Calavera (Skull) Masks From A Collector In Australia

Recently Michael Esson contacted me regarding his interest in masks with the faces of skulls. He lives in the area of Sidney, Australia, however he has collected Calavera (skull) masks from far away places such as Mexico and the Himalayas. His inquiry led me to review posts about Calavera masks that had appeared in my blog, whereupon I realized that there were these masks from my collection that I had intended to include, but never did. You will have seen those masks in three recent posts, as I attempted to correct these omissions. Today I am pleased to put up photos of some of Michael’s skull masks from Mexico. As you will see, some of them came to him without much information. Fortunately a few had better documentation, and I will begin with those.

This wonderful mask came with an old tag- “Danza de las Tres Potencias (three powers), Guerrero.” El Sueño, the title painted across the forehead, might be translated as “a dream or vision,” in this instance possibly “your worst nightmare.”

This mask has such a presence.

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A Remarkable Calavera Mask from the State of Mexico

Today we will look at the last of my overlooked skull masks. I purchased this one from Spencer Throckmorton in December, 1995, in Manhattan. Written in ink on the back are the words—Luvianos, Estado de Mexico. Luvianos is the name of a town located in a rural area that is about 130 miles Southwest of Mexico City.

I don’t know whether this mask originally had a gap in the teeth. Perhaps the gap was created by a dancer, to accommodate a cigarette or to enhance ventilation.

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Calavera Masks Used in La Danza de los Xantolos

Last week I showed four Calavera (skull) masks from the Mexican State of Guerrero that I had intended to post about four years earlier, but I forgot. This week I am examining five Xantolo or Carnaval masks from Hidalgo and Veracruz that appear to have skull faces. Once again I meant to include them in a related series of posts, but forgot. At least I have a good excuse this time, having put up 17 posts about various styles of Xantolo (13) and related  Juanegro (4) masks in the period from September 21, 2015 to January 11, 2016.

As was the case with last week’s foursome, these skull masks are anything but forgettable. The first is from Tolima, Veracruz. I bought it from René Bustamante in 2006. He called it Doña Muerte (Madam Death) and said it had been danced in Carnaval (Carnival/ Mardi Gras).

A cross on a mask like this may have been applied as a message to God, to the effect that the wearer is a Christian, although he is portraying an essentially malevolent underworld figure.

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A few Calavera (Skull) Masks From Guerrero

Over recent years, I always thought that I had included all the Calavera (skull) masks from my collection in one early post or another, but the problem was that they didn’t all fit together for inclusion in a particular post. I have now discovered that some were displayed, while a number of others never made it into their respective slots, so they remain for me to gather in some new posts. For instance, here is one of four Diablo masks from the Mexican State of Guerrero that were supposed to have had their own group post about four years ago. That foursome will finally appear today. Others from The State of Mexico, Veracruz, and Hidalgo that were also omitted will be in next week’s post.

I obtained this first mask from the Santa Fe shop of Joe Carr in March, 1992. It was said to have been used in La Danza de los Siete Vicios in Guerrero.  Joe had always told his friends that this was the one mask in his collection that he would never sell, but later he apparently sold them all to raise needed funds.

I am reading the date on the forehead as 1971. Maybe the mask was repainted then. It is probably much older, but the date of its carving is undocumented.

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Christmas in Veracruz

It occurred to me that I had never written in my blog about an experience I had in the Sierra de Puebla just before Christmas in December, 2010, although I had written briefly about this in my Masks and Puppets book. On the evening of December 7, 2010, I was a passenger in a car driven by my excellent guide and teacher, Carlos Moreno Vasquez. We were  traveling from the State of Puebla over small country roads (taking a short cut) into the town of El Espinal, Veracruz. The night was pitch black, but one occasionally saw a house by the side of the road, briefly lit by the car’s headlights. Then suddenly there were burning candles by the side of the road. In the United States, of course, we suddenly see flares by the road’s edge, signaling some sort of hazard or accident, but this was obviously quite a different thing.  These patches of light grew more frequent as we drove into the center of the town, a pattern which was beautiful and mysterious. On inquiry, I learned that we had happened upon an ancient Christian tradition that was only observed on the evening of December 7, each year—the celebration of El Niño Perdido (the lost child). The celebration refers to a story in Luke 2:41-52, when the 12 year old Jesus was apparently lost for three days, or at least his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, had no idea where he had gone. Finally they found him in the Temple, in Jerusalem. In this local Mexican Tradition, the candles light the paths for families or groups to search, and the searchers converge on the Church, where they find a replica of Christ made of wood or plaster.

Suddenly we saw lights by the road.

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Cruz Juárez Masks from San Miguel Totonicapán, Guatemala

Today we will view photos from a recent visitor, who provides us with examples of masks from a particular Morería, that of Cruz Juárez in San Miguel, Totonicapán, Guatemala. These masks are branded with two consecutive capital letters, C and J.

An enlightening book— Máscaras y Morerías de Guatemala/Masks and Morerías of Guatemala— was published by the Museo Popol Vuh of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in 1993. The author was Luis Luján Muñoz. For those of us who were collecting Guatemalan dance masks at that time, this was our bible.  One learned there that the Morerías were essentially cultural centers which specialized in the creation and maintenance of dance masks and costumes that were necessary for the performance of  traditional Guatemalan dance dramas. In recent centuries these were family operated business establishments, although in earlier times they may have been indigenous tribal institutions. The proprietors of the Morerías were responsible for the creation of appropriate dance costume elements, and as I related in last week’s post, they maintained Spanish Baroque carving traditions that had been introduced by European missionaries, centuries earlier, for the carving of Saints in Roman Catholic churches.

