Incense Burner Lid

Incense Burner Lid

A.D. 375-450
lid, incense burner
Earthenware with mold-made appliques and polychrome paint.
Accession Number
Credit Line
Gift of Maria and John Eggemeyer
Incense Burner Lid. A.D. 375-450. Earthenware with mold-made appliques and polychrome paint.. Gift of Maria and John Eggemeyer. 1985.501.
height: 8 in, 20.3200 cm; diameter: 8 1/2 in, 21.5900 cm
Mayer Center, Arts of the Ancient Americas
Arts of the Ancient Americas

Incense Burner Lid
About A.D. 375-450
Mexico, Teotihuacán
Earthenware with mold-made appliques and polychrome paint.
Gift of Maria and John Eggemeyer, 1985.501

Due to its resemblance to a masked figure peering out of a stage-set, this censer (or "incensario") format is often called a "theater censer" in academic literature. It is generally believed to represent an ancestral or deified figure looking out from a temple shrine, with the rectangular frame doubling as both headdress and architectural façade.

Like all known examples of theater censers from Teotihuacán, this lid was found in fragments. Many of the mold-impressed "adornos" were reattached by conservators at the DAM in modern times. 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.

This lid is typical of incensarios discovered archaeologically at Teotihuacán, particularly those found in the Tetitla compound. Its substructure is composed of an inverted bowl topped by a slender chimney (from which smoke would pour when the censer was in use). The face and necklace are attached directly to this chimney. Additional mold-made decorative ornaments ("adornos" and "mantas") are attached to a bracket-shaped armature that frames the central face. These elements were sometimes affixed to their backing with small balls of wet clay before the entire incensario was fired. At other times, the lid, chimney, and armature were fired together as a single form, with separately-fired adornos attached later with a lime plaster adhesive. Overall, these incensarios appear to have been designed to be easily disassembled. After use, they were frequently taken apart and buried in caches or as burial offerings.

On this example, one encounters a relatively standard array of motifs. At the top, a feather tuft is flanked by two feather-rimmed mirrors, which once likely held reflective obsidian, mica, or pyrite. Below, a row of circular elements appear to represent jade headband disks, ornaments frequently seen in the headdresses worn by Teotihuacano figures in art at the site and abroad (see, for instance, 1986.611). Below these are two full-bodied butterflies, to either side of which are two bird faces (owls or quetzals), which stare out from feather-rimmed shields or mirrors, tail feathers curling out above them.

The two vertical slabs that form the sides of the armature are typical of this incensario format, although their iconography is enigmatic. On the right, an interlocked spiral is painted black atop a green and yellow ground. On the left, a butterfly hangs below what may be bundles of golden marigolds. Below, four rectangular "mantas" create a lower border, doubling as a sill or doorway. Each painted a different color, these may refer to the four directions, each of which was associated with a different color in Mesoamerican belief.

For an earlier version of this censer format, see 1985.625A-B. For a later version of this censer format, see 1965.207A-B. For an incensario influenced by these Teotihuacano formats, but produced on the South Coast of Guatemala, see 1975.180.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 27 December 1985 by Maria and John Eggemeyer to 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.