Censer depicting the Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace by Unknown artist, France

Unknown artist, France

Censer depicting the Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace, c.1160–65, Cast brass, chiselled and gilded, h. 16 cm; d. 10.4 cm, Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille, A 82, Photo: Stéphane Maréchalle, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Let my Prayer be Counted as Incense

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Although the story of the three young Hebrews in the fiery furnace is a familiar trope of divine deliverance, its iconographic use on a censer seems to be unique. This mid-twelfth-century spherical incense burner, made for use in the liturgy, is a masterpiece from the Moselle valley in France. Its two hemispheres are decorated with dense foliage and fantastic creatures. An angel or perhaps a figure of Christ crowns the censer’s summit, seated on a pedestal and offering protection; below him, in a circle, sit the three Hebrews, each of whom is named by an inscription below his image, and each of whom strikes a distinctive pose. Here, as in the Greek addition to Daniel 3, it is Abednego (named Azariah) who alone is shown in the orant posture of thanksgiving, for it is he who stands in the fire and prays aloud, ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers… (Prayer of Azariah 3; Daniel 3:26 LXX).

This emphasis on individuality is reinforced by a first-person Latin text that runs across the circumference:

I, Rénier, give this censer a sign so that at the hour of death you may grant me a funeral similar to yours, and in the belief that your prayers will rise like incense to Christ. (trans. by Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille)

Scholars speculate variously that this Rénier may have been a donor, the artist himself, or perhaps someone who both made and gave the work to a monastic community (Gearhart 2013). The gift’s stated purpose is to signify his salvation, offering prayers to help him to, as the inscription says, ‘rise like incense to Christ’.

With smoke issuing forth from the censer amid the images of the faithful Hebrews and their guardian angel or indeed Christ himself, the object’s purifying function and its artistic form come together in an extraordinarily complex way. In a billowing cloud of incense, we see their deliverance in the present moment and anticipate Rénier’s as well. It is as if all the figures were sitting on coals while yet 'the fire did not touch them at all’ (Song of the Three Jews 27; Daniel 3:50 LXX).

 

References

Gearhart, Heidi C. 2013. ‘Work and Prayer in the Fiery Furnace: The Three Hebrews on the Censer of Reiner in Lille and a Case for Artistic Labor’, Studies in Iconography, 34: 103–32


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