Theatre-Type Incense Burner with Corn Cob Adornos and Base

Theatre-Type Incense Burner with Corn Cob Adornos and Base

450–700 CE
Teotihuacán Azcapotzalco
incense burner
Mold-made ceramic with pigment applied after firing
Accession Number
Credit Line
Museum Purchase

Unknown artist, Azcapotzalco, Teotihuacan region, Mexico. Theatre-Type Incense Burner with Corn Cob Adornos and Base, 450–700 CE. Mold-made ceramic with pigment applied after firing, 24 9/16 x 15 in. Denver Art Museum Collection: Department acquisitions funds, 1965.207A-B.

height: 24 9/16 in, 62.3888 cm; diameter: 15 in, 38.1000 cm
Mayer Center, Arts of the Ancient Americas
Arts of the Ancient Americas
This object is currently on view

Incense Burner
About A.D. 450–700
Mexico, Teotihuacán region, Azcapotzalco
Earthenware with pigment
Department acquisitions funds, 1965.207A&B

Although discovered at the same site, this incense burner base and lid were not originally part of a matching set. Both were found in pieces, and many of the mold-impressed "adornos" were reattached in modern times before the incensario was sold. The careful disassembly of incensarios before their burial appears to have been a common practice at Teotihuacán and may have been considered a means of preparing these objects for the Otherworld. Both lid and base have plain backs, indicating these incensarios were designed with a single viewing angle in mind.

Censers at Teotihuacán were formed by attaching a face and mold-made appliques (called "adornos") to a narrow chimney. A bracket-shaped armature provides the substructure for additional adornos. The lightweight delicacy conveyed by Teotihuacán incensarios such as this one (see also 1985.501) contrasts against the heavier nature of Teotihuacan-style incensarios from Escuintla, Guatemala (see 1975.180), which are built around a conical substructure rather than a tubular chimney. The lid is particularly notable for the preservation of polychrome color, which lends it a sense of vibrancy. A human mask, painted red with polychrome detailing, stares out from an enclosure formed by the headdress and surrounding armature. Most scholars interpret these lids as small-scale replicas of deities or ancestral bundles peering out from temple shrines.

The human mask wears large earflares and a large nose ornament in the form of an abstracted butterfly and stares out from beneath a large plumed headdress. The lower part of this headdress is decorated with a row of bundled darts (comparison with similar objects suggests these bundles may have been reattached to the lid upside-down). The puffy orange elements above them may be marigold blossoms. Atop the headdress are three naturalistically-rendered ears of corn. Below the face, atop the domed base of the lid are three round hemispheres. These may allude to the three hearthstones of creation, the mythical place where the world was born. The elements attached to the armature on either side of these spheres are the lower wings of butterflies. If positioned correctly, they would be rotated approximately 90 degrees, their tasseled ends angled outward. The lower part of the lid is decorated with a row of diminutive human figures with elaborate headdresses. The conical shape of their lower bodies suggests these may be mortuary bundles (see 1986.611). The bottom edge of the lid is ringed with the faces of quetzal birds, their feathers painted a naturalistic green, eyes rimmed with white, and beaks painted yellow.

The incensario base is less finely modeled and preserves less paint than the lid. Overall, the execution of decorative elements indicates that this was made by a different artist or workshop than the lid. As is typical for Teotihuacán incensarios made during this time, this base is flanked with earflares and wears a nose ornament, suggesting the base was conceived of as a symbolic human face.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Purchased 28 February 1965 by the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.
Exhibition History
  • Denver Art Museum, Denver (1963-1965)