Aztec masks are intriguing pieces of pre-Columbian art that represent the complex culture of the Aztec Empire. Few masks exist today because many were destroyed at the time of the empire’s fall. Pieces can be found in museums around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Musee d’ l’Homme (the Museum of Man in Paris) and the Field Museum in Chicago.
The Aztec civilization was prominent in the area that is now Mexico in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Aztec Empire was comprised of Native American groups that had come together or been conquered under the control of the Mexica tribe. A highly religious and artistic society, the Aztec civilization had a formal government and educational system. The Aztecs were overthrown in the early 16th century by the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes. Aztec masks are one of the remaining symbols of the fallen empire.
Aztec masks were often carved in wood, stone or obsidian (a dark piece of glass formed by rapidly-cooled lava). Decorative accents were affixed to add color and value. Materials included gold or gold pyrite, pieces of shell and coral. These accents were secured to the mask with vegetable resin. On occasion, ceramic masks were made, but these were not as common due to the more difficult task of obtaining the base materials.
Aztec masks essentially had human-like features, although the attributes were often exaggerated due to the difficulty of recreating the face of a god. Snakes (representing the Aztec worship of the serpent god, Quetzalcoatl), elaborate crowns or headdresses, and other adornments such as jewelry also were common additions to the basic mask.
Masks were created by highly skilled artisans in the Aztec civilization, with forethought as to design and great care in material choice based on the ultimate end use of the mask. The masks were displayed for ornamental purposes, given as gifts to the gods, used in rituals and worn by priests or dancers during religious ceremonies.
Aztec masks often symbolized death and were frequently worn during human sacrifice ceremonies that were a key component of the Aztec religion. The Aztec people worshiped gods, including Tláloc, the rain god; Huitzilopochtli, the sun god; Xipe Totec, the god of the seasons; and possibly hundreds of other gods that represented links to nature and historical figures. Masks were worn to represent the gods during appeasement ceremonies, lending power to the ritual.