Aztec Masks: The Many Faces of Mexica History
Aztec masks can give us great insight into the empire and daily life of the Aztecs. From the precious materials used to create these works of art to the many gods they were meant to represent, they offer a window into the Aztec world.
Visually stunning, they seem to peer out from the past. A mixture of creepy, awe inspiring, and beautiful, these Aztec masks are sure to keep you captivated.
Turquoise Aztec Masks
Turquoise was one of the most important and cherished materials in Aztec society. Reserved for the religious and political elite, turquoise was a principle element in art, shields for leading warriors, and ceremonial masks.
Though it’s impossible to know how many Aztec masks were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors following the conquest of Mexico, some beautiful turquoise masks remain. Often depicting gods from the Aztec pantheon, these masks were made to be worn by priests or nobility or placed on stone representations of the gods themselves.
Decorated in a turquoise mosaic style, these masks shed a great deal of light on Aztec religion, in terms of both their practices and beliefs.
Turquoise Mosaic Mask of Quetzalcoatl
Thought to be a representation of the god Quetzalcoatl or the rain god Tlaloc, this mask has a clear snake motif. Two snakes circle the eye holes before coiling together to form the bridge of the nose. They the encircle the mask’s nostrils before continuing on to form the lips. Up top, the eyebrows of the mask also form the rattlers of the snakes.
Snakes played a prominent part in Aztec culture and iconography. A Fordham University historian has noted, “the snake was representative of the opposing and complementary elements that undergirded the structure of the cosmos. The snake was a creature that could move between the different realms of earth, water, and sky.”1
This meaning of the snake as a symbol of water and sky strongly links this mask to Tlaloc. As the god of rain, he was closely associated with both the sky and water, and thus the snake. Historians still note this mask could have doubled as a representation of the god Quetzalcoatl, as this deity was known as the “feathered serpent.”
Aztec artists carved the mask from wood (Cedrela odorata, aka “cedro), and used pine resin to adhere the mosaic tiles and details to the surface. The white tiles used to make the inlaid teeth were made from conch shells, while the green and blue detailing were made from turquoise. Though it has since been lost, the eyebrows (or rattles) were originally gilded with a layer of gold pyrite.2
Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli
Currently housed in the British Museum in London, this beautiful mask was created to represent the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire. An important symbol of renewal in the Aztec world, fire and Xiuhtecuhtli played a central role in one of the most important Aztec ceremonies – the New Fire Ceremony.
Every 52 years the Aztec calendar began a new cycle. To celebrate the end of one era and the beginning of another, the Aztec people threw elaborate ceremonies and offered objects to the gods. In fact, archaeologists have found hoards of Aztec pottery that were given over to the gods in these ceremonies.
The Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli was made to be either worn by a priest or placed on an effigy of the god himself. Made from wood, the mask was curved to produce the facial contours and the interior painted with cinnabar, a bright red color made from oxidized ore. The mosaic that gives the mask its beautiful detail is made up of hundreds of pieces of turquoise. The whites of the teeth were made from conch shells and the eyes were created using mother-of-pearl (a material harvested from the inner linings of mollusc shells). And, though it has faded, the eyelids were originally covered in a thin layer of gold.3
Undoubtedly one of the most striking and intact examples of Aztec masks, the Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli probably traveled back to Spain after the conquest of the Aztec Empire as a gift to King Charles V.4
The Skull of the Smoking Mirror
Definitely one of the creeper Aztec masks out there, the Skill of the Smooking Mirror was made using a, well, human skull.
Using similar adhesives as other masks, Aztec artisans decorated the outside of the skill with blue turquoise and black ignite to create large, alternating bars of horizontal coloring. The whites of the eyes are made of conch shells and the large black pupils are composed of lignite, a soft, easily shaped rock. Finally, the skeletal nose is lined with Spondylus (thorny oyster) shells, giving it that distinctive, bright red coloring.
Though made from a human skull, this Aztec mask seems like it was designed to be worn. The back of the skull was carved out and the interior was lined with deer skin, making it much more comfortable to have on. Additionally, the jaw was hinged, making it so the wearer could manipulate it – that certainly would have been an awe inspiring site for the religious onlooker.
