TITLE: Censer with jaguar CULTURE: Mayan PERIOD: c. 600 - 800 AD MATERIAL: Terracotta DIMENSIONS: Upper diameter 43 cm; height 31 cm REF: 20141899 PRICE: 6,000 euros PROVENANCE: From a collection from the Pine Crest School Museum in Lauderdale, Florida, acquired with a donation between 1975 and 1982; previously from the collection of John B. Fulling, Florida, reduced in 1975.CONDITION: Cracks are present but the piece is in general in good condition, preserving the polychromy. DESCRIPTION: Round censer decorated with an appliqué of a jaguar showing its maw. On either side and in mirror form we can see the upper limbs of the animal. Polychromy is present with spots over the entire body imitating the skin of the jaguar.
A decorative border made of a twisted cord of terracotta runs around the bottom perimeter of the vessel. The same type of decoration runs around the top just below the rim, which is decorated with a third strand of twisted terracotta in the same way. On either side of the vessel, there are two more appliques, equidistant from each other.
The symbolism of the jaguar in Pre-Columbian America in general and in Mayan culture in particular, should be stressed. The jaguar, along with the tiger, is one of the only two felines that swim with great facility. They both also have a marked ability to climb up trees. The jaguar prefers to hunt at night, in the early hours of the morning and just before sunset. That is the reason why the Mayans associated this animal with the path of the sun, believing that at twilight the sun changed into this fierce animal so that it could overcome the forces of the underworld and rise up again victorious in the morning.
In the Maya vision of the cosmos the jaguar corresponded to the reign of darkness and the night, while the quetzal bird corresponded to the day and light. The former is connected to the gods of XibalbÃ¡ and the caves and entrances to the underworld. It is therefore considered a powerful and dangerous animal possessing profound knowledge and sacred energy. It is also considered to be a symbol of power, either political or military. Generals in some armies wore a garment made from the skin of this animal.
The jaguar considered as an animal of the underworld is also related to fertility as can be seen in representations where it is surrounded by vegetal motifs and by aquatic plants in the company of other animals like toads and fish, all of which are inhabitants of the primeval waters of creation. In Mayan iconography it is also intimately related to maize and cocoa, to the degree that the latter, in Mayan Yucatec, it is called balamte, or "jaguar tree".
In all of Mesoamerica, people used pottery vessels or censers to burn organic material. This material included copal, the resin from the tree of the same name, but also other important substances including maize and human blood. The vessels varied in form and size. The earliest ones date from the Early Preclassic Period (2000-1000 BC). They are still in use today.
Censors were primarily ceremonial objects. Some were used as braziers to generate heat to cook with, for warmth or to repel insects. But in general the Ancient Mayas used them as receptacles in which to burn incense and other organic material to offer to their gods or ancestors. The smoke from the burning incense facilitated communication between humans and the supernatural powers while the smell perfumed the space where such offerings were made.