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The Turquoise Mosaics

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (series)

    • The Turquoise Mosaics
  • Description

    Mask (human face, possibly representing Xiuhtecuhtli) made of cedro wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered in turquoise mosaic with scattered turquoise cabochons. The pierced elliptical eyes worked in mother-of-pearl (Pinctada mazatlanica) and the teeth are made of conch (Strombus) shell, although two are modern synthetic replacements. The eyelids were gilded. The interior surface of the mask is painted with cinnabar. The wood was carved to produce a curve and the underlying contours of the face.


  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1400-1521
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 16.8 centimetres
    • Width: 15.2 centimetres
    • Depth: 13.5 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Suspension holes at the temples indicate that the mask was intended to be worn, or perhaps tied to another object. Examination by SEM has revealed that the gold on the eyelids was applied as a thin foil about one hundredth of a millimetre thick.

    The name 'Xiuhtecuhtli' also means Turquoise Lord, and this Lord is shown in the codices adorned with turquoise. One of the emblems of Xiuhtecuhtli is the butterfly, and it has been suggested that there is a stylized image of a 'butterfly' on the mask- the wings picked out in more intense blue turquoise on the two cheeks. However, the design on the mosaic mask is elusive, and detailed examination, including electronic re-processing of colour images and careful re-drawings, indicates that this is at best a subjective impression. There are other turquoise masks that show similar concentrated areas of high colour on the cheeks and forehead.
    The use of raised turquoise cabochons produces the effect of 'warts'. These 'warts', clearly visible all over the face, are formed from smooth, shiny nodules of turquoise applied so that they overlap the surrounding turquoise tesserae . Because of the 'warts', it has been proposed that this mask may in fact represent Nanahuatzh, who was a small leprous god with boils on his head who cast himself into a great fire at the time of the creation, only to rise from the fire to become the sun (Tonatiuh).McEwan 2009, p.20

    Turquoise mosaic on wood. Miztec-Aztec, Mexico, AD 1400-1521

    Masks of the major Aztec deities were probably worn by impersonators to enact scenes from creation stories and to recount the deeds of culture heroes. The protuberances visible on the surface allude to the boils said to have erupted on the face of the Sun God Tonatiuh when he dallied too long in the fiery depths. The darker blue patterns of the cheeks and brow may refer to the Fire God, Xiuhtehcuhtli, whose name also means Turquoise Lord - he is sometimes shown adorned with turquoise mosaic and a nose ornament in the form of an identifying butterfly emblem.


  • Bibliography

    • Matos Moctezuma 2002 303 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 2009a Cat. 99 bibliographic details
    • McEwan, Middleton, Cartwright & Stacey fig.58, p.44 (full frontal image) bibliographic details
    • Mack 1994 fig.60 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 2009 p. 20 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 1994 pp. 69-71 (Includes line drawing) bibliographic details
    • King et al 2012 pp.55-64, 183-196 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G27/dc6

  • Exhibition history

    1987-1994, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 1), 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico'
    2002, London, Royal Academy, Aztecs
    2003, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Aztecs
    2009-2010 24 Sep-24 Jan, London, BM, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Lot 1834, Catalogue of B.Hertz Collection. For details on Christie's purchase of Am,St.399-401, see King et al. 2012. pp. 183-197 This item is part of group of three turquoises (sacrificial Knife Am St. 399), (Mask Am St.400), (Human skull Am St.401) acquired by the dealer and collector Bram Hertz (b. c. 1794) and subsequently bequeathed to the Museum by Henry Christy (1810-65). An account of the provenance of these objects is given in a letter from Hertz, who settled in London in the 1830s in a letter dated ‘5 February 1858’ but (Dept of Asia, WWII archive) more probably written in 1859 at a time when Christy was contemplating their purchase at a forthcoming sale. The letter is reproduced in E. Carmichael, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, British Museum, 1970) p. 37. Hertz published a catalogue of his collection (Hertz, 1851) – possibly the first appearance of the mosaics in print since the 17th century – and in this (Hertz, 1851: iii) reference is made to the collection having been acquired “within the last twenty years”. The three turquoise items (mask, knife and skull) also appear in the catalogue of Hertz’s first Sotheby’s sale (Sotheby & Wilkinson, 1854) which took place in May 1854. In an annotated sale catalogue in the British Library the group of three mosaics is shown as having been acquired by what appears to be a Mr Roussey or Roussell for 14 guineas (the handwriting is difficult to read). It may be that some of the objects were bought in or were acquired by nominees buying on behalf of Joseph Mayer (1803-86) and a consortium of Liverpool businessmen (Gibson, 1988: 11). The turquoises were still in Hertz’s possession in July 1856 when he wrote to Mayer offering his collection for sale, including “extremely rare” “specimens of Mexican, Chinese and Indian workmanship.” The deal was concluded by 15 January 1857 when removal arrangements were discussed (Liverpool Record Office). It has been suggested that Mayer may have over-reached himself financially, at all events , the three mosaics appeared in the Hertz/Mayer 1859 sale (Sotheby & Wilkinson, 1859: 125-6), were bought by Henry Christy Hertz states that the mask and the sacrificial knife belonged to “a celebrated collection at Florence”, of which he had forgotten the name, the sale of which, he thought, “took place some twenty odd years ago. Hertz said that he did not acquire the knife and mask direct from Italy but picked them up in London. He writes that the knife came from “Mr Pratts in New Bond Street who brought this also from Venice” – which is a little confusing since in the previous paragraph of his letter he stated that both mask and knife “belonged to a celebrated collection at Florence” . This may be the infamous Samuel Luke Pratt, of 47 New Bond Street, proprietor of an antique furniture business, today particularly remembered for his sales of fake antique armour (Watts, 1992). The mask, Hertz said, “was acquired by a certain Descriever who at the time was travelling as courier with an English familly [sic] and settled afterwards as a curiosity dealer in London.” No “Descriever” is listed in the 1841 Census. However, there is a Francis “Deschryver”, born abroad about 1801, then resident at 3 Great Newport Street, who is described as an ‘antique furniture dealer’ and who may have been established in London by 1834. He is almost certainly the source of the mask. Deschryver died at some time between 6 June (the Census) and 16 September 1841 (The Times of 22 September recorded the birth of a posthumous daughter on that date. Hertz mentions in his letter to Christy that he found a note in the case containing the mask stating that “it belonged to a convent of nuns at Mozza [sic] and that it was of Egyptian origin ...” He adds that the vendor of the mask (presumably Deschryver) asked £300 for it but “I got it from him in exchange and it stood me about £80”. The Minute books of the Royal Asiatic Society confirm that the mask and knife were definitely in Hertz’s hands by 28 January 1843 when “a sacrificial dagger, and a turquoise mask” were exhibited by him at a general meeting (RAS, 1854: fol. 124). See M Caygill, ‘Henry Christy, A W Franks and the British Museum’s turquoise mosaics’ in King et al (eds) Turquoise in Mexico and North America: Science, Conservation, Culture and Collections (2012)

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Am186?C5.400 (old CDMS no.)
Mask (human face) made of wood (cedar), turquoise, shell, gum, mother-of-pearl.  front light bkgd  front dark bkgd  angled left  angled right  front dark bkgd  angled left  angled right  front light bkgd  front black background

Mask (human face) made of wood (cedar), turquoise, shell, gum, mother-of-pearl. front light bkgd front dark bkgd angled left angled right front dark bkgd angled left angled right front light bkgd front black background

Image description



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