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Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca

1400/1521

British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

This mosaic skull is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror’, one of four powerful creator deities. The name ‘Smoking Mirror’ derives from the Nahuatl (Mexica) word tezapoctli, meaning ‘shining smoke’. This name refers to the material with which he was associated, obsidian. This material was used by pre-Hispanic peoples to make mirrors, which were used for rituals and prophecies. This mosaic has been identified as Tezcatlipoca due to his characteristic black stripes, here made of lignite (coal). According to Mexica narrative, he and his brother created the sky and earth from two halves of a beast (Tlazolteotl) who lived in primordial waters. Although Tezcatlipoca is a creator god, and so was credited with life-giving properties, he also presided over the north, the region of the dead, called Mictlampa.
The base for the mosaic is a human skull that is cut away at the back and lined with deer skin, on which the movable jaw is hinged. The skull is lined with deerskin and maguey fibre and also has deerskin straps, believed to have been painted red, as traces of ochre pigment remain. The long deerskin straps would have allowed the skull to be worn and the diverse selection of exotic materials used suggest that it was worn as part of ceremonial regalia. Skull ornaments like this are depicted in the Mixtec Zouche Nuttall (or Tonindeye) codex.

The lignite mosaic stripes alternate with bands of bright blue turquoise and the eyes are made of two orbs of polished iron pyrite framed by rings made of white conch (Strombus) shell. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell.

Details

  • Title: Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
  • Date Created: 1400/1521
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 19.00cm; Width: 13.90cm; Length: 12.20cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: polished; painted; mosaic
  • Subject: pre-columbian deity
  • Registration number: Am,St.401
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Mexico
  • Period/culture: Aztec; Mixtec
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: human bone; turquoise; conch shell; pyrite; deer skin; lignite; pine; agave
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Christy, Henry. Collected by Hertz, Bram

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