An exceptional ceramic censer lid, recently donated to the Art of the Ancient Americas collection, graces the entryway of the newly reinstalled Cornelia Cogswell Rossi Foundation Gallery. In ancient Mesoamerica, the burning of aromatic offerings was a vital means of engaging with supernatural powers. This elaborately decorated lid, although reminiscent of objects from Teotihuacan, Mexico, is likely from Escuintla, Guatemala, where artists worked in a similar but decidedly livelier and less standardized style. It showcases a human figure, undoubtedly a deceased warrior, dressed as a bird with yellow feathers and diminutive wings. Framed by a pair of rectangular shields, he stares out from the costume’s open beak with radiant eyes of inlaid mica. His avian costume and stylized butterfly-shaped nose ornament suggest that, like the later Aztecs, Escuintla’s ancient inhabitants believed that the souls of those who fell on the battlefield became colorful birds and butterflies that dwelled in a flowery paradise. The dazzling enclosure that surrounds the figure may represent a type of decorated wooden framework that housed the body during cremation. When the censer was used, the billowing clouds of smoke pouring out of it would have evoked the act of burning the deceased warrior; it would also attract his spirit—in the form of a nectar-drinking bird or butterfly—to the sweet aroma of incense.
Andrew D. Turner