600 – 900 CE
Height: 14.5 inches (37 cm)
Provenance: Private collection, Florida 1960’s
Incense has long been used by cultures around the world in both religious settings, as an aid in rituals, and in profane contexts, for the enjoyment of the aromatic scent of incense burned. The Pre-Columbian Maya and Teotihuacan are no different in this matter, and their unique styles come together in this beautifully shaped incensario; a vessel formed with the specific purpose of burning incense in a manner pleasing to both men and the gods.
The figure stands tall, elbows bent, staring forward. The pupils of the almond shaped eyes were once formed of slivery mica, as evidenced by a remaining fragment in the figure’s right eye. Hair styled into customarily straight-cut bangs fall to mid-forehead, topped by a symmetric headdress of geometric design. Feathered extensions peek out from between these geometric shapes like eyelashes, crown their tops, and are bundled together with red rope in the center of the design. Enormous ear flares hang from the figure’s life-like ears down to the chin, and a triangular nose takes center place above the open mouth where teeth are just visible behind the lips. The head forms a decorative lid to the body of the incensario. Inside, the head is hollowed out up to the point at which the headdress begins, and fits neatly over the neck.
The body is smooth, with a slight paunch above the beaded belt that wraps around the figure’s midriff and holds in place the cloth that falls over the legs. Bracelets encircle the wrists of both arms. The figure’s left hand is wrapped around a long handled sword club, strong fingers holding the weapon upright. The fingers on the right hand are just as carefully arranged, each one possessing an incised fingernail. It does not hold any object nor was any space deliberately made to grasp one. Beneath the cloth the figure’s legs hold the incensario high. The heels of the feet and tips of the toes are both connected to the decorated cloth worn by the figure. True to Pre-Columbian style the arms and legs of the figure were shaped separately and made hollow, being joined to the body after. Doing so allowed this, as well as similar figures to be lighter than they would otherwise be.
The inside of the incensario’s body is likewise empty, with the purpose of holding the burning incense. Dark burnished clay is interrupted only by the bright red-orange streak of iron particles on the outer body of the clay, contrasted by the light colored sediment that remains from the incensario’s burial. When burned properly, the incense resting within its belly would have escaped as curling smoke from the parted lips carved into the decorative head of the lid.
There is a high chance that the incense burned in this incensario was made of resin gathered from the copal, pine, or ceiba trees. The ceiba was especially important, believed in Mayan mythology to connect by its roots and branches the three realms: the upper world, this realm, and the underworld. From the practices of modern day Mesoamerican traditions, as well as trace remains of incense from other incensarios, it is possible to infer how similar the incense making process of the ancient Maya and Teotihuacan might have been to those of their descendants. Resin was collected from the tree by wounding the bark and mixed with bark chips and other plants. These were then rolled into cigars, spheres, kernels, and other shapes according to the custom of the region. Incense is used in a variety of rituals by the modern day Maya, from requesting a favor from a god to asking for the blessing of the spirits in planting a field of corn or raising a house. This offers an idea of what purposes ancient pre-Columbian civilizations might have used their incensarios for. In addition, it is known that in ancient times incense and other materials were burned as food for the gods, who could only consume materials that were burned and offered up in the form of smoke.
This incensario is decidedly Teotihuacan, it is, however, a very interesting shape. The piece has artistic influences from both Maya and Teotihuacan culture. Those made by the Teotihuacan generally took a more rectangular, boxed form and featured a face surrounded by a multitude of complex shapes and designs (here mostly seen in the headdress). The Maya were more prone towards jar, vase, or vessel shaped incensarios, or those made of stacked designs above and below a jaguar head. While this type of incensario is not the only one of its kind, it is a stellar example of the effect of mingling cultural influences.