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Mask with Modeled, Incised and Painted Decoration

Paracas Cavernas, Early Horizon
100 BCE - 50 BCE
25.3 cm x 23.6 cm x 8.9 cm (9 15/16 in. x 9 5/16 in. x 3 1/2 in.)

On view


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This ceramic mask is life-sized and curved to fit over a human face. The small holes around its rim could hold ornaments such as feathers, or they could serve to attach a cloth or skin hood that would drape over a person’s head. Perforations in the eyes, nose, and mouth made it possible for the wearer to see, breathe, and speak. Yet whether the original wearer of this mask was alive or dead is a matter of debate. In Paracas culture, masks may have been used by ritual specialists who impersonated local gods or spirits, but they have also been found on the cloth wrappings encasing bodies that were naturally mummified in the desert climate of Peru’s southern coast.

Andean peoples believed that ancestors continued to participate in the life of this world. In many places, ancestors were “fed” and visited regularly by their descendants. Documents from the sixteenth century describe how the Inkas cared for the mummies of deceased rulers, feeding and clothing them, taking them for walks, celebrating festivals for them, and consulting them for important decisions. We do not have such detailed information about the Paracas people, who lived a millennium and a half earlier, but there is evidence that they, too, revisited their dead, and they may well have thought that the dead needed to see, breathe, and speak. Curiously, the eyes and mouth of this mask are only partially open, or partially closed, as if hovering between life and death. The small triangles depicted on the upper lip have been compared to cactus spines, which were used to pin shut the lips of trophy heads (see PC.B.597). The top of the mask sprouts three small smiling figures with modeled heads, arms, and hands. In a clever self-reference, the middle figure grasps a rope that is slung over his or her head, presumably to support something on his back—possibly another trophy head or a mask like this one.

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. 63, cat. 351.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill (ED.) 1996 Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 1. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. vol. 1, p. 103-105, pl. 14.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 276-7.

Davies, Nigel 1997 The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru. Penguin Books, London; New York. fig. 12.

Lapiner, Alan C. 1976 Pre-Columbian Art of South America. H. N. Abrams, New York. cat. 152.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1960 A Ceremonial Pottery Mask from Peru. Archaeology 13 (2):91-96. p. 91-96, cover.

Menzel, Dorothy, John H. Rowe and Lawrence E. Dawson 1964 The Paracas Pottery of Ica: A Study in Style and Time. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, V.50. University of California Press, Berkeley. p. 246.

Pasztory, Esther 1998 Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge University Press, New York. p. 116, fig. 86.

Quilter, Jeffrey 2005 Treasures of the Andes: The Glories of Inca and Pre-Columbian South America. Duncan Baird, London. p. 56.

Vreeland Jr., James M. 1978 "Paracas." Américas 30 (10). p. 43.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to July 1962.

"Art and Life in Old Peru", American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, September 25, 1961 to December 31, 1961.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Gabriella Passamonti, New York, by Robert Woods Bliss, 1958.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1958-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Masks | Paracas | Stepped Patterns