CENSER

MAYA – Chiapas – Mexico

500 – 900 A.D.

  • Height : 63.5 cm
  • Width : 39.2 cm
  • Thickness : 23 cm

Brown-red terracotta with remains of polychromy.

Effigy censer with Jaguar God of the Underworld. The burning of incense and of other offerings played an important role in the ritual life of the ancient Maya. This object is not the actual burner itself but the support for a conical-shape censer plate and of its lid. Copal balls and other offerings were placed in the censer to be burned, the aromatic smoke of the offering becoming the food of the gods and ancestors.

The support is made of a vertical clay cylinder with two symmetrically attached flanges surrounding the face of a deity or of an ancestor. Numerous censers of this type have been found in excavations at the Maya site of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Many were located on several of the platforms of the Cross Grouppyramids, a set of temples dedicated to the Triad Gods of Palenque.

In the ceremonial center of Palenque, the effigy is usually that of a deity whereas censers found in the residential area of the site tended to show the faces of ancestors. Among the deities represented on flange censers, the most frequently depicted one is that of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, an aspect of the Sun God in his nocturnal journey in the Underworld. This deity, also known as God GIII of the Palenque Triad, is also present on our censer support. Here, the face is characterized by large globular eyes, a “Roman” nose and above his own ears, a pair of jaguar ears, now missing, as well as a beard in the shape of a sea shell. A thin string of clay emerges from behind the ears, passes under the eyes to terminate on the brow in a twisted loop, often referred to in the literature as a “cruller”. This appendage is missing here having been broken off. It is thought that this entire feature represents the string used to activate the pump drill in fire making. This is quite appropriate as the Jaguar God of the Underworld is also considered to be a god of fire and warfare.

On our censer support, the face of the Jaguar God of the Underworld rests on a jawless earth monster, possibly depicting a mountain. The deity’s headdress consists of a jawless jaguar head topped by a jeweled crown with a flower-like diadem on the front. Very often, the diminutive face or body of an anthropomorphic creature (now missing) emerges from the center of this flower ornament. A primordial bird referred to as the Primary Bird Deity rests on the crown itself. Both, the crown and the bird constitute the avian aspect of an entity called the Jester God, an important headdress-like ornament associated with royal rulership. The entire composition on the frontal face of the incense burner can therefore be viewed as a cosmogram with the earth below and the celestial realm presided by the Primary Bird Deity above.

The flanges are decorated with a variety of symbols, half heads of bird and various jewel-like ornaments. Abundant traces of Maya blue remain. A pigment that was applied post firing, it was composed of an organic material extracted from the Indigofera suffruticosaplant and mixed with a Palygorskite clay. Maya blue is recognized as one of the most resistant pigment ever created. The fact that we can still find traces of it on this censer bears witness to its unprecedented stability.

Despite some missing minor elements, this rare and iconic incense burner support is in an excellent state of preservation. 

Provenance : Formerly in the Yvon COLLET Collection since 1968.

Bibliography :

Les Mayas Art et Civilisation, Nicolas Grube, Eva Eggebrecht, Mathias Seidel, Könemann, 2000.

Maîtres des Amériques. Hommage aux artistes précolombiens, Collection Dora et Paul Janssen, Fonds Mercator,
5 continents éditions, 2005.

Mayas : révélation d’un temps sans fin, catalogue de l’exposition du 7 octobre 2014 au 8 février 2015,
Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, 2014.

Publications :

XIII Biennale Internationale des Antiquaires, exhibit catalogue, pp. 60-61, Fig.27, from September 25 till October 12 1986,
Galerie Mermoz, Stand 24, Grand Palais, Paris.

XXV Biennale Internationale des Antiquaires, exhibit catalogue, pp. 17 et 49, Fig. 25, from13 till 22 of September 2010,
Galerie Mermoz, Stand N11, Grand Palais, Paris.

XVII BRAFA, Foire des Antiquaires de Belgique, exhibit catalogue, pp. 3 et 10, Fig. 8, from18 till 29 of January 2012,
Galerie Mermoz, Stand 88, Grand Palais, Paris.