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Face

Met curator Joanne Pillsbury on immortality in Mask, 10th–6th century B.C.E., by the Olmec peoples of ancient Mexico.

Depicting a typical Olmec face with slanted, almond-shaped eyes and a toothless, slightly downturned mouth, this mask is rendered with simplicity and elegance. Its harmonious proportions are indicative of the sophistication attained by Olmec sculptors. The smooth, highly polished planes of cheek, forehead, and chin plus the almost fleshy quality of the nose and parted lips belie the incredible hardness of the jadeite cobble from which the mask was made. The face itself is neither human nor supernatural but, rather, an idealized type that incorporates otherworldly aspects—such as the mouth, with its reference to the so-called were-jaguar, a powerful mythic being with human and jaguar traits.

Masks of this size in stone have not been excavated in archaeological sites and it is difficult to determine their function. Lacking holes for eyes and nose, it could not have been worn over a living face, but there are attachment holes along the edges by means of which it might have been used as a costume element or adhered as a face to a mummy or a sacred bundle. There is a polished, circular depression on the back of the mask.

View this work on Khan Academy here or at metmuseum.org.

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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