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peru - funerary mask

This photo was published in the catalog for the exhibition "Schätze der Anden - Chiles Kupfer für die Welt" (Treasures of the Andes - Chilean copper to the World) at Deutschen Bergbau-Museums in Bochum, Germany.


Funerary Mask, 10-11th century AD. Lambayeque, Peru.

Gold, copper overlays, cinnabar; H. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm)

Gift and Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1974, 1977 (1974.271.35)


A powerful dynasty of northern Peruvian religious leaders grew wealthy and proud between the ninth and the eleventh centuries, ostentatiously amassing riches in gold. Builders of the great funerary complexes at Batan Grande adjacent to the Lambayeque Valley, the lords of Lambayeque were compulsive horders of gold objects that bore the image of what may have been their legendary dynastic founder. At death, the lords were buried with their golden treasures. Large masks, such as that illustrated here, were among these mortuary offerings. As many as five masks could be placed into one burial, one attached to the head of the textile-wrapped body and the other four stacked a the feet of the deceased.


The masks vary in thickness, metal composition, and surface embellishment. The cinnabar-red paint that covers much of the cheeks and forehead of the mask seen here was most consistently used, but remnants of yellow, blue, black, and orange colors have also been identified. Feathers, too, were added for color; the pupils of some eyes were made of them. The eyes of this mask have thin, skewerlike projections emerging from the pupils, perhaps suggesting the expressive qualities of the eyes themselves. Further surface additions include the spangles or danglers that appear on the lateral ear projections and the larger ones that adorn the U-shaped nose ornament.


This mask comes from the northern La Leche River valley, where a succession of powerful rulers amassed prodigious amounts of wealth in metal objects. Recently, archaeologists discovered a royal burial at the presumed ceremonial and funerary center of the Sicán culture, Batán Grande. The main personage's face was covered by a sheet-gold mask similar to the present example. It was painted with bright red cinnabar and embellished with nose and ear ornaments and dangles. In some South American countries today, red is thought to have protective qualities. Perhaps the mask's red pigment was meant to protect the deceased in the afterlife. Poorly understood features on Sicán burial masks are the skewerlike projections from the pupils of the eyes. They may symbolize a penetrating gaze.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

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Taken on December 30, 2005