Mexico, Central Highlands, Tlatilco, 1200-900 BC
Terracotta with red cinnabar
Provenance: Edward H. Merrin Gallery, New York, 1968; Private New York collection


Masks, such as this one, have been found covering the faces of skeletons in burials at Tlatilco in the Central Mexican Highlands. But in addition to being intended for the tomb, such masks were worn in ceremonials, as indicated by mask-wearing solid clay figurines. (See: Easby and Scott, no. 3). Certainly, the presence of open eye and mouth apertures and holes at the edges to enable cords to pass through confirm that this mask was worn by a living performer.

Tlatilco masks tend to be hemispherical in form, as here, with open mouths with protruding tongues, projecting ears, and large comma-shaped eyes beneath arched eyebrows in relief. The shape of the eyes and the overall expression seem to convey whimsy, even laughter, but we do not know if that was the intention of the ancient maker. This mask is particularly fine with looped earlobes (projecting from the front of the cheeks rather from the more anatomically correct side edges) surmounted by projecting tufts of hair, incised with fine lines, a row of teeth in the upper gum, and the delicate tongue resting on the v-shaped lower lip. The nose is triangular in section. A crest of striated hair, tinted with cinnabar, is the lone hank of hair at the top and another, with similar treatment, serves as a petite beard, below the mouth.

An almost identical mask from Tlatilco was in the collection of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, when it was published by von Winning (no. 10). When the museum closed in 1976, its collection was incorporated into that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That mask may now be seen on the Met’s website( Accession Number: 1979.206.1073). Their striking similarities makes a common origin quite likely.


Elizabeth Kennedy Easby and John F. Scott, Before Cort├ęs -Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Art [New York] 1970
Hasso von Winning, Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America, [New York, 1968].