Photo Credit: © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection. Photography by Joseph Mills.
Click an image to view a larger version
This maskette depicts the head of a personage wearing a jaguar helmet. The piece is heavy for its size, and given its presumed use for suspension or attachment, a section was carved from the back, most likely to lighten its weight and facilitate the perforation of several holes. The piece was hollowed by drilling two large holes to a depth of 2 cm, using drill bits of slightly larger than 4 cm in diameter. Two large holes traverse the maskette laterally, probably to provide means of suspending or fastening it.
The ears were also bored with biconical holes, each done in two stages, from front and back. The left ear is chipped off, but the hole is intact. These perforations may have been for attaching miniature ear ornaments. Two smaller bores that indicate the nostrils are connected at their deepest end, suggesting that a movable nose plug was appended.
The maskette has two more conical holes, initiated from the exterior, piercing its inferior border. These perforations probably facilitated the suspension of additional ornaments—perhaps to articulate an appended and movable lower jaw of the jaguar’s helmet, or simply to lace two additional cords to the transversal one and tie the maskette firmly and securely to something else. Thus the maskette may have been intended as a pendant or as a buckle.
Incised lines mark the eyes and the teeth in the jaguar’s helmet. A small area in the dentition is chipped off. U-shaped motifs are incised on either side below the jaguar’s ears. Two additional motifs between the teeth and the inverted U-shaped motif consist of a straight line above and a U-shaped bracket below.
The physiognomy of the maskette resembles other known Late Preclassic revivals of the Olmec style from southwestern Mesoamerica, combining sculpting with incised lines. The lapidary technique of deep hollowing in the back of maskettes, masks, and head pendants spans much of the pre-Hispanic sequence, as is evident in examples from Early Preclassic Gulf Lowlands to later works from Teotihuacan, the Maya area, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan. A Late Classic head pendant recovered from the main cenote at Chichén Itzá is conceptually similar to the Bliss Collection maskette: it depicts a human head wearing a jaguar helmet with the upper jaw only, with similar hollowing on the back and similar paired perforations on the inferior aspect of the piece. Wearing jaguar helmets was a social practice signaling high social rank, confined to royal and noble individuals. However, the theme of the maskette could also allude to the pan-Mesoamerican conception of a “companion spirit,” a being—usually an animal—with whom people shared their essences.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 5, cat. 16.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 247, cat. 85, pl. LIV.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 255, cat. 85, pl. LIV.
Evans, Susan Toby (ED.) 2010 Ancient Mexican Art at Dumbarton Oaks: Central Highlands, Southwestern Highlands, Gulf Lowlands. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks No. 3. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 140-143, pl. 47.
Montenegro, Roberto 1926 Mascaras Mexicanas. Talleres Gráficos de la Nación, Mexico City. pl. 2.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 160-167, pl. 14, fig. 89, 90.
"An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art", Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, 1/15 - 3/2/1940.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1952 to1962.
"All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection:, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 09/08/2012 - 06/02/2013.
Brougth from William Spratling by Joseph Brummer, New York, dealer, May 12, 1938
In the collection of Joseph Brummer 1938 - 1947
Purchased from Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 17, 1947.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.