Tag Archives: masks

Tamale Day, Candlemas and Masks in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

February 2, or Candlemas, is celebrated throughout the Catholic world as the end of the Christmas season. It marks the 40 days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to purify herself.

In Hebrew tradition, this is the mikveh ritual bath. In Catholicism, it has become embedded in the cyclical annual calendar that marks the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Who could resist this one? Reminds me of papier-mache masks in Venice, Italy

In the mask-making village of Tocuaro, just outside Patzcuaro along the lake, master wood-carvers make masks depicting the devil. The masks become part of an elaborate costume for Candlemas re-enactment in the church courtyard on February 2, starting at 5 p.m.

Elaborate, wood carved mask with embellishment

The re-enactment is like a play that depicts the forces of good and evil. The hero Michael Arcangel fights and slays Lucifer, represented by three devils, forever banishing them from earth to the underworld. The masks and costumes are elaborate and scary, especially for children.

Getting his mask fitted

During the conquest, throughout Mexico, priests from the Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian orders, integrated Catholic rites with indigenous practices. This is called syncretism.

Mask-maker Maestro Felipe Horta, Tucuaro
This guy is scary — elaborate costume with horned mask

Candlemas marks the end of winter and the beginning of the planting season when days begin to lengthen and the earth warms for plowing. In ancient times, this was signaled by the alignment of the stars of Orion.

A whirling Lucifer with eagle wings spread
Lucifer and the shepherds

With the conquest, the agricultural cycle aligns with the Christian calendar and the beginning of Lent. Spiritual forces of light prevail and overcome darkness, allowing the “light of Jesus” to enter the world.

At the 40-day mark, Mary brings baby Jesus to the Temple for the priestly blessing, bringing candles for the altar. Hence the name Candlemas. The term Pastorela refers to procession of shepherds who accompany her. This officially marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the next cycle, the Easter season.

We learn all this through our Patzcuaro guide Jaime Hernandez Balderas as our Michoacan Folk Art Study Tour participants enjoyed an afternoon with famed mask-maker Felipe Horta and his family before going to the Pastorela at the church.

Why is February 2 called Tamale Day in Mexico?

In Europe, bread is the offering. In Mexico, it is corn. Let’s go back to Christmas and January 6, Three Kings Day or Epiphany. Every family celebrates by eating a piece of Rosca de Reyes. Hidden inside is a baked-in plastic figure of baby Jesus. Whomever gets the little doll is blessed with providing tamales for the entire family on Candlemas. Sometimes, this requires feeding several hundred people. So, now, we can find eight or ten figures baked inside the large round loaf to spread the expense.

Rosca de Reyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Elaborate eagle and serpent cape worn by a Lucifer

Mascaras Mexicanas: Mexican Masks — Dances, Dieties, Identity

A new temporary special exhibition at the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) on the Zocalo in Mexico City features hundreds of hand-made masks from towns and villages throughout Mexico.

This is the same building that houses Diego Rivera murals, so if you go there soon, don’t miss this. Enter on side street through security, go to second floor.

 

I returned on my last day in the Federal District and spent about an hour-and-a-half learning more about Mexican art and culture. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In ancient civilizations one of the main functions of ritual masks was to represent gods to worship them in religious celebrations. This was designed to support natural and social equilibrium.

 

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, masks served as elements of transformation that allowed rulers and priests to assume the identity of their gods during ritual ceremonies.  This helped bridge communication between the spiritual and natural world.

 The gold mask, above right, was found in a Monte Alban, Oaxaca tomb.

Sculptures, reliefs, murals and figurines from throughout Mesoamerica show ancient members of the elite personifying deities with the masks and attire that empowered them.

If you come with us on Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Art History Study Tour in February or March, you can drop in to see this show.

According to the exhibition curators, since the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, the invaders prevented pre-Hispanic civilizations from freely practicing their religious customs. The conquistadores imposed their will by force. The Catholic religious friars sought to supplant native ancestral traditions by incorporating Christian ideas into native rituals.

 

Despite these efforts, pre-Hispanic symbols survived and indigenous people continue to observe their ancient religion under the veil of Catholicism.  New masks arose from this cultural mixing (mestizaje) with an original combination of symbols that continue to the present in many regions throughout Mexico.

 

This provides continuity for ceremonial and celebratory traditions.  Many communities throughout Mexico, such as Teotitlan del Valle, where I live, practice rites and dances like Dance of the Feather (Danza de la Pluma) from viceregal times in which costumes and masks play a central role in the celebrations.

        La Malinche mask, left, called Maringuilla bonita, is from the Purepecha Danza de los Viejitos, Michoacan. Here she appears as a sweet, modest young woman.  To the right is Moor Mask from the Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, with eyelashes and red cheeks depicting cultural exoticism.

 

The masks are handmade from gold, precious stones such as jade, turquoise, malachite and coral, wood, paper, straw, textiles and other materials. All the indigenous people of Mexico, including Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Purepechas and others used them.

 

Sacred dances in pre-Hispanic Mexico were ceremonies of invocation that found resonance in Catholicism as indigenous people were folded into the Spanish concept of small towns or barrios under the sponsorship of patron saints.

  Right, Huichol mask from the Sierra Madre of Jalisco. The Huichol people do intricate beadwork.

Indigenous people adopted and venerated these saint along with their own ancestors and pre-Hispanic deities. Friars promoted village feast days during the liturgical calendar and introduced morality plays. These were dramas based on sacred history and events that focused on the struggle between good and evil.

 

Often featured in these dances are masks representing Judas, Jews, Moors and the devil. The purpose of this was to instill fear and respect in the local population along with the message that they were defeated and obliged to strictly obey the new religion. I have no personal evidence today of any anti-Semitism in Mexico, that continues to welcome dissidents and disenfranchised.

 MuralsSEP+Best81-7

We see in the Hall of Festivals at the Secretary of Public Education Building in Mexico City, many of these celebrations painted by Diego Rivera in his murals. Masks in this exhibit depict the Deer Dance from Sinaloa, also featured by Rivera.

  La mascara posee un extraño poder de sugestiøn sobre la imaginaciøn … es la sintesis, la               esencia de la deidad, del demonio, muerto o héroe qu se trata de representar.                           — Miguel Covarrubias

           The mask has a strange power of suggestion on the imagination … it is the                                    synthesis, and represents the essence of deity, demon, death or hero.                                           — Miguel Covarrubias

The exhibition takes a step beyond the traditional to include the work of Mexican contemporary artists who work in various media. This painting (below) by Frida Kahlo, My Nanny and Me, is on loan for this exhibition from its home at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

Evoking Frida Kahlo: Making Altars and Shrines Art Workshop

The painting is part of this exhibition because of the masked wet-nurse representing indigenous culture that provides sustenance.

 

Also included are the work of artists Francisco Toledo (paper mask) and Germån Cueto (wood mask), and painters and printmakers whose names I didn’t record (sorry).

   

Today, we often hide behind the mask we present to the world as a way of self-protection, self-preservation. In the days before the popularity of mask-wearing for Halloween, the mask was a symbol for deception, hypocrisy, and lies.

Instead, we can hide behind a straight face, make-up, choice of clothing to present who we are — to project “our face” outward. It is interesting to think that an exhibition of this type can cause each of us to ask the question, Who am I?How do I present myself and how am I “seen” in the world?