Mask of Xipe Totec
Late Antiquity period, Mexico
Height : 18 cm
Provenance : Byron W. Knoblock, Quincy, Illinois, acquired 15 June 1936
Milton K. Harrington, Belleville Illinois, acquired 4 Nov. 1985
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Foundation, acquired 23 August 1991
Private collection, Paris (deaccessioned from the above)
This rare mask is probably an early incarnation of Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One” in Nahuatl, a major god in ancient Mesoamerican cultures and particularly important for the Toltecs and Aztecs. Of uncertain origin, Xipe Totec perhaps originated with the Olmec culture and developed from their ancient God VI, also described as the banded-eye god, for the narrow band that runs along the side of its face through its almond-shaped eye with its round iris. Another possible origin is from the Yope civilization in the southern highlands of Guerrero. The first representations of the god in art, however, date back to the Post-classical period (9th to 12th century CE) in the Mazapan culture at Texcoco. Xipe Totec is the god symbolizing the revival of nature, the god of seed time and harvest, the patron of goldsmiths and gemstone workers. Every spring, in the third month of the solar year, the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli was held in honour of Xipe Totec and human sacri ces were made to appease the god and ensure a good harvest. The sacrificial victims, usually war captives, were then skinned in symbolic imitation of the regeneration of plants and seeds which shed their husks and thereby provided new seeds. The skins of all these victims were dyed yellow and called teocuitlaquemitl, or golden robes, and were either worn by priests who performed ritual dances in them in the ceremony known as Tozoztontl held the following month, or worn for 20 days by young men who then went around begging until the skins rotted away, and the remains were then buried in the god’s temple.
The present mask shows the face of the god covered with the skin of a victim; the sculptor has skilfully rendered the aspect of the double skin, streaming down and sealing the eyes. The surface of the mask has a beautiful nuanced patina, altered by natural elements and burying, with possible remnants of yellowish-grey pigments imitating the dyed color of the human skin covering. The ears and temples are pierced, respectively for ornamentation and attachment.