Tezcatlipoca’s mask – Aztec civilization

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© Trustees of the British Museum

This artwork might seem frightening, weird or cruel but I find it quite striking. It is not part of the Western culture so it might make us feel uncomfortable but this is completely normal for the Aztecs. I think this civilization is really interesting, with a rich mythology and art. However, it is a bit difficult to understand if we don’t know the key elements.

This Tezcatlipoca’s mask was created between the 15th and 16th centuries. Now, it can be seen in the British Museum. Tezcatlipoca means “Smoking mirror”, which makes this god’s representation easy to identify by the smoking mirror he has instead of a left foot. The obsidian mirror was the main instrument for magicians and soothsayers. He can also be recognized by the three black strips on his face.

In the Aztec religion, there were four main deities, which were Huitzilopochtli (god of the warrior and main god of the Aztecs), Tlaloc (god of the rain), Quetzalcoatl (creator deity) and Tezcatlipoca (sorcery deity). This god, ruling in the North, protected magicians, warriors and rules in the obscurity. He was feared by many, especially since he banished Quetzacoatl from his kingdom.

This mask was created on a human skull but the face was probably made to be worn, according to the leather straps on the side and the buck’s skin on the inside. The face is made of tiny pieces of different shades of turquoise, brown coal (for the black strips on the forehead, chicks and chin), as well as red and white shell for the nostrils and eyes. Two large pyrites, for the pupils, make this mask lifelike. The small pieces composing this mask are glued to the skull by a glue based on pine resin. The mosaic was a common technique in the Aztec art.

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