Mosaic Mask of Quetzalcoatl

Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl: The Feathered Serpent

Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD
From Mexico
17.3 cm High
16.7 cm wide
wood mask with Turquoise and shell mosaic
Current Location: The British Museum
AOA Q87 Am.3

Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important gods of the Aztec pantheon. A giver of life, water, sun, and arts, this deity was a compassionate and loving god. In this way he was different from most of the other bloodthirsty deities recognized and feared by the Aztec people. This mask was used as a religious tool. The wearer of the mask would transform from his earthly identity, becoming the embodiment of Quetzalcoatl and allowing a more direct relationship between the worshipers and the deity.
Legend foretold of a day when Quetzalcoatl would return from the east to the Aztec people. This mask was one of the many gifts given to Hernan Cortez upon his arrival in Mexico in 1519, coincidentally during a time when Quetzalcoatl was expected.

Descriptive Analysis

The mask associated with the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl is made primarily of a single carved piece of cedar and covered with mosaic tiles made of turquoise. The teeth are large carved pieces of white conch shell of all the same size and shape, on the upper jaw only. The mask incorporates two snake figures twisted around each other. These snakes form the eye sockets and lips of the mask. The tails of the snakes end at the temples of the mask with sculpted rattles at the tip. Each snake has its own main color; one is pale green-turquoise, the other blue.
The rounded form of the mask allows the eye to run smoothly from one spot to another especially drawing attention to the twist of two snakes between the eye sockets. The pretzel-like shape leads the eye of the viewer around and around, down to the mouth and back. The tightly packed turquoise tiles create surface texture and slightly different variations in color. The tiles would have been polished, reflecting light back to the viewer and dazzling him or her with a godly light.
The mask is in fairly good condition for its age. There are a few turquoise tiles missing as well as teeth pieces. The rattles at the tip of the tails were originally gilt with gold. It is unknown if or when this artifact was restored/conserved.
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Formal and Contextual Analysis
It is believed by some that this mask was a Mixtec creation sent to the Aztec capital city in tribute. Others believe it is an authentic Aztec creation that echoes the Mixtec style (Marksman, 1989 pg. 96). In any case, this mask was most likely intended for religious use, as was most of the art of ancient Mexico (Feuchtwanger, 1954 Pg. 14). Its creator utilized many of the skills of the ancient Mexican artists such as the Olmec people (900-300 BCE) whom were skilled sculptors. The Aztec artists seem to have carried on their tradition in the carved wood of the mask, giving it its 3-dimensional aspects. The decorative turquoise and shell mosaic work of the mask is a fine representation of the work of the Aztec artists. How suitable it is, then, for the mask to be made in this fashion! The deity whom the mask is believed to represent is the same deity who imparted the knowledge and skill of the artistic techniques used (Anton 1969, pg. 74).

The Quezalcoatl mask is otherwise known as a type of Funerary Mask used in the religous ritual taking place after the death of a citizen. These masks allowed what is known as the “Metaphor of Transformation,” in which the wearer of the mask became the embodiment of the god depicted on the mask. The funerary ritual marked the difficult beginning of the passage back to the realm of the spirit from where the individual’s life came from. All of the cosmological conceptions for which the mask stood as the metaphor throughout the long development of Mesoamerican spiritual thought and art. Death, for all the individuals of Mesoamerica, was by far one of the greatest mysteries. The Aztec explanation of the metaphoric journey to Mictlan (spirit realm where life originated) after the body’s physical death suggests that death was seen as a slow fading of the individual’s identity into the anonymity of the life-force. The process begins with the separation and detachment form human society, then continues on, finally ending in the mysterious and otherwise inaccessible world of the spirit. The cultures of the Mesoamerica attempted to comprehend the mystery of death by including it in the cycle of regeneration. What would seem the end of life became a passage through the essence of life's cycle. (Markman, 1989, pg. 88 & 96)

The skull motif is one of the most widely used throughout the art of ancient Mexican peoples (Feuchtwanger, 1954, pg. 17). Because of the bloodthirsty tendencies of the Aztec pantheistic religion, much of the imagery is gruesome in character. Human sacrifice was a cornerstone of the religion. Most of the sacrificial victims were slaves or prisoners of war, and many of the Aztec temples and alters seem to be depositories for the bodies of the sacrificed (pg. 15).
There are descriptive accounts of the mask being worn along with a crown made of feathers. These feathers were most likely feathers from the Quetzal bird who was associated with Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzal Bird
Quetzal Bird

The feathered serpent myths were present in many of the ancient Mexican cultures, including the Toltec and Olmec religions (Crystal). The idea of the god Quetzalcoatl and his origins is complex and sometimes contradictory. It appears that the Toltec rulers (from whom the Aztec rulers descended) used the deity as an ancestral justification for their reign. Therefore, Quetzalcoatl was not only a god, but also a man; nine men, to be exact, who all used his name and identity as a means to exert power over the people (Burland, 1975).

The Aztec creation stories are centered on the cyclical creation and destruction of the earth by several different deities. Quetzalcoatl was the deity who loved the humans, giving them life from the bones stolen from the underworld. Though he was a compassionate god, he was strict when it came to the artisans creations. He was the one who imparted inspiration, therefore the craftsmen were not given complete artistic freedom, but relied heavily on the instructions handed down from Quetzalcoatl himself through his artist-priests (Burland, 1975, pg 49).

