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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Colima Incensarios : Colima Janiform Incensario
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Colima Janiform Incensario - PF.2481
Origin: Western Mexico
Circa: 100 BC to 250 AD
Dimensions: 17.75" (45.1cm) high x 7.25" (18.4cm) wide
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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The Colima are part of a group of archaeological cultures – known almost purely from their artworks – referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb (WMST) tradition. There are many distinct groups within this agglomeration, and their relationships are almost totally obscure due to the lack of contextual information.

All of the cultures encompassed under the WMST nomenclature were in the habit of burying their dead in socially-stratified burial chambers at the base of deep shafts, which were in turn often topped by buildings. Originally believed to be influenced by the Tarascan people, who were contemporaries of the Aztecs, thermoluminescence has pushed back the dates of these groups over 1000 years. Although the apogee of this tradition was reached in the last centuries of the 1st millennium BC, it has its origins over 1000 years earlier at sites such as Huitzilapa and Teuchitlan, in the Jalisco region. Little is known of the cultures themselves, although preliminary data seems to suggest that they were sedentary agriculturists with social systems not dissimilar to chiefdoms. These cultures are especially interesting to students of Mesoamerican history as they seem to have been to a large extent outside the ebb and flow of more aggressive cultures – such as the Toltecs, Olmecs and Maya – in the same vicinity. Thus insulated from the perils of urbanization, they developed very much in isolation, and it behooves us to learn what we can from what they have left behind.

The arts of this region are enormously variable and hard to understand in chronological terms, mainly due to the lack of context. The most striking works are the ceramics, which were usually placed in graves, and do not seem to have performed any practical function (although highly decorated utilitarian vessels are also known). It is possible that they were designed to depict the deceased – they are often very naturalistic – although it is more probable that they constituted, when in groups, a retinue of companions, protectors and servants for the hereafter. More abstract pieces – such as reclinatorios – probably had a more esoteric meaning that is hard to recapture from the piece.

The current piece falls within the Colima style, which is perhaps the most unusual stylistic subgroup of this region. Characterized by a warm, red glaze, the figures are very measured and conservative, while at the same time displaying a great competence of line. They are famous for their sculptures of obese dogs, which seem to have been fattened for the table. Colima reclinatorios are also remarkable, curvilinear yet geometric assemblages of intersecting planes and enigmatic constructions in the semi- abstract.

This dramatic work of art is an extraordinary example of a highly distinctive type of Colima effigy vessel known as a canasta basket by the ancient people of Western Mexico who created it. The receptacle portion of the vessel, which possibly functioned as an incensario, is formed by the backs of the heads of opposite facing nude male figures whose abbreviated bodies and legs serve as a tetra pod support for the vessel. These imposing figures, possibly representing the ancient rain God Tlaloc, are made even more startling by the accompaniment of twin two headed snakes who project from the upper portion of one of the deities heads. The snake bodies then proceed to intertwine above the God’s head and end with their opposing serpentine heads resting against the vessels large basket handle. With their exaggerated standing positions, we can almost imagine these dual images of the God Tlaloc positioned over Tlalocan, the paradise of the rain god. Here is the heaven to which those who have drowned or otherwise died by water are delivered a paradise where human spirits spend an idyllic afterlife among flowers, butterflies, and other heavenly delights. Clearly, the unearthly qualities of Tlaloc translate most powerfully in this vessel, revealing the spiritual beliefs of a ancient culture and their ability to translate those beliefs into timeless works of art. - (PF.2481)


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