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

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Incense Burner Lid: Art Making Activity:

Working with Clay

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

  • Discuss this incense burner as a masterwork of ceramic technique
  • Learn about different techniques and tools artists use to work with clay
  • Experiment hands-on with ceramic techniques, comparing and contrasting results






Develop Grit

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 Teotihuacana word in their native Nahuatl language meaning “city of the gods,” and consecrated the ruins as a sacred and ceremonial site for worship.


  • What words would you use to describe this incensario lid? How would you explain it to someone who has never seen it?
  • Look closely at this incense burner lid. What different techniques might the artist have used to create and decorate the object?
  • Look at the many different decorations, or adornos, on the lid. What words would you use to describe them, as a group? Are they organic or geometric? Realistic or stylized?
  • Only traces of the original paint remain on this object. This is rare for such an old object, but in its prime, this lid would have been even brighter in color. Imagine the way it must have looked with all of its decoration and pigment intact. What effect would it have had on the viewer or user?
  • Consider that this is the top half of a complete incense burner—the bottom half, now missing, would have been hourglass-shaped and would have contained the burning pine resin that created smoke. Based on your observations, where would the lid release the smoke?
  • Focus on the face and jewelry in the center of the lid. How would you characterize the person represented here?


  • Imagine the full incense burner as it would have been in Mesoamerican Teotihuacan: standing tall with bright, full decoration, and in use with smoke billowing out. How might the object have made an impression on its users and viewers? How would the presence of incense changed its effect?
  • Why might the creators of this object have selected the points of smoke release that are present in this lid? How would this object, and its effect on its viewers, change if the smoke was released from a different point?
  • Take inventory of the many different symbols and adornos on this object. What might these symbols have meant to the people of Teotihuacan?
  • Imagine the process that this object’s creators must have gone through to produce this incensario.  Consider the base structure, the individual adornos, the painted decoration, and the final assembly of all the parts for use. How much work must have gone into this object? How much time?
  • What does this object’s complexity reveal about its function and role in society?
  • Why might the incensario’s creators have gone to such lengths to create such an intricate vessel for burning pine resin? What do they gain from this incensario, rather than just burning the pine resin on an undecorated dish or in a plain vessel?


This incense burner lid is an ornate, masterful example of clay work. Discuss the artwork, then use it to discuss the techniques and tools that artists use when working in clay. For a sample list of terms, see Art Lessons: Experimenting with Clay – Physical Changes in Clay & Tiles with Red Iron-Oxide Slip, pgs. 12-14.

Have groups of students experiment with these different methods and tools.

Compare final products and discuss the versatility of this medium.

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