Incense Burner Lid with "Butterfly Warrior"

A.D. 350-550


Object Info

Object: lid; incense burner
Not currently on view
Object ID: 1975.180


Fine paste clay, fired to a light tan color. Clay slipped in white, then painted.


Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer

More Info


height: 15 1/2 in, 39.3700 cm; width: 19 in, 48.2600 cm


Mayer Center, Ancient American Art


Ancient American Art

Known Provenance

Gifted 15 December 1975 by the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer 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.

Extended Info

Incense Burner lid with "Butterfly Warrior"
About A.D. 350-550
Guatemala, Escuintla, Tiquisate
Earthenware with pigment
Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1975.180

This incense burner (or "incensario") lid mimics the style of similar objects made at the central Mexican city of Teotihuacán. The domed substructure of the lid and the motifs depicted on it, however, identify it as having been made in the Tiquisate region of Escuintla, located along the south coast of Guatemala. To see the difference in construction and decoration, compare this lid against those made at Teotihuacán, such as 1965.207A-B, 1985.501, and 1985.625A-B.

In the center of the incensario lid one encounters the human face of a "butterfly warrior," which may represent a mummy bundle wearing a face mask. When in use, smoke would have issued from this figure's eyes, creating a dramatic supernatural effect. In central Mexico, it was believed that the souls of dead warriors were resurrected as fiery butterflies in the flowery Otherworld. This theme found great popularity in the Teotihuacán-influenced art of Pacific Coastal Guatemala. The figure wears an enormous nosepiece in the form of an abstracted butterfly. He also wears a multi-strand beaded necklace and large two-tiered earspools, and holds a staff and banner in his hands. The figure's headdress doubles as a temple or architectural enclosure, decorated with feather-edged mirrors, flowers, and a fringed cloth with two triple mountain motifs at its corners. Above this, a quetzal bird with the wings and antennae of a butterfly is shown in descent. The butterfly warrior looks out above a simple frame, marked with three triple-mountain motifs, as though peering out of a temple doorway or window. The triple-mountain motif appears to have referenced the center of the world, representing the three-stone hearth, the place of the earth's first beginnings, on a mountainous scale.

The conical base of the incensario lid is flanked by two large earspools. In the center, a mirror with butterfly wings hovers above a bracket-shaped motif filled with waves and shells. While the winged mirror is a symbol of fire, the bracket element symbolizes a body of water, such as a lake. Scholarly research has shown that these elements, when combined, likely reference the nearby Volcano Pacaya and Lake Amatitlán, a spectacular natural landscape that was visited by populations near and far and served as the focus of pilgrimage and offering rituals for millennia.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Exhibition History

  • “ReVision: Art in the Americas” — Denver Art Museum, 2/16/2020 – 11/8/2020