Incense Burner, 12th century
Bronze, cast, engraved and pierced
11 7/8 × 12 × 4 3/4 in. (30.2 × 30.5 × 12.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Honorable and Mrs. Hushang Ansary, the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund, and the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Form vs Function

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Functional sculpture connection—clay
  • Sketching assignment: Drawing from both observation and imagination








Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Although the name of the artist who made this sculpture is unknown, we do know that this intricately carved incense burner was made in Iran during the Muslim Seljuk dynasty, which lasted from 1040 to 1194.


There are two categories of art in Islamic art: religious and secular. Religious refers to art that is used as part of worship in a mosque, and secular describes anything that is used outside of a religious setting. Usually a religious (Islamic) work of art refrains from using any kind of figurative representation, meaning there are no depictions of humans or animals. Even when figural representation is included in Islamic art, there is little interest in rendering the figures in a realistic way, focusing instead on the ornamental quality.


In Islamic works of art, there are three components of decoration: vegetal patterns (usually leaves, trees, and vines), geometric designs, and script (usually featuring scripture from the Koran). The words are formed into decorative calligraphy. Sometimes the words are no longer legible, but translated into pure decoration that interlaces with the curving lines of plant leaves and repeating geometric forms. An incense burner such as this would be considered a luxury item belonging to a palatial home.


Luxury artworks, like this sculpture, highlighted and expressed the grace and pleasure in everyday life. The head of this hinged lion/feline-shaped burner opens as a receptacle to contain incense. The carving allows the smoke of the incense to release its fragrance into the atmosphere, thus making this bronze piece decorative and functional.  The decoration is zoomorphic, which means the artist made it to look like an animal figure. In this case, the animal is feline, popular during the Seljuk period; judging by the large size, it is probably a lion— historically a symbol of Iranian royalty, nobility, and power. This animal shape is stylized (non-naturalistic) with prominent features, such as large empty eyes, a disproportionate head, and a flat, angular nose ending in a heart-shaped snout. The carving on the sculpture consists of a lattice design with repeated geometric patterns and vegetal scrolls that could be interpreted as stylized script. These decorative elements add grandeur to this ancient and interesting artifact.


Metalworking dates back thousands of years in ancient Iran to the sophisticated pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian empires of the Achamaenid (500–330 BC), Parthian (247 BC–224 AD) and most prominently, the Sassanian periods (224–651 AD). These great empires stretched from the borders of Rome to the far Eastern world of China, across the Steppes of Central Asia to the borders of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. With the weakening of the Sassanian Empire, the Arab invasion of Iran paved way for the spread of Islam in that part of the world. However, the art and architecture of the earlier empires continued to influence Arab rule in their newly conquered land.


By 1055, the Seljuks, a Turkic dynasty of Central Asian origins, established themselves as the new protectors of the Abbasid Caliphate (encompassing all of Iran, Iraq and much of Anatolia). Under the Seljuk Sultanate, Iran enjoyed a period of material and cultural prosperity. Beginning in the second half of the 12th century, the art of inlaying bronze or brass objects with precious metals such as copper, silver, and gold became prominent in the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan. Such objects were often decorated with Arabic inscriptions written in the "animated" script, developed during this period, in which the letters were transformed into human and animal figures.


  • Describe the shapes that make up this object. What words would you use to explain the pattern on the body of the animal?
  • How would you explain the facial features of the object?
  • Some scholars describe this pattern as “vegetal scrolls that could be interpreted as stylized script.” Do you agree with this description? Explain your answer.
  • What animal does this sculpture resemble? How would you compare a real cat or lion to this sculpture? What looks the same, and what looks different? Does it also look like another animal, perhaps one that might have been important to the nomadic people? Why or why not?
  • Compare this three-dimensional sculpture to a two-dimensional painting. How does the fact that you can see the sculpture from multiple viewpoints change how you might read the object?


  • Notice the hinge located below the neck of the animal as well as the pierced exterior. Taking into account those features, what do you think the function of this object would be? How does the decoration work together with the function?
  • This animal appears to be wearing some kind of decorative headgear that is similar to what the Turkish warriors wore as they rode into Iran on their horses. How could this change your understanding of this object?
  • In your opinion, why didn’t the artist make the sculpture look more like a real feline? Explain your answer using evidence from the sculpture.
  • Where do you think this work of art would have been used? Consider its size and function.
  • Lions were traditionally symbols of nobility and power in Iran. How does knowing this association change your interpretation of the object?
  • There are two categories of art in Islamic art: religious and secular. Religious art refers to art that is used as part of worship in a mosque, and secular art describes anything that is used outside of a religious setting. Usually a religious, Islamic work of art refrains from using any kind of figurative representation, meaning there are no depictions of humans or animals. Considering this fact, do you think this sculpture is a religious work? Why or why not?

Connecting to the Classroom

  • Observe this sculpture. What do you notice?
    1. What material is it made of?
    2. What texture does it have?
    3. What do you think the holes are for? What is their function?
    4. What type of animal is this? What visual clues tell you about the animal?
    5. Would you call this a realistic or abstracted animal? Why?
  • This is a functional sculpture. What do you think its function may be?
    1. Do you think this is an everyday or special occasion object? Why?
  • This incense burner was made in Iran in the 12th century. What do you know about Iran? Does what you know about Iran help you understand this artwork? Why or why not?
  • What other information do you need to know to understand this artwork? What questions would you like to ask? Why is that information important?


  •  Ask students to make a detailed sketch of the object using charcoal. Then, ask students to imagine what the sculpture might look like in use as a incense burner, and have them draw the sculpture functioning. Ask students to consider value when creating their smoke.
  •  Have students pick one of their favorite animals and draw it in the style of this object. Have students consider proportion and simplified details.
  • Use this as an example of a functional and figurative sculpture. Have students create a clay sculpture of an animal that also works as a vessel.

Subject Matter Connection

This object and others like it are often displayed in museums with minimal information about them. Observation becomes the only tool students have to understand the function and meaning of the object. Studying historical cultural items helps students broaden their artistic perspectives. The style of this sculpture has proportions that are unusual. Students learn that abstraction and stylization is not just a Western idea. This activity also flexes student’s observation skills and how to use those skills to make meaning.

Resources Available to Order

Check our online collection module for further information.

  • Art of the Ancient Near East
    • Many features of civilization originated in the lands we call the ancient Near East, a vast and varied area from Turkey to Iran and from the Caucasus to the Arabian Peninsula. This essential guide for K-12 teachers introduces the variety and diversity of art produced by the rich cultures that flourished in this region during an equally vast time period. Contains a teacher resource guide, curriculum connections, color images, and classroom activities.

      MFAH Catalog Number: SG1126
  • Islamic Art: Recognizing Geometric Ideas in Art
    • This book looks at the use of geometric shapes in Islamic art and architecture. Includes a step-by-step guide on how to create your own geometric pattern.

      MFAH Catalog Number: BK886
  • Islamic Art and Culture
    • Spanning nearly a thousand years, the works in this slide set include examples of Islamic calligraphy, architecture, illuminated manuscripts, and decorative arts. Also includes a glossary, bibliography, and maps.

      MFAH Catalog Number: SP729
  • The Treasures of Islamic Art
    • The Treasures of Islamic Art details pieces from the museums of Cairo. It includes an introductory chapter that guides you into the world of Islam and it´s art. The book covers all mediums including textiles, ceramics, woodworks, glass, carved stone and more.

      MFAH Catalog Number: BK729

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.