Incense, 1902

“In priestly robe and wreathed, a wonder-man!
Who’ll now fulfil what he in faith began,
A tripod with him from the depths below.
Now from the bowl the incense-perfumes flow.”

— From Faust (1808) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


“Dr. Faustus conjuring up Mephistopheles” (1902), by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), a very different look at incense than Abbey’s painting of a dove hovering over the infant Sir Galahad with a censer in “The Vision.”

Incense, 1670


Nadab and Abihu in a woodcut from an unknown illustrator for L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament (1670) by Nicolas Fontaine. As recalled in Leviticus 10:1-2, the sons of Aaron took it upon themselves to usurp the priests’ role, venture into the forbidden Holy of Holies, wing their own ritual, and burn incense on coals taken from a campfire, “a strange fire,” instead of the undying fire God had provided explicitly for such purposes. For their gross presumption and cavalier attitude, “there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

Incense, 1880

Fumée d’Ambre Gris (1880) was painted by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) after a trip to North Africa. The painting shows a woman inhaling the smoke of ambergris — a gray, amber-like, resinous substance from the intestines of the whale, harvested from the sea and beaches – which was burnt as incense by the Egyptians.

The original painting hangs in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Incense, 1920


“The Wine of Incense!” by Louis Mayer (1869-1969), circa 1920. Mayer was a painter, sculpture, and illustrator. After studying at the Wisconsin Art Institute he moved to Germany to attend the Weimar Art School and the Academy at Munich. He would also study at the Julian Academy in Paris before returning to America. In 1913 he set up a studio in Fishkill, N.Y. In addition to doing illustration work for magazines such as Puck, he created glamor images for posters and postcards. With thanks to the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City for the bio.

Incense, 1661

A detail from “A Female Figure Holding an Incense Burner” by Willem Doudijns (1630-1697). An artist from the Netherlands, Doudijns traveled to Italy some time before 1650 and stayed for 12 years, studying and sketching. In 1661 he returned to the Hague, where he ran a very active studio, painting and teaching.

I have no idea what’s going on in this painting, but I’d love to find out.

To see the complete, unblushing image, click here.

Incense, 1895


A detail from “The Vision,” the first panel in The Quest of the Holy Grail, a mural done for the walls of the Boston Public Library by American illustrator and painter Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911).

This picture tells of the infant Galahad visited by a dove bearing a golden censer and by an angel carrying the Grail. The nun holding Galahad represents his connection with the earth; the angel is his inspiration from heaven.

Of the first panel, Abbey wrote, “The Grail held by the angel is veiled with red samite and above it hovers a white dove, a golden censer, lightly smoking, swinging from its beak, the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit that informs the Grail.”

The entire mural was completed in 1895 after 11 years of work; it was restored in 2004 by a team of conservators from Harvard’s Straus Conservation Center.

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The Legend of the Holy Grail as Set Forth in the Frieze Painted by Edwin A. Abbey for the Boston Public Library (1904) by Sylvester Baxter & Edwin Austin Abbey