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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Other Titles
Former Title: Hexagonal Incense Burner with Lid
Ritual Implements
Work Type
6th century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Asia, Syria
Byzantine period, Early
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Copper alloy
Cast, lost-wax process
censer: 16 x 7 cm (6 5/16 x 2 3/4 in.); cross: 4 cm x 2.5 cm (1 9/16 x 1 in.); chain: 11.5 cm (4 1/4 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: The patina consists of a compact green layer with small spots of red. The iron pin at the lid hinge is corroded and has sheared off, detaching the lid. The wire fastener at the end of the chain is broken, and its end is lost. The rest of the object is intact and stable. The corrosion products have been scraped smooth. The interior has an even coat of reddish dirt. It is easily removed and may be a recent addition.

Spherical projections (measuring 0.5 to 1 mm) in the interior are the result of air bubbles in the core poured into the wax model and indicate that a lost-wax process was used. The slightly irregular geometry could either be the result of the use of an irregular model (and molds) to cast the wax model by the indirect process, or the use of a unique wax model that was imperfectly constructed from a wax sheet. The legs are fairly uniform in shape and could have been separately cast in wax for addition to the constructed sheet bowl, which could explain the tipped, non-horizontal rim. The walls of the bowl are 2 to 2.5 mm thick; those of the lid are 1.5 to 2 mm. Flanges at the interior of the holes on the lid, and the quick irregular appearance of their placement, point to the use of a round tool to quickly push through the wax walls of the model, rather than drilling them in the cast metal. Striations on the sides of several holes, which give the impression of drill marks, are probably the result of turning the tool as it was pushed through the wax. Subtle undulations in the exterior surfaces are scrape or chatter marks resulting from dragging a straight-edged tool across either the cast metal or the wax model to finish and flatten the surfaces. Corrosion growth on top of these features indicates they are not the result of post-excavation scraping. Like the legs, the finial appears cast or shaped in wax and added to the wax model for the lid.

Henry Lie (submitted 2005)


Recorded Ownership History
[Christie's, New York, June 5, 1998, lot 313, sold]; to Benjamin and Lilian Hertzberg, gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2004.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Benjamin and Lilian Hertzberg
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
Three feet support the hexagonal body of this censer. The smooth surface of the exterior preserves faint traces of incised crosses. Punched holes of varying number and configuration decorate the six faces of the pyramidal lid. These perforations allowed scented smoke to escape from the chamber. The lid is attached to the body by a hinge, now broken, in the back and is secured with a latch in the front. A cross-shaped finial—with flared arms of equal length and a single loop at the top—is bolted to the pinnacle of the lid. A chain is attached to the loop.

An almost identical example in a private European collection is dated to the sixth century CE (1). Two censers with similar six-sided bodies and suspension loops but no lids are dated to the fifth to sixth centuries CE (2). Another hexagonal censer of almost identical dimensions has an openwork domed lid cast in the shape of vine leaves. The latter object is attributed to the sixth century and said to have been found in Latakia, Syria (3). These comparisons suggest a sixth-century date also for the Harvard censer.

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. L. Wamser and G. Zahlhaas, Rom und Byzanz: Archäologische Kostbarkeiten aus Bayern (Munich, 1998) 46, no. 32.

2. O. Wulff, Altchristliche und mittelalterliche byzantinische und italienische Bildwerke 1: Altchristliche Bildwerke (Berlin, 1909) 206, nos. 985 (footed) and 986 (without feet), pl. 47. Also see Wamser and Zahlhaas 1998 (supra 1) 49, no. 39 (without feet).

3. M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection 1: Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting (Washington, DC, 1962) 42-43, no. 45.

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.

Alicia Walker and Diliana Angelova

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Verification Level

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