In the Máscaras y Morerías book Luján Muñoz included a list of the brands (proprietary marks) that had identified the masks produced by the various Morerías, including the “C J” mark used by the Morerías of Cruz Juárez, in San Miguel Totonicapán and later in San Cristóbal (pp. 67-69) during the 20th century.

In their vivid and detailed compendium—Masks of Guatemalan Traditional Dances (two volumes, 2008)— Joel E. Brown and Giorgio Rossilli included a discussion of these marks (Volume 2, pp. 629-636). and they presented photos of the C J mark (p. 630). I have never owned a mask with this mark, but today we will see six of them from another collection. Although all six have European features, so that we might be quick to call them Spaniards from the Conquest Dance, they could have been worn during La Danza de los Moros y Cristianos, La Conquista, or Los Vaqueros/ Toritos. Mask details sometimes suggest whether a mask can be ascribed to one dance or another.

Jim Peiper, in his Guatemala’s Masks and Drama (2006, page 58) included a photo of a mask with the C J brand, but he attributed it to another morería. This book does contain many wonderful mask photos and much information of interest.

The first of the masks in today’s group has a very dark complexion. We find a very similar mask in Brown and Rossilli (Volume 1, page 60), labeled as a “Moro.”. It has the same colored eyes and the C J mark on the back.

Note the dark complexion and dark red cheeks.

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A Head of a Saint From The Internet

In early November, 2019, I became enamored of what appeared to be a rather old wooden head from a broken Santo figure. The seller stated that it was from a convent in Peru that was being restored during the first decade of the 21st century, and so old cast-offs such as alter cloths and this head were being sold to raise money for the restoration. The head had been separated from the body of the Santo in the 1820s, during an earthquake, the body of the saint having been destroyed. There are at least two Peruvian convents that match up with these dates (earthquakes in the early 1800s and restoration in the early 21st Century)—one in Arequipa and the other in Lima. The head was said to be from a statue of Saint John the Baptist, but the seller thought it might be the head of Christ, and my initial vote was for San José (Saint Joseph).  My reasoning was that John the Baptist is frequently presented wearing an animal hide, so that the elaborately coiffed hair found on the Peruvian head seemed to point elsewhere. However we are discussing Baroque images, so perhaps even John the Baptist required such a nice haircut. Christ is seldom represented in paintings or Santos as serene; usually he is depicted in agony.  On the other hand, paintings and Santo figures of Saint Joseph frequently show him holding with one hand the flower staff that marks him as the father figure of Jesus, while the other arm cradles the Infant Christ. In these images Joseph usually has the serene smile that we will see on my Peruvian head. Here is an initial look at that head.

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A Recent Ebay Purchase

Recently I purchased a green Bull Diablo from Guanajuato on EBay™. This was an unusual mask, because the former owner had “permanently attached” a brass pipe to the back of the mask with glue, for the purpose of suspending it from an oak board, apparently because the back edge seemed too fragile to hang it from the old strap mounting holes. He died, his wife was moving to another house, and she was uncertain how to deal with this mask. She offered it for sale with the pipe, the oak board, and a plastic case included. Although it was encumbered by the pipe et al, nevertheless I liked the color and the snakes, so I bought it, hoping that I could manage this problem. Here is the mask.

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A Visitor Has some Masks For Sale

In the 1990s a Texas couple purchased some Mexican masks from René Bustamante. René had a Mexican mask store back then in Santa Fe, New Mexico that was named Zitlala. Now the couple are reducing their collection, and they have asked me to show masks that they would like to sell. I agreed, with the understanding that I would describe the masks carefully and  honestly. If you are interested in buying any of these masks, then you are invited to contact Chris Hedrick, to pursue this interest. His email address is

chris@chrishedrickstudios.com

I am announcing the availability of these masks, but I am leaving all of the transactional details to you and the seller. I am not an expert re current mask values and prices, although I have a warped view from my observation of undervaluation and bargain hunting on the Internet, so I would prefer to not comment on the price or value of these masks. On the other hand, I will share my concerns regarding authenticity, when this is relevant.

The first mask is interesting and unusual. It was sold to the current owners as an ancient mask from La Parota, Guerrero that was said to have been found in a church, where it had allegedly hung on a wall for hundreds of years, although subsequently the church was destroyed, so one can’t look for it to corroborate this account. Among Mexican mask collectors, these masks have been called Barbones (bearded ones). This Barbon was carved from dense heavy wood, and weighs about three pounds.  It is large—9 inches wide and 20 inches tall. The nature of the wood is difficult to assess, since it is more or less entirely covered with black paint that has been highly polished. In small flaked areas the wood appears to have a reddish-brown  color. There don’t seem to be any cracks. I wonder if this mask might have been made from Mesquite, a reddish-brown wood that has a long history of use by Mexican cabinet makers, and more specifically it was often used for the doors in churches. Mesquite is hard, dense, and stable. Here is that mask.

A New Era For The Mexican Dance Masks Blog

Last week I shared images of a Fariseo mask from Queretero. With that post, I completed my review of the masks and related material in my collection. After a little more than five years of weekly posts, I have almost no more material to introduce you to.

As it happens, I recently bought another Rio Mayo mask that is worth sharing today.

After this post I will only have more to tell about Mexican masks if I buy another, or if you send in your questions, comments, or photos, so I welcome any correspondence like that. In the absence of such new material (provided by either you or me), I will maintain this page as a Mexican Dance Masks information resource center, an encyclopedia of sorts.

Here is my latest  arrival.

I bought this mask on the basis of a frontal photo like the one just above. I was most impressed by the triangular tubular mouth, which reminded me of mid-century Yaqui masks I had seen, and so I thought this was probably a Yaqui Pascola mask. To my surprise, when I held the mask in my hands I realized that this was a mask from the Rio Mayo area. It has the typical shape of masks from that region. Of course I wondered who might have carved this mask.

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