Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Incense Burner

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.




  • What words would you use to describe this sculpture?

  • Does it remind you of a type of animal? In what ways?

  • How do parts of this sculpture reflect a lion?

  • Compare this representation of a lion to other lions you’ve seen represented in pictures, movies, museums, etc.How is it different? How is it similar?

  • How would you describe the way it is standing? The way its head is poised?

  • Observe all the engravings and piercings. How do they complement the overall aesthetic design?

  • Investigate the material used to form this.A bronze casting method was used to create this. Bronze alloys have the unusual property of expanding slightly just before they set, thus filling the finest details of a mold. As the bronze cools, it shrinks a little, making it easier to separate from the world. Observe the head, torso, body, legs, and feet. What details are made noticeable, due to the ability of the bronze to expand while it sets in the mold? Describe those details.

  • This was cast in several different sections. Locate and analyze how and where these sections are attached to each other. How is the head attached to the rest of the body? What type of attachment is it? How could it allow for movement? What direction would the head move at that hinge?

  • After casting, holes were drilled. Observe and describe where they are placed. Hypothesize why they would be included in this sculpture.

  • Since this work of art was used as an incense burner, what are some possible reasons that the head would need to be moved, opening the body of the sculpture? What would have been placed inside? Why are the holes a necessary part of this sculpture?

  • Imagine the perfumed smoke of the incense evaporating through those holes. How would the sculpture appear to transform as the aromatic smoke escapes? What mood might that evoke?

  • A lion is part of the cat family. How could this representation of a lion compare with other members of the cat family?

  • The artist chose to position this lion in a certain way. What does this choice tell you about the artist’s attitude toward the subject? How would that affect the way the burner is used?

  • Metalwork is a craft in which many Muslim artists excel.Discuss ways this work of art illustrates that.

  • Examine the metalwork’s delicate web-like patterns within and around the holes created by the artist.How skillful was the artist? Justify your opinion with evidence from the incense burner.

  • This incense burner was made long ago in the 12th century during the Seljuq dynasty of Iran. How do you think it survived?

  • Knowing it is made of bronze, how has time and atmospheric elements affected its appearance today?Investigate what types of elements may have worked together to produce its patina. What types of weather could this have existed in?

  • The writings of the prophet Mohammed warn against creating works that represent certain figures, such as humans and animals. Hence, in holy places they aren’t found. However, outside religious areas, these figures representing humans and animals continued to flourish .Hypothesize what types of places this incense burner may have been used. Why?

Metalwork is one of the many crafts in which Muslim artists exceled. This stylized, feline-shaped incense burner is among the most successful products of metalwork under the Seljuq dynasty of Iran (1040–1194), whose artistic patronage witnessed a proliferation of figurative motifs in various media.

This piece highlights the great interest artists and workshops at the time had in advancing the techniques of casting, engraving and piercing of metalwork. The lion-shaped incense burner was cast in several sections. The head is secured to the rest of the body by the use of a hinge, allowing the replacement of aromatic incense and coal inside the body. After casting, holes were drilled into the head and body of the figure. The pierced openings were not a mere aesthetic choice but were created to allow the perfumed smoke of the burning incense to escape and evaporate. The cast was then engraved and polished to further enhance the decorations of the figure.

The lion is rendered in a highly stylized form rather than a realistic manner. The abstraction of the lion shape has been attributed by some scholars to aniconism – the fear of and anxiety towards power exerted by life-like images and an apprehension of usurping God’s prerogative as the sole creator of life. According to the Hadith, which records the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, “those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created.” The Prophet’s words are not about the impossible challenge of bringing something to life. They are a warning for those who make idols of images and a reminder of the inherent weakness of those who worship icons, as idolatry is forbidden in the Qurʾan even though it does not expressly prohibit figurative representation. Consequently, human and animal images are absent in holy places, but outside of the religious realm, figurative forms continued to thrive, and the sculptural quality of this incense burner confirms the appreciation of figurative art in the secular sphere of artistic life in Islamic lands.

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