Peacock Incense Burner

Deccan, Sultanate India, late 15th/ early 16th century.
Brass. Height 30cm.

This exceptional brass incense burner takes the shape of a peacock, the noble bird admired for its intense beauty and the national bird of India (Pavo cristatus), where it is considered to represent royalty, immortality and eternal love. It is a rare example from the Deccan, the region that made metal zoomorphic objects one of its specialties and is both expressive and majestic, combining a taste for pure form with an attention to intricate ornament.

With its proximity to the ground and its willingness to cohabit with humans, coupled with its enchanting beauty, the peacock became the most enduring fixture in the cultural life of the Indian people; moreover, its striking blend of simmering colours in a flamboyant display of dance made it into a symbol of life at its most joyous and the most beauteous. Dancing with abandon at the sound of thunder and lightning, it became the harbinger of rain, of renewed life and fertility, of love and longing.

In the 16th century poetic work by Udaya, a renowned poet from Kerala, an aching lover who is separated from his spouse addresses himself thus to a peacock, “With a view to cause satisfaction to the world, you indulge in your dance, thereby creating happiness at a time when it withers, being stricken or afflicted by the scorching sun. So, I approach you, who are the descendants of that race of Indra who are the only solace to those opposed by grief, in the same manner as the sun is approached as a friend of the lotus.”

In refined detail we observe three frontal toes and one rear grasping the square base for balance as well as the protrusion of the spur further up the slender legs; these are remarkably straight and give the impression of being elevated for the bird to gain more prominence and stature in a possible display of ritual seduction. The underside of the body, in effect the bowl of the censer, is generously rounded and naturalistically contoured; it is also partitioned from the upper section of the container by a horizontal gap at the mid-point between the two.

From the sides of the upper section we observe the slanted opening and fanning of the wings; their upper surface is ornamented with incisions creating bands, these forming a stylized articulation of feathers. Where the wings meet the body, circular perforations begin to populate the figure as the escape mechanism for the burning incense within and are placed extensively throughout the upper section. In a feature of extraordinary attention to detail, the underside of the wing is defined by inclusion of the ligaments that connect the wings to the body. At the rear of each wing, two forward-curling elements represent the texture of feathers as they respond to the sporadic movement of wind.

From the rear of the peacock and above the hinge connecting upper and lower sections, a magnificent tail rises in a feat of masterful casting: as the tail flares upwards, the articulation of individual feathers is seen in outward curling forms, sometimes individual and occasionally in pairs. Eventually, the feathers separate from each other although they remain connected through textural details, to form a remarkable openwork conceit that culminates in the regal coil of the upper feather tips.

In a slow tapering ascent, the neck of the peacock echoes the tail in a choreographed curve. A slightly raised ornamental pendant decorates the breast and rises to the back of the neck, where it forms a slender choker, defining the role of the bird as tied to its cultural mandate. Completing the parabolic rise of the neck, the regal head of the peacock is magnificently detailed in its forward thrust – the small ocular elements are contained within the large ovals of the facial skin and at the front of the head, the powerful upper mandible overhangs the lower as their separation is set into a dynamic openwork expression.

A single curl at the nape of the neck leads the eye to the majestic crown at the top of the head, a lyrical expression of retracting and thrusting curls that emblazons the peacock with noble stature and presence. In these details, the sculpture reveals its Persian inspiration and the quasi-baroque refinement that has often blurred the chasm between the Persian, Indo-Persian and Mughal styles.

Mark Zebrowski dedicated an entire chapter to the best Indian incense burners and other zoomorphic objects in his book Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, still considered today the reference publication on the subject. The present incense burner is described extensively in the opening of the chapter, for which it is the frontispiece:

“The peacock was a popular motif in all periods of Indian art. A large incense burner in the shape of this proud bird strikes a remarkable balance between the abstraction of Islam and the sculptural qualities of the Indian tradition. Made of thickly cast brass, now covered in a rich black patina, the body and neck are pierced with large holes for the escape of the sweet-smelling smoke. The comma-shaped curls on the back, tail and crest indicate a southern origin. Similar peacocks prance upon the step-risers of the fantastic Throne of Prosperity represented in the Nujum al Ulum, an astrological manuscript dated 1570-71, which, according to a note written with the text, is known to have been in the royal library at Bijapur. Since this particular shape was obviously well defined by this date, and its vigorous design shows little of the naturalism associated with Mughal taste which began to affect Deccani art in the late sixteenth century, we can confidently assign it an earlier date, in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.” Zebrowski.

The present example was exhibited in the landmark exhibition Sultans of Deccan India at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015, and is published in the exhibition catalogue, where its “round shape of the head, high beak, wide-set eyes, and double string of pearls around the neck” are highlighted.

 

Published:
Zebrowski, Mark. Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India. 1997, page 94, plate 87.

Exhibited and Published:
Sultans of the Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015, page 207, plate 100.

 

Provenance:
Anthony Jack, London
Spink and Son, London
Private collection, London

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