A censer, or thurible, is a container used for burning incense, typically in a religious setting. Oftentimes, thuribles are suspended by chains and swung back and forth to spread the incense, although earlier models were vase-like, stationary objects (Morrisroe 1908). On this thurible, two of the three loops where the chains attach are still intact, dating it to a later period of thurible production (Figure 2; Lurje 2014). Thuribles were integral in ancient Jewish and pagan rites and were inserted into Christian ceremonies during the early days of the Church, and all three of these communities existed within Sogdiana (Morrisroe 1908). Instructions on how to use thuribles are present in the Old Testament or Torah: “He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain” (Leviticus 16:12 NIV). Thuribles are also mentioned in the New Testament, spanning the use of thuribles over thousands of years from the Old Testament to the New Testament to contemporary Church services, particularly those of the high churches.
This particular thurible is a Christian censer. It depicts New Testament scenes such as the Annunciation, the Visitation, Nativity, Baptism, and Crucifixion of Christ. Figure 2 shows the Crucifixion: a figure, Christ, in the middle with his arms spread as if on a cross is flanked by two other similar figures, presumably the thieves of Matthew 27:38. An equilateral cross adorns the base, and the Greek letter chi, or “X,” denotes Christ and when rotated appears as an equilateral cross (Lurje 2014; Longenecker 2015). The balanced cross, equal armed and right angled, is often called a Greek cross and is associated with the Greek and Eastern Churches (Ward 1872). One of the churches of the East, the Nestorian Church was the community that covered the area of Central Asia, encompassing Sogdiana.
Vegetal ornaments are present on the base, which is a typical motif in Sogdian art. However, the details of the iconography and its execution, especially the rough, squat figures that are coupled with the vegetal motifs, suggest an origin in Syria. The thurible probably travelled to the area around Samarkand at the turn of the eighth or ninth century, which constituted the zenith of Nestorian missionary activity. Further, a Nestorian community existed outside of Samarkand until the eleventh century and the Monastery of Mar Mattai was established outside of Mosul in the twelfth century, suggesting a possible continuing demand for religious objects such as thuribles, dishes, and other religious objects (Lurje 2014; Angold 2006).
The Cambridge History of Christianity: Eastern Christianity. Vol. 5. 2006. Ed. Michael Angold. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Longenecker, Bruce W. 2015. The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
Lurje, Pavel. 2014. “Sogdiana Catalogue.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.
Morrisroe, Patrick. “Censer.” In Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03519c.htm.
Ward, Henry Dana. 1872. History of the Cross: the Pagan Origin, and Idolatrous Adoption and Worship, of the Image. London: James Nisbet and Co.
Syria, possibly near Mosul
h11.5 cm, ∅ of body 10.5 cm
Cast and engraved bronze
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Additional Research Metadata
A frieze runs between bands of decoration, containing New Testament scenes from the life of Christ: The Annunciation, The Visitation, Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion and The Women (Myrrhbearers) at the Tomb of Christ. The images are rather coarse, the figures somewhat squat, with the facial features only very roughly indicated. Conventional vegetable ornament is engraved on the foot. On the base is a relief equal-armed cross. Around the top there were originally three loops for the chains which would have been used to suspend the thurible. In iconography and style this is a characteristic example of the bronze of Syria Palaestina. Like other liturgical objects from Syria, it may have found its way to the region around the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries, when the missionary activities of the Nestorian clergy reached their height. It perhaps arrived via one of the Nestorian monasteries near Samarkand. According to written sources, there was a Nestorian ecclesiastical province here right into the 11th century.
1916 acquired from the Samarkand trader Davud Mirza Mehdi Yusupov; according to him, found summer 1916 in the village of Urgut near Samarkand