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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

Taiwanese Opera

Chinese opera traces its roots back to the Three Kingdoms period (or even earlier).  The first formal opera troop is said to have been founded by Emperor Xuanzong who ruled China from 712 AD to 756 AD, a period which marked the apex of the Tang Dynasty.  This first opera troop styled itself as “the Pear Garden” and even today Chinese opera performers describe themselves as “Disciples of the Pear Garden.”Wu Hsing-kuo, Wei Hai-min

Styles and performing conventions have changed many times in the long history of the opera as different forms have come and gone.  The craft is based on mimetic gestures which express narrative actions such as horse-riding, fighting, or traveling by boat. Traditional instruments such as lutes and gongs provide a score: the libretto is sometimes sung and sometimes recited.

Chinese Opera Masks

The most visually arresting features of Chinese opera are the bold & colorful masks worn by the performers. These masks hearken back to an ancient tradition of face-painting among warriors and, as with war paint, the colors and patterns bear symbolic meanings.  The spirit and personality of each character is effectively color coded. Wikipedia nicely summarizes the meaning of each color of mask with the following handy chart (which I have copied verbatim):

White: sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and suspicious. Anyone wearing a white mask is usually the villain.
Green: impulsive, violent, no self restraint or self control.
Red: brave, loyal.
Black: rough, fierce, or impartial.
Yellow: ambitious, fierce, cool-headed.
Blue: steadfast, someone who is loyal and sticks to one side no matter what.

Additionally gold and silver faces represent mystery and aloofness.  Of course the masks are often not real masks on stage but elaborate make-up and costuming so that the players can sing and pantomime to extravagant and wondrous effect (and so that patrons can appreciate pretty faces).

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