Masks fashioned from single pieces of precious jade are among the most striking sculptural genres of Olmec art. The jade of this particular example is opaque and lightly colored, with red surface staining on the right side of the face. Along with the red staining, the opaque and light color is probably patination from long burial. Although some Olmec jade masks may have been worn, many lack eye perforations or are of insufficient size. In the case of this example, both of these traits hold true, and it clearly was not intended to cover a human face. Nonetheless, it is carved much like an actual mask, with the back deeply hollowed out. The principal means of suspension was provided by a central, biconically drilled hole which penetrates the flat, upper rim of the mask. Two more biconally drilled holes pass laterally from below the ears into the interior sides of the mask.
The serene face of this mask is beautifully carved, with subtle, well-rounded dimensions. When viewed face on, it is evident that the lower cheeks are slightly broader than the cranium. In addition, the lower portion of the object includes a small portion of the upper neck, a trait rarely found in Olmec masks. The full and strongly defined eyelids are further accentuated by the deep carving in the eye socket region above the nose. The eyes are almost sinuous in outline, with a downward slant in the interior and a corresponding upper slant on the outer edges. Solid core drilling in the inner corners of the eyes, the nostrils, the middle of the upper lip, and the corners of the mouth lend a crisp quality to the carving, as does the fine line incision around the edges of the upper eye lids, lower lip, and the ears. The use of hollow core drills to delineate the pupils is highly unusual in Olmec lapidary art, and may be a subsequent "improvement" by later peoples. The later Maya commonly recarved Olmec heirloom objects.
Although not an actual mask, the function of this piece and similar small Olmec masks remains to be determined. It is quite possible that such pieces were worn as costume ornaments, such as pectorals or belt pieces. However, it is also conceivable that they served as masks for personified sacred bundles, such as would contain the remains of honored ancestors or images of gods and other esteemed objects. Although masked bundles remain undocumented for the Olmec, the limbless wooden sculptures from El Manatí, Veracruz, closely resemble bundled figures supplied with masks.
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. 7, cat. 32.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C, p. 20, 97, cat. 92
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. 87, pl. LV.
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. 87, pl. LV.
Coe, Michael D. 1965 The Olmec Style and Its Distributions. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, V.3: Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, Gordon R. Willey, ed., Robert Wauchope, general editor. University of Texas Press, Austin.
González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 375.
Ries, Maurice Ruddell (ED.) 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara. cat. 119.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 1940 An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art. January 15 through February 10, Arranged by the Peabody Museum and the William Hayes Fogg Art Museum. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass, cat. 167a.
Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 145-6, pl. 29.
"An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art", Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, 1/15 - 3/2/1940.
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 119).
"Alter Ego - Masks, their Art and Use", Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, New York, NY, 1951 (catalogue # 17).
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1962.
"Carved in Stone: Hardstone Objects from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss," Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 7/15/2010 - 1/15/2011.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1941.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1941-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.