Glazed Incense Burner in the Shape of a Lion - DC.1857
Origin: Syria (Raqqa)
Circa: 900 AD to 1200 AD
Collection: Near Eastern
Style: Islamic
Medium: Glazed Earthenware
Condition: Repaired


This impressive lion comes from the Raqqa area of Syria, which is most famously associated with the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid. The town became an important Islamic stronghold in 639 when 'Iyad ibn Ghanm took the Christian city Kallinikos and renamed it ar-Raqqah. It became important as a religious centre; many associates of the Prophet Muhammad used to live there. It was much fought over during the transition between the Umayyad and 'Abbasid regimes, due to its position between Syria and Iraq and on the road network that ran throughout the Levantine area. Ar-Raqqah and ar-R?fiqah merged into one urban complex that became the official home for caliph Harun al-Rashid in 796. He was a cultured and enlightened man, under whose tolerant direction the populace achieved numerous literary and other cultural plaudits that made it the most important city in the area, even more so than Damascus. Subsequent caliphates were less successful, however, and it fell into decline in the late 9th century following civil unrest in the area. The city enjoyed a renaissance under the Ayyubids and Zangids in the 12th and 13th centuries, due primarily to artistic and industrial production, on the back of refined agricultural methods. Of all achievements, it is perhaps the blue “Raqqa ware” that was its crowning cultural achievement; it is believed to have risen to its greatest standard under the patronage of al-Malik al-Ashraf Musa (1201-1229), and there was some export of these delicate and extraordinarily decorative wares. This brief flowering was abruptly halted when the town was destroyed in the Mongol wars (c.1265) and the remaining inhabitants massacred in 1288. While some potters appear to have escaped to Damascus after the first sacking of the city, their subsequent work is far inferior to that of the original Euphrates kilns. For this reason, Raqqa ceramics are amongst the rarest and most valuable in the Islamic world.

The current piece is remarkable in terms of size and preservation (some damage has been professionally restored), and depicts a seated male lion in light-dark blue crackle glaze finish. The representation is stylized, as is standard for Islamic pieces of this type, with the proportions depicted in a slightly expressionistic manner. The forelegs are very long, providing a powerful, solid stance, while the back is very long to compensate, ending with small, muscular back legs curled almost under the body. The head is also unanatomical, being elongated with a flat frontal, a rather rounded muzzle, and “laughter lines” around the edges of the mouth. The mane and the space between the front legs are represented with fine pennate latticework, from which small, pierced triangular ears protrude towards the apex of the head. The ground of the body is smoothed. The mouth is open to expose details of the dentition, notably four elongated canines. The eyes are pointed ovals with pierced pupils and ringed by brows depicted using incised lines. The nose is elongated and straight, ending in a small triangular apex and centrally-slanted oval nostrils.

Censers or incense-burners are fairly common in collections of Islamic art, as the habit of burning aromatic spices – which were among the most valuable of all trade imports – was widespread among social elites. Sculptural forms of this sort are rarer, and pieces such as this are the rarest of all. The role of the piece is in question as it is unique, Indeed, there is little evidence that it as used, and it might thus have been an ornamental object that reflects the long aristocratic tradition of hunting lions throughout the Levantine area. Whatever the purpose of this piece, however, its sheer rarity and sculptural presence guarantees that it will find a home only in the most exclusive of great Islamic collections. - (DC.1857)



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