Charles V, the Habsburg king of Spain and most of Europe in the early half of the sixteenth century, sponsored the voyages of Hernán Cortés to Mexico and Francisco Pizarro to Peru, thereby initiating a global exchange of crops, exotic animals, and precious objects. Among the objects sent back to Europe as curiosities and gifts were magnificent works made by Amerindian artisans. It is perhaps in this context that this unique mask, said to be present in Italy in the 1530s, arrived in Europe. For most of its early history, it was classified, exhibited, and published as a Chinese object belonging to the Tang dynasty. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century, when the Olmec culture was identified, that this mask was attributed to this ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Once it was identified as an American piece, the object was acquired for the Dumbarton Oaks Pre- Columbian Collection in 1960.
Fashioned of green jadeite, the mask has almond-shaped eyes with perforations, pierced nostrils, and a concave back. Although heavy, it could have been worn during ceremonies, giving the wearer an extraordinary, otherworldly visage. The downturned mouth with a flaring upper lip conveys the impression of a snarling creature, an Olmec convention for the representation of supernatural beings. As in other examples of Olmec stonework, incisions have been added to emphasize certain details such as the ears, lips, and eyebrows. It is possible that this face was meant to represent a specific deity such as the Maize God.
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