan-Flowers, Art and Holy Powers in the Early Christian House, exh. cat., Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Urbana, 1989) 32; Caseau 1994 (supra 4) 117-22 and 194-226; and I. Kalavrezou, ed., Byzantine Women and Their World, exh. cat., Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2002) 165-66.

Danielle Joyner and Alicia Walker

Publication History

  • "Pagan and Christian Egypt: Egyptian Art from the First to the Tenth Century A.D." (1941), Brooklyn Museum, p. 34, no. 92
  • Walters Art Gallery, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, exh. cat., The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore, MD, 1947), p. 69, no. 282.
  • Ioli Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and Their World, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2003), p. 202, no. 113, fig. 113.

Exhibition History

  • Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 04/24/1947 - 07/01/1947
  • Byzantine Women and Their World, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/25/2002 - 04/28/2003
  • Ancient to Modern, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 06/01/2013
  • 32Q: 3620 University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/25/2015 - 01/03/2016; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/28/2023 - 05/07/2023
  • Early Christian Africa: Arts of Transformation, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/31/2019 - 01/05/2020

Subjects and Contexts

  • Collection Highlights
  • Ancient Bronzes

Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at