Cultures & Traditions

Olmec Masks

Olmec masks with human features are among the most beautiful sculptures of jade and serpentine produced by Olmec lapidaries. The tradition of stone masks appears to be a Middle Formative phenomenon, although Early Formative clay masks from Guerrero in Central Mexico indicate the antiquity of the concept. Most Olmec stone masks that portray human beings come from the Río Pesquero area; similar masks have been found in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Puebla, and in Guatemala and Honduras. Olmec artists carved masks from the same blue and green jade and serpentine that they favored for their small-scale sculptures. The wide varieties of surface colorations that Olmec masks exhibit were produced by exposure to heat in cremation fires and ritual burning, or by weathering caused by soil acids and groundwater. Olmec life-size stone masks usually have three suspension holes, one at the top of the carving and two more beneath the ears. Almost all have some combination of cut-through eyes, nostrils, and mouth. Western cultures tend to think of masks as obscuring the real face. But for Mesoamerican peoples, masks have always revealed the true inner being of an individual. Masks worn by living people often showed their supernatural forms. Masks worn by deceased rulers preserved for eternity their human form.

Drawn from

  • DMA unpublished material [1973.17].

  • Peter David (P.D.) Joralemon, "Human Mask," in Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1996), 239.

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, Joanne Pillsbury, discussing immortality and Olmec masks.

  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker addressing Olmec masks and burial offerings.