Thought to have been worn by priests or other politically powerful individuals during important ceremonies, the mask symbolizes one of the great gods of the Aztec pantheon, Tezcatlipoca. Believed to be one of the four most powerful gods in the Aztec pantheon, along with Huitzilipotchli, Quetzalcoatl, and Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca played a number of roles in Aztec religion. He was the protector of slaves, looked after schools and the children who attended them, challenged young warriors, and bestowed fortune and fame onto the virtuous.5
The Importance of Jade in Aztec Masks
While turquoise masks were clearly prominent, jade and ceramic masks played an equally important role in Aztec society. Jade was a revered material throughout Mesoamerica, and in the Aztec tradition was reserved for representations of the gods or royal adornment.6 Part of the reverence for jade came from the belief that it could cure illnesses, particularly of the kidneys, liver, or spleen. Jade was revered, in fact, that it got its own goddess in the Aztec pantheon, Chalchiuhtlicue.7
Due to the importance of jade, it should come as no surprise that the Aztecs created many fine masks from the material. These jade masks can tell us a lot about what the Aztecs believed, both in terms of their religion and their in Mesoamerican society.
The Greenstone Mask
One of the most beautifully preserved jade Aztec masks, the Greenstone Mask was not actually made by Aztec artisans. Discovered by the Aztecs in the holy city of Teotihuacan, a great Mesoamerican power that had fallen by the time of the Aztecs, they brought the mask back to Tenochtitlan. Upon arriving in the Aztec capital, the Greenstone Mask was buried beneath one of the main temples in the pyramid complex now known as Templo Mayor.8
The burying of this ancient mask shows the Aztec appreciation, or even veneration, for the societies that had come before them in the heartland of Mexico. Much as later peoples in the Old World made pilgrimages to Rome and Mecca, the Aztecs frequently made the trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan.
The word Teotihuacan, in fact, is a Nahuatl word meaning “the place where gods were created.”9 According to historian Camilla Townsend, the Aztec people believed that “when the first four imperfect worlds, each with its own sun and living creatures, had all been destroyed, and the earth was left in darkness, the gods met together at Teotihuacan…. They said to each other ‘Who will carry the burden? Who will take it upon himself to see that there will be a sun, that where will be a dawn?’”10
The fact the Greestone Mask came from the site where the Aztec their world to have been created, speaks volumes to the importance of this belief to Aztec society.
Aztec Masks of Xipe Totec, the Flayed God
Xipe Totec, also known as the Flayed Lord or Flayed God, was the god of Spring and new vegetation. As the earth metaphorically shed its skin to give rise to new vegetation each spring, so too did Xipe Totec shed his skin. This is how he got the moniker the “Flayed Lord.”
In Xipe Totec masks, the mask itself represents the flayed skin of the god. In the ceramic mask below, the mask wearer’s mouth could be seen through the open mouth of the mask giving the appearance of wearing flayed skin.
One of the most well-preserved ceramic masks from the Aztec era, has given us great insight into their religious beliefs. Created between 1400 and 1521, it’s given archaeological backing to the timeline historians have put together for the introduction of Xipe Totec into the religious life of the Aztec Empire.
Using Aztec texts, historians determined that the Flayed Lord had entered the Aztec pantheon during the reign of Axayacatl (1469–81).11 The discovery and dating of this ceramic mash confirmed it.
Resources on Aztec Masks
- “Aztec Art: Iconography,” fordham.edu
- “Mask; mosaic,” britishmuseum.org
- “Mask; mosaic,” britishmuseum.org
- Mark Cartwright, “The Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli,” worldhistory.org
- “Tezcatlipoca: Aztec God,” britannica.com
- “Jade in Mesoamerica,” metmuseum.org
- Mark Cartwright, “Jade in Mesoamerica,” worldhistory.org
- Dennis Jarvis, “Greenstone Mask, Teotihuacan,” worldhistory.org
- “Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,” whc.unesco.org
- Camila Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 21
- “Xipe Totec: Aztec Deity,” britannica.com