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Incense: Origins and uses in ancient times


A few days before the start of Holy Week, today we are going to talk about the history and origin of one of the smells par excellence of this traditional festival: incense. Throughout these lines, we will be able to see if it is true, as it has always been believed, that the essence of incense transformed the negative into positive and also chased away evil spirits.

In the Byzantine world, censers were used to burn incense both in domestic contexts to purify the home, protecting it from malevolent forces, and in liturgical ceremonies. The church was the centre of public religious life in Christian communities in the Byzantine world. The rich furnishings of church interiors included crosses, lamps, bronze, silver and gold liturgical vessels and censers.

An outstanding example of these Byzantine censers is this one, on the body of which are reliefs depicting scenes from the New Testament and the life of Christ, related to the holy places of the Holy Land: Annunciation (Nazareth), Nativity (Bethlehem), Baptism (Jordan River), Crucifixion (a figure, Christ, in the centre with arms outstretched as if on a cross is flanked by two other similar figures, presumably the thieves of Matthew 27:38) and Resurrection (Jerusalem).


Incense has a long tradition not only in the Byzantine world, but also throughout the history of antiquity. It was mainly used in healing and religious ceremonies and was a substance desired by kings, priests and the upper classes, because they believed that the smoke of incense was a sacred gift from nature.

In Ancient Egypt, for example, in addition to being used by priests in purification ceremonies, incense had a close relationship with the Eye of Horus or the body of the gods. In fact, for some experts, the incense of ladanum resin represented the tears that fell from the eye of the falcon god, as a clear reference to the legend of Horus offering the perfumed eye to his father as proof of his victory over Seth.

Phoenicians were the people responsible for introducing incense to the West 3000 years ago, occupying an important place among their objects of worship. In fact, the discoveries made about this civilisation indicate that they frequently used both perfume burners and incense burners.

Incense was a fundamental element in purification rituals in Ancient Greece from the 7th century BC onwards. Frankincense of frankincense and myrrh, used in the form of resins and dried herbs, was burned on altars to create fragrant smoke that ascended towards the sky, carrying the prayers and wishes of the worshippers.

One of the most important incense rituals in Ancient Rome took place in the Temple of Vesta, dedicated to the goddess of the hearth, the family and the sacred fire. The smoke of incense, rising towards the sky, was considered in Roman culture to be a kind of vehicle that allowed prayers and prayers to reach the gods.

As mentioned at the beginning, the burning of incense enhanced the spiritual character of the church interior. In the medieval church, it was believed that the smoke of incense floating in the air facilitated the ascent of prayers to heaven and that the aromatic smell honoured God and the saints.

byzantine incense-incense-burner-bronze

Museum pieces

This is why objects such as this magnificent bronze censer belong to a corpus of Byzantine censers from the 6th-7th centuries AD, many of them from Egypt, depicting vignettes from the life of Christ. Their iconography evokes Christian sacred history and the places to which medieval pilgrims travelled to commemorate these sacred events. Although usually identified as censers, such vessels could also serve as lamps if they were filled with oil and a holder for the wick was attached to the side of the bowl.

Other examples of this select type of censer can be found in museums in the United States, such as the Virginia Museum The Walters Museuum in Baltimore, the Princeton University Museum and the Eskenazi Museum in Indiana. In Turkey, in the Antalya Museum, there is a very similar silver-gilt censer with scenes from the New Testament dating from the 6th century. In Europe, other examples can also be found in such prestigious museums as the British and the Lovre in Paris.






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