Monday, October 27, 2014

San Luis Potosi Part 6: Masks of the Post-Conquest Era

Figure dressed for the Dance of the Moors and the Christians. Although the North African Moors were a brown-skinned people, indigenous mask makers in Mexico usually portray them with white faces. Behind the Moorish mannequin is a large photo of a mask-maker at work. Las Danzas de los Moros y Cristianos commemorate the 700-year struggle of Christians to expel the Muslim Moors from Spain. In my previous posting on the National Mask Museum, we looked at indigenous masks with pre-hispanic themes. This week I'll show how the masks changed after the 16th Century Spanish Conquest. In the last section of the posting, you'll see some of the gorgeous masquerade costumes of Venice, Italy. These were part of a short-term, traveling display.

Portrayals of the Spanish Conquerors

Masks with white faces from Guerrero State. The people who wore these wood masks portrayed various characters in the Dance of the Moors and the Christians. All the faces are male with white or pink skin and long noses. Most of the faces show beards and/or mustaches. Many have rouged cheeks that give them an almost clown-like appearance. This was probably due to the sunburns that the light-skinned Spanish would have acquired from Guerrero's intense sun.

Mask expressing the duality of the cosmos. Duality was a fundamental concept in the pre-hispanic world. Everything has its opposite, and together they form a whole. Each part is inextricably connected with its other side: male-female, day-night, life-death, etc. Each can only be understood, or even exist, in relation to its opposite. Above, this Janus-like mask expresses duality using two blonde figures, male and female. The native people often portrayed the Spanish satirically, so this double mask might express the two-faced nature of white overlords. One the one hand, the Conquistadors brought Christianity, on the other, enslavement and cultural genocide.

A sun-burnt Spanish Conquistador, wearing a golden helmet. This carved, wooden mask from Guerrero gives us an idea of how the conquerors appeared to the native people. When the Spanish arrived in Guerrero, most of the indigenous people fled the fertile Pacific Coast plains to the safety of the mountainous interior. Consequently, the Spaniards had to work their own fields, at least at first. Eventually, they imported African slaves to do the work. The mix of Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures gives this part of Mexico an interesting cultural twist.

This dancer portrays a doddering old man, leaning on a cane and wearing a white mask. La Danza de los Viejos (Dance of the Old Men) originated in Michoacan State and is famous throughout Mexico. The dancers are actually very athletic young men who start their performances with slow creaky movements.  Gradually, they increase the tempo to a very energetic and acrobatic level. The dance was created by the Purépecha people to covertly mock their Spanish rulers. The indigenous people did all the actual physical work in colonial Nueva España. The Spaniards sat comfortably on their horses and watched, never getting any real exercise. Consequently, they aged rapidly and became old and hunched, as portrayed by the dancers. We have seen this entertaining dance performed in the plazas of the Michoacan cities of Patzcuaro and Morelia.

Wooden mask from la Danza de los Locos (Dance of the Crazies). According to Yolanda Lastra, in her book Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico, "A type of crazies, men dressed as women, existed in pre-Columbian times and were adapted immediately after the Conquest as characters to mock the, groups of crazies who take part in patron saint fiestas continue this tradition... the crazies and the giant puppets are two of the bawdiest, most grotesque, and satirical components of the patron saint fiesta."

La Danza de los Moros y Cristianos

An elaborate, brightly ribboned mask of a goateed Moor. In 711 AD, a Moorish army crossed from North Africa to Gibraltar and began the invasion of Spain. The army consisted of North African Berbers but was officered by Arabs accountable to the vast Umayyad Caliphate that would eventually stretch from southern France to modern Iraq. The conquest of Spain took only seven years, but holding it was another matter. For a time, the Moors controlled nearly all of Spain and even extended their reach across the Pyrenees Mountains into southern France. Eventually they were forced back into Spain. Internal dynastic squabbles weakened them, as did a series of religious coups by groups that were increasingly more radical in their interpretation of Islam. Christian rulers in the remaining non-Muslim pockets of Spain used these Moorish divisions to begin La Reconquista (the Re-Conquest).

