Incense Burner (incensario) Lid, 150–650 AD
Earthenware with slip and traces of polychrome pigment
Overall: 20 × 17 1/8 × 10 1/4 in. (50.8 × 43.5 × 26 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Understanding Complex and Microscopic Structures and Systems

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the relationships among its parts; therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function.
  • The student demonstrates the complementary nature of structure and function.
  • Examine organisms or their structures such as insects or leaves and use dichotomous keys for identification.









Connecting to the Work of Art

Although the maker of this incense burner (incensario) lid is unknown, there was probably more than one artisan involved in the construction of this common ritual object. Individual pieces, such as the base, lid, chimney, and armature, were mass-produced in ceramic workshops located throughout the city of Teotihuacan, usually near temples or other buildings that appear to have had a religious affiliation. Clay symbols called adornos that decorated incensarios were similarly usually mass-produced with molds in workshops. However, many of the adornos on this lid were handmade, which makes it unusual. Adornos could be individually selected and placed on an incensario to serve the worship practices or other representational needs of the person commissioning the piece. Such commissions were probably common because no identical Teotihuacán incensarios are known to exist.


Incensarios were used in many kinds of religious rituals throughout Mesoamerica. Like this one, they were covered with layers of complicated symbolism. The face in the middle of this lid may represent a deceased ancestor or deity within a temple. The butterfly, flower, and seashell adornossymbols of transformation, the soul, war, water, and fertility—would have been appropriate emblems for a vessel honoring ancestors or the gods. The triangle and rectangle motif that appears three times between the flowers in the headdress is the glyph for a year and is also related to warfare. The head of the feathered serpent at the top of the lid represents an important deity to which the largest temple at Teotihuacan is dedicated.  A popular god in many Mesoamerican cultures, it was called Quetzalcoatl by the later Aztecs and was usually associated with the sky, rain, and fertility.


At Teotihuacan, an incense burner consisted of an elaborate conical lid and an hourglass base (now missing from this work). The copal, or tree resin, burned in the base sent smoke wafting heavenward through the lid as part of a ritual and prayer. This smoke represented rain clouds and, ultimately, fertility. In this example, the smoke would have been expelled from the serpent’s mouth at the top of the lid and from the eyes of the face in the center. Most of the adornos on this lid were handmade and attached using lime-stucco cement. Traces of the original paint remain on this remarkably preserved work.


The ruins of Teotihuacan lie approximately forty-five miles northeast of modern-day Mexico City. In its day, the city was a cultural, religious, and economic focal point of the Mesoamerican world (from about 450–650 A.D.). With a population of 120,000 to 200,000, the area was one of the largest preindustrial cities in the world at the time, and people converged at its center to exchange goods and to pay homage to their gods. Centuries later, the Aztecs (c. 1325–1521) stood in awe of the architectural sophistication of the ruins of the city’s temples and pyramids. In honor of that splendor, they named it Teotihuacan, a word in their native Nahuatl language meaning “city of the gods,” and consecrated the ruins as a sacred and ceremonial site for worship.


  • The central Mexican city of Teotihuacán was once the cultural, religious, and economic center of the pre-Columbian Americas. Teotihuacános used incensarios, or incense burners, as a part of their religious ceremonies. These lavishly decorated objects included a lid, like the one seen here, and an hourglass shaped base (which our example is now missing). Copal, a resin derived from tropical trees, was burned in the base, and smoke poured from the openings on the lid. This was meant to mimic cremation, sending clouds into the heavens to mix with the life-giving rains. Imagine smoke rising out of the face´s eyes and the serpent´s mouth. Describe the mood you think this would create.
  • The mask in the middle of this lid may represent the Great Goddess, the major deity of the city, or a deceased ancestor. Look at the beaded collar below the mask. The shells refer to water, the source of all life. The face is adorned with ear spools, a common form of jewelry in many ancient American cultures. These large ornaments were worn through stretched holes in the ear lobe. This incensario was made between 200 and 650. The people of Teotihuacán had no written language, so it is difficult to attribute definite meanings to the features and symbols in their art. Focus on the face and jewelry. How would you characterize the person represented here?
  • The makers of this lid decorated it with clay symbols known as adornos. Adornos were either mass-produced from molds or handmade, and could be selected for the worship or representational needs of the person commissioning the incensario. These adornos, such as the butterfly, appear to have been individually crafted with great care, and then attached to the lid with lime stucco cement. This incensario differs from many similar objects unearthed at Teotihuacán because it is completely intact. Why do you think incense burners in such good condition are a rare find?
  • Traces of the original paint remain on this remarkably preserved work. The bright red coloring comes from cinnabar (dried mercury), which is extremely poisonous when touched or inhaled. How do you think the incensario looked when it was first created? How would the vibrant colors enhance its effect?


  • What words would you use to describe this incensario? How would you explain it to someone who has never seen it?
  • Discuss symbols. Look at the adornos on this lid. What might these symbols have meant to Pre-Columbian people? What symbols are important to us today?
  • Today, the deserted streets, pyramids, and temples of Teotihuacán are popular with tourists. People travel from all over the world to see the remains of this great culture. Research Teotihuacán as a travel destination. Why do you think people want to visit? What can they learn from the city?
  • Trade with the Mayans was important to Teotihuacános. Why? What goods might they have imported and exported?
  • The meaning of the feathered serpent deity at the top of this lid is uncertain. Similar imagery appears repeatedly throughout ancient American cultures and is usually associated with the sky, rain, and fertility. What do you think it might mean here? Have you seen a symbol like this before?


  • Create a dichotomous key for possible adornos that could be added to the incense burner.  The adornos could be additional imaginary butterflies (see PDF).
    • Using the butterfly PDF, list the observable characteristics of the butterflies (i.e. solid abdomen/thorax, antenna number, heart shaped markings).
    • Create an identification key to classify the butterflies. Explain that scientists use a dichotomous key to identify living things, by splitting a group of organisms into two groups based on a difference in a particular characteristic. Each group is then divided into two more groups based on another characteristic, this continues until only one organism is left, and this leads the scientist to the name of the organism.
      • Pick one observable characteristic to divide the butterflies into two main groups
      • Then, guide the students to find a characteristic that will divide the above group into two smaller groups that have more than one member
      • Explain to the students that each key starts with the number 1, with 2 choices listed. Each choice will direct the user to another number with another characteristic that will subdivide into
      • Two more groups that share that characteristic. Place the number 2 at the end of the first statement.
      • Now leave the second choice alone until finished with the first choice.
      • Decide if the first group can be divided again. If so, divide it according to the next characteristic. If no more subdivisions can be made, create a name for the butterfly.
  • Examine organisms or their structures such as insects or leaves, and use dichotomous keys for identification.

Subject Matter Connection

Higher-order thinking skills are difficult to teach. Analyzing relationships and information is a tangible way for students to explore their own higher-order thinking. Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, and the structure of different components, to reveal its function and/or to solve a problem.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.