The Smoky Visual History of Censers

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Incense burner in the shape of a pistol (c. late 19th century), earthenware with polychrome glaze (Ko-Kiyomizu ware), 12 inches in length (image courtesy Hirmer Publishers)

Many years ago, my father would light agarbatti — incense sticks made of low-grade charcoal and sandalwood powder — at dusk on our porch. He would insert those thin black sticks into burners made of steel, though people also use ceramic vessels, or diyas (earthenware oil lamps). Although the use of incense sticks in homes has decreased over the years, the peculiar scent of agarbatti continues to be embedded in the olfactory memories of many South Asians.

Reading Holy Smoke: Censers Across Cultures, I am reminded of agarbatti all over again. Edited by Beate Fricke, the book explores the myriad roles of incense and its marvelous vessels in historical customs. Included are 10 academic essays that range in their object-oriented, regional, and temporal emphases. With a cross-comparative approach, the book centralizes distinct qualities of censers as found across global traditions. 

Fricke writes that a censer is a “pre-digital gadget — a small artifact capable of being carried in one pocket, intimate to the body and so responsive to touch.” Culturally, incense burners have been prized for creating misty atmospheres laden with aromas produced by substances like frankincense, resin, and myrrh. They have been popular in Mesoamerican mystical rituals, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish religious practices, and royal Asian courts. The book posits that censers are best understood in relation to a rich network of makers, biotic substances, and knowledge surrounding them. For instance, the Gävle censer accidentally unearthed in 1943 Sweden was most likely routed to Europe by Vikings from central Islamic lands, where it was used to fumigate mystical and occult rituals.

The book’s gorgeous visuals stoke curiosity about the variety and sophistication of censer design, from gods and nymphs to animals, utility objects, and weapons. Chinese versions, for instance, are as minimal as brightly glazed glass bowls, while Japanese incense burners take forms as complex as mythical beasts, gleaming hats, and even fabulous pistols. Mayan burners resemble grotesque deities, while censers originating in Greece are shaped like ancient temple caryatids. The make of these wondrous objects underscores their remarkable craftsmanship, materials, and purpose. 

Many interdisciplinary foci can be applied to censers — an anthropological study of their cultural uses, for instance, or an archaeological take on their making across various locales. Indeed, censers also demand art historical attention. While Holy Smoke charts history, I wonder if those ritual objects might have a place in contemporary art. Glimpses of costume-heavy and prop-laden performances by Pakistani artist Amin Gulgee come to mind. For performative works like “4Makers” (2019), and “Eating El Dorado” (2021), Gulgee made fuming agarbatti censers out of readymade bottles of sulphuric acid, flower pots, and glass mosaic. Gulgee is less invested in carrying on “historical” traditions than creating new ones: “Incense reminds me of birth, death, mourning, processions, individuality, collective energies, and ritual,” he told me in an interview. “It is the evocation of smoky fantasies, desires, and dreams that I am after.”

Holy Smoke: Censers Across Cultures (2024), edited by Beate Fricke and published by Hirmer Publishers, is available for purchase online and in bookstores. 

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