Masks in Egyptian Culture and Art

Categories: Art HistoryPainting

The intricacy of the Egyptian culture is far beyond the comprehension of our time. However, the vast influences of the cultural, political uproars and sacred beliefs have been deciphered through art and sculptures. The dynamic dynasties of the Egyptian government have played a large role in the evolution of art in Egypt. The religion within the culture and government was the biggest contribution to the existence of art in Egypt, especially for the sacred right of mummification and the creation of Mummy masks.

The Mummy Mask exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, since 1931, has all the tells of the influences brought upon Egypt. The controversial affair of politics is a rather consequential aspect that influences art, in any realm. Particularly in the Egyptian realm, the ramifications of the political affairs and invasion and conquests had their respective imprint on the already evolving representation of art. The Mummy Mask is set to be dated from 323 to 30 BC ( Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), that time period would fall under the Ptolemaic Period.

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In the persistent conquests and reconquests that loomed over Egypt, the Persians re-annexed the empire in 343 BC, however, it was short-lived regain of power. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, he initiated the Macedonian dynasty of Ptolemaic Period ( Metropolitan Museum of Art).

After his demise, he allocated his conquests to his disciples, branching Egypt to Ptolemy a Hellenistic ruler (Malek, pg. 381). There began the Greek influence in the culture and art. The Mummy Mask, however, represents the dominion of Egyptian traditions that reigned after the shift in hierarchies.

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Most sculptures or statues did, in fact, adopt some Hellenistic features such as softer facial features and greek hair along with the consecration of the symbolic head crown. The different styles, Hellenistic and Egyptian prevailed alongside one another. The Political environment and structure within Egypt relied on the monarchy that was within the Empire. As most monarchies and governments in the general and broad idea of the system, they have hierarchies. The systematic ranking also calls for different social and economic classes. In Egypt, Mummy masks were a right for everyone, however, most subjects did in fact not have burial masks, they were reserved for the elite. Its economy, which enabled the social- and political structure, was reliant upon the fertility of the Nile (Malek pg. 383).

The Ptolemaic dynasty ensured the empire, with the accrued supply of grains to the Hellenistic kingdom. The society was structured to resemble a pyramid, at the utmost top, were naturally the Gods followed by the pharaohs and rulers of the dynasty. Pharaohs were believed to be Gods in mortal disguise, yet they could not govern such a large empire on their own. They anointed elite mundanes to fulfill their duties, they were classified as highly- capable beings due to the astonishing skill they were able to master, to read and write ( The natural succession followed deputizing the slaves and servants at the base of the pyramid, the most populous area of the social hierarchies. When the aristocrats reached their end and were prepared for the after-life, they were buried in coffins and masks. A key depiction, when assembling the masks were the materials used and the gilding of the face. The gilded face and royal features such as the lion mane depicting Nemes (headdress) of The Mummy Mask assisted in determining whether it previously belonged to a mere mortal or pharaoh. Although it is not gilded in its entirety as the Mask of Tutankhamun, the mask does have a gilded face and a royal headdress that were classical to a pharaoh’s burial mask within the Ptolemaic Period. In the Egyptian culture when one passed on to the afterlife, they were put in a coffin following an induction to a mask. However, earlier funerary ceremonies were rather simple and involved minimal burial goods. As time progressed burial sites grew in complexity, for example, corpses were buried in wicker baskets; later on in wood coffins.

In the latest period of ancient Egypt, tombs became sarcophaguses, which contained jewelry, food and luxurious items to identify and classify the individual being buried. Within the sarcophagus, they implemented masks to cover the head and shoulders and to easily identify the body. The ancient Egyptians utilized ornamented and refined masks to great significance. Masks were most commonly used as; Death masks/ Burial masks or Ritual Masks. The Belief of perpetuating the corpse in death by the technique of mummification in order to maintain the livelihood of their soul was closely followed by the Egyptians. The royal death masks were molded in gold to envelop and mirror the deceased. The Gold was believed to have a mystical vigor and to encompass religious properties, the gold would not fade or deteriorate. The gold was deemed with the power of the Sun God Ra. The Death Masks of others were made from papyrus ( Kleiner, pg 55) and painted to look like gold. The Mummy Mask appears to be made of cartonnage and a gilded face, the mask is not assembled purely of gold. In the Ptolemaic period, masks were much simpler and were still encompassed in gold but also cartonnage, mainly on the pectoral and shoulder area. The other commonly used mask was the ritual mask. Ritual Masks were worn by priests, during sanctimonious ceremonies and rituals.

Most masks followed the likeliness of animal heads and the facial reconstruction of the Gods. The priest who harnessed the mask of one of the Gods during a rite would envelop the personification of the God himself. He would utter his words and convey his will. In comparison to the Death mask, one that conveyed and captured the reflection of the individual, the ritual mask was in resemblance to a deity. However, similar to the Burial Masks they were made from cartonnage and then decorated and embellished accordingly. Most masks followed the likeliness of animal heads and the facial reconstruction of the Gods. In the analysis of these methods, The Mummy Mask was most clearly a burial mask used for the preservation of the soul, to so ease into the transition to the afterlife. Every culture big or small has one thing that in essence is the mere existence of it, religion or ritualistic beliefs. In ancient Egypt, they believed in Gods or rather a God who was the creator god, Amen (Kleiner, pg 55). Who then created all other gods and goddesses. In conjunction with the belief of Divinity, it was commonly regarded that the soul would transcend into the afterlife. They also believed in the Ka, which is a life force that continued to inhabit the carcass after the person demised. In order for the Ka to live and not be inflicted by evil and taken to the underworld, the mummification process was discovered. It was created in order for the body of the deceased to be as intact as possible. The mummification process was a grueling one for both the corpse and the priests performing the ritual.

The process itself persevered for seventy- days until the mummy was buried. All organs aside from the heart, which they believed was of “utmost importance for life and it was the root of intelligence” (Kleiner, pg 58) were removed from the thoracic and cranial cavity. This was necessary to arise the bridge between the soul of the departed and the afterlife. Aside from the ritualistic approach of the mummification process, was also the sacredness that arose from decorating and personalizing the mask. Masks were similar in the aspect of facial structures and colors, yet varied in the art of storytelling through hieroglyphics. Most hieroglyphics were chapters of the illustrated Book of the Dead (Kleiner’s pg. 55). The hieroglyphics attached to The Mummy Mask are situated at the culmination of the headdress ( Nemes) appear to be an unidentifiable chapter from the Book of the Dead. the hieroglyphics on the mask, involve gods with the head of an animal and servants. Indicating the power this person possessed. The dimensions of the mask are expanding forty-nine and a half centimeters, rising twenty-eight centimeters and eighty millimeters and distending twenty-five centimeters and forty millimeters (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

These numbers are yet another reference to power, they appear to be quite large in comparison to those of a human. This sways the fact that it might be the second or perhaps the third layer of the mummified sarcophagus. Political repercussion from the constant upheaval of rulers did have a story within the art. The power of the Egyptian stylistic methods is long-lived with their art such as The Mummy Mask. Hierarchies and the privileges that came with such possession of power were granted with the opportunity and belief of them transcending into the afterlife through mummification and entombment. The Mummy Mask is that of a pharaoh, the highest of social ranks within the ancient Egyptian social pyramid, entitled to be buried in a burial mask fit for a king,

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Masks in Egyptian Culture and Art. (2021, Oct 14). Retrieved from

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