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Incense Burner (work of art)

Artwork Info

Artist Details
Guatemalan (Tiquisate region)
Circa 300-600 AD
23 x 17 1/2 x 9 1/8 in.
(58.4 x 44.5 x 23.2 cm)

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • This object functioned as a symbol to honor warriors who had perished in battle. Warriors in the Maya civilization were very powerful individuals in society, and as such they had very extravagant mortuary (burial) rituals. 
  • Teotihuacán, the city from which this style of art comes, was the largest power in Mesoamerica during the 5th century. Its powerful elite rulers and imperial wealth allowed the people of Teotihuacán to travel all throughout Mesoamerica, influencing many civilizations along the way. 
  • The incense that would be burned were coals and copal incense (tree resin), which were abundant in Mesoamerica.

Learn More

This ceramic incense burner comes from Tiquisate, an area located along the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Despite its geographical location, this figure imitates an art style that originates from a famous ancient city in Central Mexico: Teotihuacan. Located nearly 700 miles away from the site of the incense burner, Teotihuacan was the first ancient city in the Americas, built nearly 800 years before the Aztec Empire. 

Incense was burned at the base of the piece which allowed smoke to escape through the chimney attached to the back. The lid showcases a miniature temple decorated with quetzal birds, bright feathers, flowers, and jewels. In the center, there is a dead warrior wearing a butterfly nose piece that symbolizes the soul. The combination of these elements represents the Flower Mountain, a solar paradise that is full of shining colors and is for people who died on the battlefield. In Mesoamerica, butterflies were an ideal way of expressing rebirth and metamorphosis, the process of an animal transforming from an infant to adult in multiple phases. During its life, a butterfly develops from a caterpillar to a pupa wrapped in a hard cocoon. When it finally emerges from the cocoon, it is a fully formed butterfly. 

In the ancient Americas, flames were depicted in the shape of butterflies and flowers. This cone shaped lid represents a bright burning mortuary (burial) bundle. This piece would be placed on top of fiery offerings as a metaphor for the crematory burials of warriors. Fire was a way that individuals who died in battle could transform in order to enjoy the afterlife.


Additional Resources

Khan Academy

Video on Teotihuacan from Khan Academy that discusses some of the main features of the Ancient City.


American Bird Conservancy

Article that discusses what a Quetzal bird is and the ancient and modern history of the bird.


University of Oregon

Article discussing the importance of butterflies in Mesoamerica.


  • Unknown Guatemalan Artist Incense Burner Ceramic

    Incense Burner by Unknown Guatemalan Artist

  • Unknown Guatemalan Artist Incense Burner Ceramic

    UNKNOWN, Incense Burner, 98_7, view D

  • Unknown Guatemalan Artist Incense Burner Ceramic

    UNKNOWN, Incense Burner, 98_7, view C

  • Unknown Guatemalan Artist Incense Burner Ceramic

    UNKNOWN, Incense Burner, 98_7, view B