ca. 650-750 (made)


Height: 4.3 cm, Diameter: 7.5 cm

M.99-1938 EAS

Censer, chased silver, Tang dynasty, ca. 650-750

Incense burner made of chased silver, consisting of two emispherical shells locked together by a bayonet fitting; two rings inside one another, called gymbals, are attached to one half securing in place a gilt bronze saucer at the centre. The surface is decorated with an intricate openwork pattern of flowers and leaves volutes interspersed with birds.

Silver objects became important luxury items for emperors and high-ranking officials during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-960). By the beginning of the 7th century large quantities of silver pieces with exotic shapes and styles were circulating along the Silk Road from Iran and Central Asia to China. During the same period Chinese craftsmen also acquired new manufacturing techniques from Central Asian silversmiths who had settled in Chinese urban centres beginning in the mid 7th century. This incense-burner made of chased silver consists of two hemispherical shells which are locked together by a bayonet fitting to form a sphere. A series of rings inside one another, called gimbals, were attached to one half to ensure that the central gilt bronze saucer remained upright when the incense burner was rolled. This device was in place in China by the 2nd century CE, and probably derived from the armillary spheres used by Chinese astronomers. This kind of burners were used in the house, for example on pillows, or carried around. Mobile incense burners with gimbals became popular in the Middle East during the Mamluk period (1250-1517).

Historical significance: This type of incense burner was invented in China during or before the 2nd century CE. The gimbals device ensured that the central saucer, containing incense, remained upright when the incense burner was swung or rolled. This design was exported in other countries and similar mobile incense burners can be found during the Mamluk period (Ward 1991: 73). The device probably developed in China from the armillary spheres used by astronomers (Needham 1965: 228-36).

Location: In Storage

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