Incense Burner with Enthroned Figure
About A.D. 100-250
Gift of Mr. William I. Lee, 1985.625A-B
Based on its stylistic similarity to an incensario discovered in 2011 in the Ventilla compound at Teotihuacán, this incense burner (or "incensario") appears to be an early precursor to the better-known "theater censers" of later periods (see 1965.207A-B and 1985.201). A number of features clearly identify it as an early example of this incensario format. First, the base is entirely plain, in contrast to later examples, which animate the base with earflares and nosepieces. Second, the appliqued elements affixed to the lid are entirely hand-made. In later periods, these "adornos" begin to be mold-made. Third, the lid depicts a full-bodied figure seated atop a four-legged throne, while later examples reduce the figure to a disembodied mask within a temple-like enclosure. The censer was coated in a wash of white paint (possibly lime) after firing. This appears to have been a relatively common practice at Teotihuacán.
Although the incensario appears to be complete, it was broken into pieces and repaired at least twice during its lifetime (at least once in modern times), so it is possible that some of its elements may have been reattached incorrectly. All known examples of incensarios from Teotihuacán have been discovered in similarly fragmentary states, leading scholars to conclude that breakage may have been an important aspect of their use, perhaps serving as a means of preparing them for burial and life in the Otherworld.
At the very top of the lid, a butterfly face, complete with proboscis and fluffy antennae, looks out from a feather-edged shield or mirror, motifs frequently used in Teotihuacán art to represent otherworldly portals. Behind the main figure, a bracket-shaped armature fans out like the tail of a bird. The two claw-shaped elements affixed to it are the abstracted lower wing sections of butterflies, suggesting the entire armature was envisioned as a giant descending butterfly.
The somewhat diminutive main figure wears a large butterfly headdress with earflares in place of its eyes. The figure's face is nearly obscured by a curved nosepiece, and he wears large earflares, a jade-beaded collar, and a fringed tunic. Two tiny feet jut out beneath, decorated with tasseled anklets. He sits atop a four-legged throne, only the front edge of it in view. The corners of this throne are decorated with highly ornamented human heads, wearing beaded collars, nosepieces, and feathered headdresses. Below them are two large earflares.
In ancient central Mexican belief, the souls of warriors killed in battle were believed to be reborn as butterflies through the transformative medium of fire. It is likely that this figure represents a dead warrior, who would have been transformed upon the funeral pyre into a great, supernatural butterfly, fluttering like sparks of cinder and ash in the nighttime sky.
-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016