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Here Be Monsters: Kimbell Purchases Two Mayan Ceramics

by Jerome Weeks 11 Apr 2013 11:59 PM

They’re like highly-detailed totem poles made of heads of jaguars and reptile-gods. The two stands held the ceremonial bowl where the copal incense was burned – in Chiapas around 700 A. D. These babies are rare in the U.S.


Two rare, ritual Mayan censer stands are moving to the Kimbell, which announced their purchase today. Standing nearly four feet tall, these stands held the ceremonial brazier-bowels where the copal incense was burned. Both come from Chiapas, Mexico, and have been dated to around 690-720 A.D.  There are few of these in the U.S. and they’ll go on view at the Kimbell April 21.

The bowls were pretty plain (and often missing, as here), but the totem-pole-like stands, as is clear from these images, were richly embellished — in this case, a jaguar head (lower, left), symbolizing the god of the underworld, and a supernatural reptile with a Kan cross in the mouth above him (bottom, right). The human head with the open mouth may be a deity.

Both censer stands more or less represent the World Tree, which held the earth in its roots and supported the heavens. Personally, I’m trying to figure out exactly which one of these faces is the Mayan Jester God.

The full release, natch:


FORT WORTH, TX—The Kimbell Art Museum announced today the acquisition of two rare Maya Palenque-­‐style ceramic censer stands. Typical of the Maya late Classic period (A.D. 600–900) and dated to about A.D. 690–720, Censer Stand with the Head of the Jaguar God of the Underworld and Censer Stand with the Head of a Supernatural Being with a Kan Cross will be on view in the Museum’s north galleries on Sunday, April 21st.

Palenque-­‐style ceramic censer stands (incensarios) are among the largest and most sophisticated freestanding sculptures created by Maya artists. There are very few in either public or private collections in the U.S. Measuring nearly four feet tall, the Kimbell censer stands are exceptional for their remarkable condition and superb quality of execution.

“The sculptures’ monumental scale and wealth of symbolic detail command the viewer’s attention,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “I foresee these works quickly becoming hallmarks of our already choice collection of Maya art.” Since their documented importation into the U.S. from Mexico on August 6, 1968, the two censers have been in private collections in Europe and the U.S. From 1985 to 1999, they were on view in the galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts, as a long-­‐term loan.

Maya Censer Stands

The sophistication and craftsmanship demonstrated in these stands are indicative of Palenque, a major Maya city-­‐state located in current-­‐day Chiapas, Mexico, that flourished in the seventh century. Ceramic censers were an important component of ritual paraphernalia and ceremonial life at Palenque. Censers were used both to represent and venerate divine beings, primarily the deities of the Palenque Triad. Censers were in two parts: a stand with a tubular body that served as a support; and a brazier-­‐bowl that was placed on top and used for burning copal incense. While the functional brazier was undecorated (and is now often missing, as is the case with both Kimbell acquisitions), the stands were elaborately embellished with a wide variety of iconographic elements. The thematic arrangement depicted on these two censer stands is referred to as the “totem-­‐pole” style and is characterized by a vertical tier of heads modeled in deep relief on the front of the cylinder. The side flanges are decorated with motifs of crossed bands, serpent-­‐wing panels, foliation, knotted bands, stylized ear ornaments and pendant ribbons applied in low relief. Traces of the original blue, red and white pigments are still present on the surface. Though not necessarily conceived as a pair, both censers were undoubtedly made by the same highly skilled court artist.

For the Maya, the center of the universe was the Axis Mundi, or World Tree, which had roots that grew from the depths of the sea under the earth and branches that rose to support the heavens. Symbolically, the tubular censer bodies formed cosmic trees, which were believed to be the vehicles that transported deities through the cosmos during ritual acts. The principal head most often featured on the censers is the Jaguar God of the Underworld (GIII), who represents the sun god making his nightly journey through the Underworld from dusk to dawn.

Censer Stand with the Head of the Jaguar God of the Underworld

The lowest head is a version of the Maize God, with attached leaves containing corn kernels. Above the Maize God’s head is the principal head of the Jaguar God of the Underworld (also known as Ahau K’in, the sun god), who represents the sun at night during its underworld journey from dusk to dawn. The Jaguar God head is capped by Itzamye, the serpent-­‐bird that, according to Maya mythology, was killed in the branches of the World Tree just prior to the creation of the present world. Artistically, the shift from the Jaguar God of the Underworld to Itzamye symbolizes the surface of the earth and the interface between the Underworld and the celestial realm. In the headdress of Itzamye is a small figure that may be a version of the Jester God, a signifier of rulership. Above Itzamye is an unrecognizable head, which is capped by Itzamna, the paramount sky god of the Maya, who resided at the top of the heavens. A small jaguar is perched in his headdress.

Censer Stand with the Head of a Supernatural Being with a Kan Cross

The lowest head is an unidentified reptilian, surmounted by a head that may be a human in the guise of a deity, probably the Jaguar God of the Underworld. This head has an open mouth with a cut-­‐off jaw. The inside of the mouth is marked with a Kan Cross (X) and resembles the entrance of a temple. As in the Jaguar God censer, this principal head is topped by Itzamye, the serpent-­‐bird, indicating a symbolic shift to the branches of the World Tree (Axis Mundi) in the celestial realm. The two upper reptilian heads are versions of the Jester God, who resided in the upper heavens. The side flanges of both censers are decorated with a variety of motifs that include (from top to bottom) jewels with bird-­‐shaped heads and ribbons, stylized crocodile ears, crossed and knotted bands and ornamented ear spools.

Kimbell Art Museum

The Kimbell Art Museum, owned and operated by the Kimbell Art Foundation, is internationally renowned for both its collections and for its architecture. The Kimbell’s collections range in period from antiquity to the 20th century and include European masterpieces by artists such as Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Poussin, Velázquez, Monet, Picasso and Matisse; important collections of Egyptian and classical antiquities; and Asian, Mesoamerican and African