William Robinson with the 13th-century Ayyubid silver-inlaid brass-domed cylindrical incense burner

Live like a Rockefeller — An Ayyubid incense burner

William Robinson, International Head of World Art at Christie’s, admires an enigmatic incense burner that reflects the Rockefellers’ interest in the ‘mixture of cultures’ and philanthropy in the Holy Land

‘This handsome incense burner, which we acquired from Father’s estate in 1960, always appealed to me very much,’ wrote David Rockefeller, who kept the burner on his desk at One Chase Manhattan Plaza for 20 years. Only latterly would he discover its rarity and uniqueness.

The incense burner, which merges Islamic-style metalwork with Christian imagery, belongs to an intriguing group of objects made in Syria during the Ayyubid dynasty of the mid-13th century. ‘The misguided, commonly held belief is that within the Islamic world, you can’t depict the human figure — although this is largely correct within the context of Islamic religious art and architecture,’ explains William Robinson, Christie’s Global Head of World Art. ‘This incense burner, which clearly does depict lots of humans, could just possibly have been made for an Islamic secular context; but it was almost certainly made with a Christian patron in mind, especially considering the halo indicating sainthood around the head of each figure.’

Due to the absence of any inscription it is difficult to confirm whether the piece was made for religious or private purposes, but Robinson believes it was probably made for use in a church.

The mechanism for commissioning mediaeval Islamic artisans to depict scenes from the New Testament, or saintly figures in arcades,  remains unclear. What is known is that the relationship of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, and later Acre, with the Muslim domains that surrounded them was complex, with considerable amounts of trade and artistic interaction dividing the better-known periods of confrontation.

David Rockefeller in his office at Chase Manhattan, New York on 3 April, 1981. The incense burner sits on his desk in the foreground. Photo Arnold NewmanGetty Images

David Rockefeller in his office at Chase Manhattan, New York on 3 April, 1981. The incense burner sits on his desk in the foreground. Photo: Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Of the six known Ayyubid-period incense burners, the only other complete example is in the British Museum in London. The others — in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — are missing either the feet or domed lids. The caveat, Robinson adds, is that all of them lack their handles.

‘We’ll never know exactly why John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller originally chose it,’ says the specialist. ‘But in a way it perfectly represents the philanthropic efforts of the Rockefeller family in the region. They supported museums and archaeological sites in the Holy Land. And so, to see every day an object that embodies the multiculturalism of the Holy Land is wonderfully appropriate.’