Fernand Khnopff, the famous Symbolist painter, completed Incense in 1898.
For a Symbolist painting, the imagery is more literally Christian than might be expected.
According to the Musée d’Orsay, this “painting is still in its original wooden frame, designed by the artist. On the top section, the inscription ‘DEO DEI’ echoes other references to Christ in the painting, like the halo behind Marguerite.”
The censor itself bears a striking resemblance to a reliquary jar; in the background (perhaps reflected in a mirror, judging by its washed-out lightness) is the interior of a Gothic cathedral; even the extent to which the subject is clothed suggests a sort of piety.
There is something oddly knowing, though, in the expression of the subject—and in the inclusion of the thistles. Considering the medieval Catholic theme, iconography is key, but they aren’t exactly a common symbol.
My guess? They represent the punishment of the fall of man: “Thorns also and thistles shall [the ground] bring forth to thee” (Genesis 3:18).
How wonderfully incongruous—which is very Symbolist—in what is otherwise a saintly scene.