Mask information collected by June Bailey Brief History of Masks1

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collected by June Bailey

Brief History of Masks1
A mask is a whole or partial cover for the face. The functions of masks throughout the world are remarkably similar. Masks have two main purposes; to conceal the identity of the wearer, usually representing another person or creature, or used as a form of protection on many job sites and in sports. The use of masks dates back to man's earliest history. The origin of the mask is not known, but evidence of its presence has been found in primitive times, revealing the important role it has played in our lives. Early masks were probably made to represent animals because hunting played a large role in primitive societies. The earliest known allusion to mask use is found in a Southern France cave. It is believed to have been painted around 20,000BC. The art depicts a human masked in deer skin and antlers. One such disguise is the domino, which is a plain cloth half mask and is worn on such occasions as a masquerade ball. Another is the handkerchief which can be tied over the nose and mouth and used as a makeshift protective mask. Western outlaws and bandits in the movies found this disguise quite acceptable. Many modern criminals often wear ski masks to cover the entire head, as well as women's pantyhose as a mask. Masks in traditional societies are not thought of as art objects. They are functioning sacred objects imbued with tremendous power and used for ancestor workshop, healing, funerals and social prestige and control, as well as initiation and fertility rites. Symbolic masks were devised to be worn during ceremonies of many ancient peoples. These masks portrayed gods, animals and spirits and were worn ceremonially for communicating with supernatural forces believed to rule the universe. The classic drama of ancient Greece brought theatrical masks to the height of development. They were slightly larger than life size and made of canvas. They were often fitted at the mouth and made with a small megaphone for amplification of the actor's voice. One of the most commonly recognized types of masks is the false face. It represents another person or creature and made usually of papier-mâché, leather or in modern times plastic.
Middle Age Renaissance2

The oldest document pertaining to the use of masks in Venice dates back to 2nd May 1268. In the document it is written that it was forbidden for masqueraders to practice the game of the "eggs". In 12963, the Serenissima Republic of Venice decreed that the day before Lent -- the 40-day period before Easter, observed in the Roman Catholic faith as a time for reflection and repentance -- would henceforth be a holiday so that its citizens could get the urge to sin out of their systems. The day came to be known as "Carnivale" -- literally "goodbye meat!" (from the Latin carne "meat" and vale "farewell") since giving up meat was traditionally one of the penances observed during Lent. In Venice's hierarchical society, carnivale also served a useful social function by giving the lowest-born classes the illusion that they were on equal footing with the powerful, allowing them to make fun of the wealthy in public by wearing masks on their faces.

During the mystery plays era of the 12th and 13th Centuries, masks were worn to dramatize the character to the extreme. Mystery plays were written (often by church clerics, priests or ministers) to show the public how bad sin was and what they should do in order to redeem themselves. The messages in these plays were blunt and straightforward, not unlike the masks used. The masks were grotesque, usually depicting Satan or one of his monstrous minions. It is said that these masks were marvels to look at, despite the fact that they were constructed out of papier-mâché. Renaissance Italy – in 15th Century Venice, the revolutionary art form commedia dell arte was invented. This was an improvisational comedy consisting of characters so ridiculous in moral, that it was fundamental that the masks be ridiculous. It is said that the masks in commedia dell arte are both concealing and revealing. During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, entertainment often demanded a more universal involvement, calling for the participation of townspeople and courtiers as well as professional actors, dancers and singers. People might spend weeks or months rehearsing to prepare for and present a play, a musical entertainment or a sporting event.
From the early 14th century onwards, new laws started to be promulgated, with the aim of stopping the relentless moral decline of the Venetian people of the day. This restrictive carnival legislation started with a decree on 22nd February 1339 prohibiting masqueraders from going around the city at night. A decree that helps us understand just how libertine the Venetians of the day were, is that of the 24th January 1458 which forbade men from entering convents dressed as women to commit "multas inhonestates"! In a similar vein, the decree of 3rd February 1603 is interesting in that it attempted to restore morality in the convents. Masqueraders were banned from entering the nuns' parlous - it had been the convention to sit in the parlous and talk to the nuns. Frequently, decrees were promulgated prohibiting masqueraders from carrying arms or any instrument which could cause harm, or other decrees which forbade masqueraders from entering churches. This obligation was extended to the townsfolk who were not allowed to enter churches wearing "indecent attire". 1608 was an important year, the 13th August to be precise, when a decree from the council of 10 was issued declaring that the wearing of the mask throughout the year posed a serious threat to the Republic. To avoid the terrible consequences of this immoral behavior, every citizen, nobleman and foreigner alike, was obliged to only wear a mask during the days of carnival and at official banquets. The penalties inflicted for breaking this law were heavy - for a man this meant two years in jail, 18 months' service to the Republic galley-rowing (with ankles fettered) and not only that, a 500 lire fine to the Council of 10. As for women, they were whipped from St Mark's all the way to Rialto, and then held to public ridicule between the two columns in St Mark's. They were banned from entering the territory of the Venetian Republic for 4 years and had to pay the 500 lire fine to the Council of 10. 50 years after the decree of 1608, the Council of 10 published a proclamation on the 15th January reaffirming the ban on wearing masks and bearing arms.

From Tudor Costume and Fashion, Herbert Norris is quoted saying “When they use to ride abroad they have invisories made of velvet, where-with they covered their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, where out they look.” Some masks had glass inserted in them. Queen Elizabeth often wore a mask while riding in her coach or on horseback and event while hunting. Ladies wore masks also when walking and when attending the play. In France ladies wore them to preserve their complexions and when they rode or walked. In fact a mask was considered so important an item of outdoor costume that to be seen without one was decidedly en de’shabille’. Gentlemen wore masks chiefly to conceal their identity during escapades and in the gaming houses. “Masks of Medyoxes’ were used chiefly in masques. They were divided down the center, usually into good and bad halves, such as one side the human face and the other a skeleton or an angle impaled with a devil.

Commedia Dell' Arte Masks

Roman comedies and traditional folk acting troupes spawned a new theater art, called Commedia dell'Arte. It originated in the Italian marketplaces in the early 1500's. Street performers would wear masks and use mime, improvisation and acrobatics to perform. The material was written to ridicule authority figures or other aspects of society, and performances were often outrageous, so that they were banned in France for 30 years. Actors of the Commedia dell'Arte wore masks with exaggerated, comical features to complement their performances. The puppet Punch, from Punch and Judy, was originally Pulcinella, a character of the Commedia dell'Arte.4

Mystery and Miracle Plays


arly Christian Priests wore masks to dramatize Biblical stories (Mystery Plays) and stories about the saints (Miracle Plays). In 1207, Pope Innocent III forbade priests to wear masks, so the townsfolk began to hold the plays outside of the church, in the churchyard. Sometimes masks were used, sometimes not, but the devil was always in disguise, although not a standard one as in the Commedia dell'Arte. He could appear as an ugly man, an animal, or a demon with horns. He usually also had a tail. Town governments of Europe produced the Mystery or Miracle plays, but in England, the trade guilds worked together to produce the play. Each guild would build a stage on a wagon. People would gather in different parts of the town, and the first guild would move from spot to spot, performing the first act of the play. Another guild would be responsible for the next act, and would follow the first guild from spot to spot, and so on. (see the leather ones below)

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