The mask of the Moorish King Pilates is topped with an elaborate head dress. The wooden mask is from Apaxtla, Guerrero. The Dance of the Moors and the Christians commemorates the Battle of Clavijo which occurred in either 841 or 844 AD, depending on your source. According to the legend, this early Christian victory was the start of la Reconquista. As the story goes, Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Slayer) appeared at a critical moment in the battle and led the Christian forces to victory over Pilates and his Moors. This was how the Apostle James gained the nickname Matamoros. Most historians don't believe the battle actually happened. Apparently it was invented hundreds of years later by people who wanted to rally Spanish support for la Reconquista by making Santiago Matamoros the patron saint of Spain.

Mask of a bearded Christian warrior with a fanatical stare. This fierce-looking wooden mask was made in Ostotitlán, Guerrero for the Danza de los Santiagos. The dance is one of the innumerable versions of the Danzas de los Moros y Cristianos. From the time of the Moorish invasion through the mid-10th Century, there were continual wars and skirmishes between the Moors and Christians. However, these appear to have been more territorial than religious. At times Moorish princes would enlist Christians as allies or mercenaries to fight their Moorish rivals. Sometimes the Christian feudal lords, while squabbling among themselves, would use Moorish troops for the same purpose. It was all very messy but, over time, the Christian-controlled regions gradually expanded. The Muslims were steadily forced back toward the south and east coasts of Spain.

Mask of the Christian King, made in Apaxtla, Guerrero. Toward the end of the 11th Century, la Reconquista mutated from simple territorial skirmishes into a full-scale religious war. This process accelerated when, in 1095 AD, Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to free the Holy Land. This First Crusade was one of several waged over the following centuries. The Crusades drew Christian warriors from all over Europe into conflicts with various parts of the Muslim world, including Spain. Some of the early Crusades were successful for a time because the Muslims were relatively unprepared. However, the Muslims ultimately recovered nearly all the territory the Crusaders captured. The only unqualified Crusader success was la Reconquista. In 1492, the south-coast principality of Granada was the last remaining Moorish stronghold in Spain. When it fell to the husband-and-wife team of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille, the 700-year Reconquista was complete. During the last stages of their siege of Granada, a young Italian named Christopher Columbus waited impatiently in Ferdinand and Isabella's camp. He was eager to present a proposal to sail westward over the Atlantic in hopes of landing in Asia. As it turned out, he discovered a New World, transforming Spain from a poor, barely-unified medieval state into the seat of one of the largest and richest empires the world had ever seen.

Santiago Matamoros, in typical dress and mounted on a white charger. When the figure portraying Santiago is not mounted on a real horse, the dancer will wear a small, wooden horse's head protruding from the front of his costume. Ferdinand and Isabella and their successors used lessons learned fighting the Moors to conquer their new overseas empire. La Reconquista had produced a Spanish army that was filled with highly trained, battle-hardened, and ambitious soldiers. Arguably they were the best in the world at that time, but they were a dangerous group to keep standing around idle. The New World was a good place to send them and they proved spectacularly successful. In addition, the Spanish had developed the encomienda system to handle newly-conquered Moorish lands. Transferred to the New World, this system allowed a Spaniard who subdued a local population to be granted an encomienda, or the right to demand free labor. On his part, the new overlord had the responsibility to ensure that the locals were properly Christianized. New World encomiendas were very beneficial to the Spanish conquistadors but disastrous to the native populations. Lastly, the bloody-handed but victorious Santiago Matamoros became the patron saint of those fighting to conquer the New World's non-Christians. Newly-arrived Spanish priests pushed the indigenous people to celebrate the Spanish defeat of the Moors. The resulting fiestas became imbued with all sorts of pre-hispanic meanings not intended and probably not understood by the priests. To see an example of this, check out the Danza de los Tastoanes, held annually in Tonalá, near Guadalajara.

Danzas de la Santa Semana (Holy Week Dances)

One of the Semana Santa dances in Nayarit State features this "borrado" or Jew. Semana Santa is the week-long Christian tradition also known as Easter Week. Catholic priests taught the Cora people of the Sierra del Nayar that the Jews were the persecutors of Christ. The figure above represents the Cora vision of what a borrado, or Jew, would look like. Shortly after la Reconquista, Queen Isabella banished the Jews from Spain. After a couple of generations, the Spanish priests themselves probably had no idea of what a real Jew looked like. In addition to the strange beak and horns, the dancers paint their bodies from the neck down with horizontal black and white stripes.  At the end of the dance, the borrados proceed to a local river where they symbolically immerse themselves. Their stripes are washed away, their masks float off with the current, and the dancers emerge again as good Christians. Interestingly, according to a pre-hispanic Cora tradition, their sun god Tayau was buried and reborn. This similarity to the Christian resurrection story was probably used by Catholic priests to help evangelize them.

