Materials & Techniques

Mixtec and Aztec Masks: Turquoise Mosaic

A mosaic is composed of small, usually colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, or other material that together create an image or design. The art form of turquoise mosaic originated among the Mixtec of Oaxaca, and the tradition continued among the Aztecs. Mosaic enhanced the surfaces of masks, headdresses, shields, sacrificial knives, helmets, pectorals, staffs, and a variety of other objects. The tedious process involved grinding tiny tiles (tesserae)—predominately turquoise but including other precious materials—by hand to a remarkable thinness (0.40 to 0.75 mm), polishing them, and pressing them into a resin matrix applied to a carved wood support. The Mixtec and other Mesoamerican artists used resin and other natural materials, such as copal, pine resin, beeswax, and orchids, as glue. The mosaic skills of Mixtec craftsmen were unsurpassed, and mosaic objects used by the Aztecs were probably made as tribute in Oaxaca or by Mixtec artists working in the Valley of Mexico.

Turquoise, which does not occur naturally in Mesoamerica, was valued for its color and rarity. Mesoamerican merchants and traders would exchange goods such as cacao, parrot feathers, and copper with artists in present-day New Mexico. For the Aztecs, turquoise symbolized the preciousness of life, the blue of the sky, and the blue of water, which were also associated with the rain god, Tlaloc. Mosaic masks may have adorned images of deities or been worn by god impersonators. In Oaxaca they were placed on the bundled bodies of the deceased, who were enshrined as venerated ancestors.

Adapted from

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Mask, possibly of Tlaloc (1979.2)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 50.

  • Carol Robbins, "Mask, possibly of Tlaloc (1979.2)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 193.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1979.2], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Read about a Mixtec Mask of Tezcatlipoca.

  • Khan Academy
    Read about a Mixtec Mask of Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc.