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  • Object type

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  • Description

    Human face-shaped mask (with carved figure on inside) made of stone (acid lava).

  • Culture/period

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Curator's comments

    Jones 1990
    Aztec-style stone masks of the deity Xipe Totec (registration nos. Am1902,1114.1 and Am1956,+.6)

    These two stone masks, known throughout the scholarly world, rank among the most renowned objects thought to be of Aztec date.
    They represent the deity Xipe Totec, who was celebrated in ceremonies which involved the wearing of the flayed skin of a human victim. The outer surface of the masks represents the skin flayed from the face; on one of them (Am1902,1114.1) the mouth of the living celebrant is shown protruding through the mouthpart of the skin. On the inner surface of each mask is carved a full-figure representation, presumed to be of Xipe Totec. These frontally presented figures differ only in that the pose is adapted to the available space. Each has four arms, one holding a rattle-spear, one a shield, a third carrying an inverted skull (probably representing a container for incense), and the fourth held across the breast with drapery covering the forearm.
    In a recent article Esther Pasztory has drawn attention to a number of puzzling features of this iconography. For example, there are no multiple-armed deities in the Aztec or other Mesoamerican pantheons. If these figures represent Xipe Totec, then two of the arms should have empty hands, since they would represent the empty hands of the flayed skin. Frontal figures in relief are rare in Aztec sculpture, and the presentation of the figures, apparently in dancing postures, is highly unusual. The form of their head-dresses is unique, and it is difficult to find parallels for the folded drapery. Furthermore, although relief carvings on the reverse sides and bases of Aztec sculptures arc frequent, they rarely represent the same personage as shown on the front or top. The round ear-plugs shown on the fronts of the masks are also unusual in Xipe sculptures, and the slight central parting of the hair is thought to be unparalleled in Aztec sculpture.
    Her conclusion is that: 'The Xipe masks may be genuine, idiosyncratic works' or 'made in the middle of the nineteenth century by a carver who was familiar with Aztec art in the Mexican Museum but who did not fully understand Aztec iconography'. The former hypothesis is supported by the discovery of many idiosyncratic pieces during the excavations for the metro and of the Aztec Great Temple site in Mexico City. There is also the lack of any identifiable model for the masks, and the difference in quality between these pieces (and another similar mask in the Musée de l'Homme, Paris) and other known fakes.


  • Bibliography

    • Jones 1990 331a bibliographic details
    • Mack 1994 fig.58 bibliographic details
  • Location


  • Exhibition history


    1990 20 Oct-9 Dec, Japan, Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.204
    1991 5 Jan-20 Feb, Japan, Yamaguchi, Prefectural Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.204
    1991 9 Mar-7 May, Japan, Osaka, National Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.204

  • Conservation

    See treatments 

    Treatment date

    9 March 1994

    Treatment proposal



    Sound. Overall traces of red pigment. Surface dirt.

    Treatment details

    Cleaned with saliva and deionized water.

    About these records 

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number



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Object reference number: ESA8062

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