This Semana Santa dancer is dressed as a Jewish fariseo (Pharisee). The goat skin masks of these Mayo dancers of Sonora State typically have grotesque features. Part of the function of the the fariseos is to walk around the pueblo asking for limosna (alms) to help cover the cost of the fiesta. During the dances, the fariseos circulate, playing tricks and practical jokes. At the end of the dance, they doff their masks and costumes and throw them in a great bonfire to demonstrate the triumph of good over evil. Queen Isabella was a religious fanatic who favored forced conversions of Jews (and Muslims) and expelled any who refused. In her view, the Jews, led by the Pharisees, were Christ-killers. This prejudice survived well into the 20th Century among many Christians. The masks and dances of some of Mexico's indigenous groups reflect the beliefs they have been taught by the Church from the earliest days of the Conquest.

Mask from Guerrero showing a grinning Roman Centurion with huge fangs. The Romans are the other evil-doers in Semana Santa pageants. The Romans, after all, are the ones who carried out the actual crucifixion. This huge wooden mask must have sat very heavily on the shoulders of the dancer wearing it.

Masks of the Venetian Masquerade

An elegant figure with a gold mask displays a lacy fan. The gold mask is called a volto (Italian for "face"). It was not clear to me whether this is a male or female figure. Given the fan, I'd probably vote female. While most of the National Mask Museum is devoted to its permanent displays, there are also temporary displays from other parts of the world. When we visited, the Museo was showing the masks and costumes of the Venice Masquerade. The mannequins of the display fit in perfectly with the elegant salons and drawing rooms of the 19th Century mansion formerly belonging to the Marti family.

The cap with the bells indicates that this figure is some sort of court jester. The mask appears to be of the style called bauta. The Masquerade is a part of the activities occurring during the Carnival of Venice. This great festival begins in January and ends on the first Tuesday in March (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras). According to legend, the Venice Carnival began as a celebration of the victory of the Republic of Venice over the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162 AD. During the Renaissance, the Carnival became an officially sponsored event. At the end of the 18th Century, when Venice was ruled by the King Austria, the event was outlawed and the use of masks forbidden. The Carnival was revived in the 19th Century, but mostly for private parties. In 1979, the Italian Government once again sponsored the Carnival as a way of bringing back the history and culture of Venice.

An elegant couple wear two distinctly different types of masks. The woman (left) wears a Columbina covering the upper half of her face. Her lower face is covered by a sort of fringed veil hanging from the bottom of the mask. The male figure (right) wears a volto, along with a tricorn hat and a cape. In Medieval and Renaissance Venice, there were many occasions throughout the year when people wore masks, in addition to the Carnival. In fact, the wearing of masks and cloaks by men in public meetings was required as a way of keeping their identity secret when they voted. This seems to have been an early expression of the secret ballot. While dressed for this public purpose, men were forbidden to carry weapons.  In 1339 AD Venetians were also forbidden to wear masks and vulgar disguises while visiting convents. This may have been to inhibit carnal activity with the nuns.

This figure wears a gold volto, topped with a bishop's mitre (hat). The figure seems to be a female but, since the purpose of masks and disguises is concealment, who knows? The makers of the Venetian masks were called mascherari. Their craft was officially recognised by law in 1436 AD. They were sometimes assisted by sign-painters who helped decorate the masks with detailed designs.

A Medico della peste rests in a chair while clutching his stick. A Medico della peste (Plague Doctor) was a physician who dressed like this to treat plague victims, not to celebrate. The outfit was developed by the French doctor Charles de Lorme in the 17th Century. The mask and spectacles were used to protect against catching the disease. Medicos della peste moved their patients using the stick to avoid touching them. This was the 17th Century's version of a modern Ebola "HazMat" suit. Use of this costume in the Carnival is entirely modern, but very popular.

This concludes Part 6 of my San Luis Potosí series. It is also the last of the National Mask Museum. I hope you enjoyed this amazing museum and that you take the time to visit it if you get to San Luis. I always appreciate comments and questions. If you'd like to make one, please leave it in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Another very interesting series, Jim. I hadn't realized before how many dances were a form of resistance. Thank you once again.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim