Lion incense burners appear to have been produced in various sizes, ranging from the massive but atypical example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed by Ja'far b. Muhammad b. 'Ali and dated AH 577/1181-2 AD that is 33in. (82.6 cm.) high, to a number that are only around 7in. (17cm) high. While the Metropolitan Museum example is made from sheet metal, presumably to accommodate the scale, the majority, as here, are cast. The sculptural qualities also vary considerably, from the more angular versions such as one in the Louvre Museum (Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford, 1938, pl.1297) and notably one sold recently at Sotheby's (9 April 2008, lot 114), to ones whose feline qualities are much more apparent. Among these latter are the lion incense burner in the Khalili Collection (J. M. Rogers, The Arts of Islam, Treasures from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection, Abu Dhabi, 2008, no.98, pp.94-5) and the archetype of the group, that in the Hermitage Museum signed by 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Salihi (Pope, op.cit., pl.1304)
The present lion certainly belongs to the latter group but stands out from many of the comparables by its remarkably preserved condition. Our example has kept his composite tail issuing a bird's head and a looped 'sting' whilst most felines have now lost theirs or have more simple tails (as the lion incense burner offered in these Rooms, 8 October 2008, lot 90). Mythical beasts are widely represented in the Islamic mediaeval periods and the 12th century offers comparables in different media (such as ceramic) and in other regions. Two lakabi pottery 'fountain heads' in the shape of a cockerel and a sphinx from Raqqa in Syria, datable to the second half of the 12th century, have each a tail issuing an eagle's and a dragon's head respectively. They show a similar taste for functional yet precious objects drawing on an inventive decorative repertoire (L'Orient de Saladin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2001, pp. 56-57, ill. 51-52). Alongside those in the Hermitage and the Metropolitan Museums, this incense burner is also amongst the largest examples.