Funerary Mask, 1100–1450 AD
Hammered and cut gold with red pigment
10 × 15 1/2 × 2 1/2 in. (25.4 × 39.4 × 6.4 cm)
Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Painted Mummy Mask
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.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Although his specific identity is not known, the creator of this mummy mask was probably male. Within the Chimú culture, which existed in the north coast region of Peru from approximately 1000–1470 A.D., the artisan of this gold mask was considered highly skilled and a valuable worker to the king. His metalworking shop would have been attached to the ciudadelas, or palace compound, whereas less important artisans would have been housed in the barrios, or outer neighborhoods of the city. Gold and silver artisans were supported by the state on a full-time basis. Metallurgy has been practiced in Peru since about 1800 B.C., with gold being the earliest metal known to be worked.
This mask would typically have been placed in the tomb of someone who was very important, most likely of royal lineage. Masks were set over the wrapped face area of the deceased, and additional masks were often positioned at the base of the mummy bundle, a term used to describe the wrapped, bundled body of the deceased. The corpse would have been seated in a semi-reclining, flexed position, and wrapped in anywhere from fifty to a hundred yards of woven cloth.
Crafted out of a single sheet of metal, with the projecting nose attached separately, this mask is typical of the Chimú style. Punctures on the mask once held gold or silver wires with gems such as emeralds or lapis lazuli dangling from the ends. Teardrop-shaped gold pendants dangle below the bottom edge of the mask and from the decorative lateral projections.
At the top of each of the lateral projections are stylized human figures that are entangled with a serpentine-like animal. Similar representations can also be found in textiles and other metal objects from this time period and region of Peru. The figures are skirted and shirtless, and wear large, feathered headdresses. This mask is partially covered with a bright crimson paint made of cinnabar, an ore of mercury. It is possible that at one time this mask was completely covered with other paint colors, other metals, and a variety of precious stones and feathers. The symbolic importance of the common practice of painting precious metals with red color is is still being investigated by scholars.
Goldsmiths working during this period used a wide range of fabrication techniques. They used templates for cutting, dies for stamping, and embossing to ornament or make the surface more rigid. The artisan who made this mask attached the nosepiece by passing metal tabs projecting from the nose through slots cut into the mask. Ancient Peruvian metal workers were also very sophisticated metallurgists. This mask was hammered from a sheet of gold alloyed with copper. Alloys were used not only because they were easier to cast, but also because they were harder than pure gold and could display decorative detail more accurately. The sheet of metal from which this mask was made was probably alternately annealed (re-fired to a red heat) and hammered against a block of wood. Finely polished stones with angular projections were used as both anvils and hammers.
The fact that the gold of the mask was covered with other objects and paints, and was buried with the dead is an indication of the difference between the way the ancient Peruvians and the first Europeans who invaded this region valued gold. To the Peruvians gold was probably considered sacred and was identified with celestial deities, whereas the Spanish Conquistadors knew the intrinsic value of the gold, and began looting it from the Incas around 1530, a practice that continued for centuries by many other invaders. Peru was the most intensively looted center of all ancient civilizations.
- What is this object? Look closely at the shape of it. What does it evoke?
- Look at the decoration and shapes on the edges of the object. What do they look like? How do you think they were made?
- Can you determine if this object had a function? What might that function be? Consider the shapes and decorations in your answer.
- This object was likely covered with many different paints, feathers, and precious stones, hanging from the pierced holes along the perimeter. What might have happened to them? What effect would they have had—how would it have looked different, and what would its value have been?
- This object was used as a funerary mask, placed over the preserved body of a deceased person before burial. Why do you think the Chimù people made these masks? What does their lavish decoration tell you about the way they thought about the afterlife?
- Ancient Peruvians like the Chimù often used gold in religious contexts like burial, whereas the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in South America looted and stole gold for sale on the market. What does this tell you about the way both groups thought about gold? Did they both find it valuable? In what ways?
• Study masks from other ancient cultures around the world. Consider the intended purpose, style, and materials used. Compare to this mask.
• Create a mask using materials and a style that would most reflect the cultural and geographical background of today.
Resources Available to Order
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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.