Many of the myths surrounding Quetzalcoatl include his twin brother, Mictlantecuhtli, who was said to escort the sun through the underworld at night. This deity often appeared as a skeleton and may have played a part in the inspiration for the skull motif of the mask. The inter-twining snakes may be representative of the twin brothers.

Quetzalcoatl was a descendant of two Aztec deities,Tonacatecuhtli and Tonachihuatl. These two deities combined to form one god named Ometeol. They lived in the highest part of Aztec heaven. Quetzalcoatl was one of four gods created in this realm. There was a red and a black version of Tezcatlipoca, Quezalcoatl represented by white, and Huitzilopochtli was associated with the color blue. (Florescano, pg. 1-7)

Both the Mayas and the Aztecs decorated ritual objects (masks, knives, shields, and even the occasional human skull) with tesserae made from shell and semi-precious stones. These mosaics were used as a means to decorate the objects, unlike the European tradition of creating images with the use of differently colored tiles.

It is likely that the Aztec people were highly influenced by the belief system of an earlier civilization of Mexican inhabitants, whom we call the Olmec. While there are no known remains of Aztec floor or wall mosaics, the Olmec civilization ruins at La Venta (c. 900BC-400BC) include two floors decorated with mosaic-like patterns of curving slabs and different colored clays. What is interesting, though, are the images of many different Olmec deities, especially one feathered serpent god. "Also derived from Olmec art is the daemonic mask, that fantastic synthesis of realistic yet... transfigured forms in which human and animal features are frequently mingled (Feuchtwanger, 1954 pg. 17)."

Aztec Wall Painting
Aztec Wall Painting

Aztec artisans in ancient Tenochtitlan were arranged in a system similar to guilds. These guilds were famous for their fine work in feathers and Mosaics but they were hardly rivals to the great craftsman of the Cholula area, who under influence from the Mixtecs in the South, Aztecs in the north, and possibly Tarascans in the West produced the magnificent Mixteca-Puebla style. It is sure that much of the gold work done at Cholula and practically all the fine masks and ceremonial paraphernalia of wood encrusted with turquoise mosaic were also manufactured there (Coe, 1984).


Sources Anton, Ferdinand Ancient Mexican Art (New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1969)

This book discusses art from many different cultures of Mexico, including their possible evolutionary processes and multiple media.

Crystal, Ellie, "Olmec Civilization," accessed April 14, 2009
This website gives a general description of the Olmec people and their customs.

Feuchtwanger, Franz The Art of Ancient Mexico (New York: The Vanguard press, 1954)
This book offers a brief discussion of ancient Mexican artworks from varying cultures.

Florescano, Enrique . Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico: From the Aztecs to Independence (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994) This book gives several different accounts of Mexican myth and their continual evolution from their roots through present day.

Graulich, Michel Myths of Ancient Mexico (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997)
A book that offers descriptions of legendary figures, their origins, and their meaning.

Jordan, David Chronological Table of Mesoamerican Archaeology University of California: San Diego, Division of Social Sciences server
This website gives a chronological order of the people who inhabited ancient Mexico.

Micheal D. Coe, and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From The Olmecs To The Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc, 1984
A general history of ancient mexican culture including artisan life and religion practices.

Roberta H. Markman, and Peter T. Markman. Masks Of The Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica. (Las Angles: The Regents of the University of California, 1989)
This book discusses different types of masks used by native people of Mesoamerica and the evolution of their uses, religion, materials, etc. last accessed April 15, 2009
This website provides museum information regarding the artifact last accessed April 15, 2009
This website offers much information about the Aztec people by subject using a directory.

Lesson Plan

Title: Quetzalcoatl Funerary Mask

Grade Level: 7th- 8th
Time- Approximate 4 weeks

This lesson meets the following National Standards for Arts Education (Visual Arts) ( ):
  • Standard 1- understanding and applying media techniques and processes
    • Bench Mark:
      • Students select media, techniques and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not in communicating ideas and reflect upon the effectiveness of their choices
  • Standard 2- using knowledge of structures and functions
    • Benchmark:
      • Students employ organizational structures and analyze what makes them effective or not effective in the communication of ideas.
      • Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of the ideas.
  • Standard 4- Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
    • Benchmarks:
      • Students analyze, describe and demonstrate how factors of time and place influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art.
  • Standard 5-Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits for their work and the work of others
    • Benchmarks:
    • Students describe and compare a variety of individual responses to their own artworks and to artworks from various eras and culture

This lesson meets the following National Educational Technology Standards for students ( ):
  • Creativity and innovation:
    • a,b,c
  • Communication and Collaboration:
    • a,b
  • Research and information:
    • b,c,d

Central Concepts:

  1. Symbolizism- To use an image or object to represent something different.
    1. Annotation: The Quetzalcoatl Funerary Mask is a symbolism for the diety Quetzalcoatl.The mask also has a snake as a symbol which is the symbol of quetzalcoatl twin brother diety Mictlantecuhtli.
  2. Mask- A cover that disguises or conceal the face.
    1. Annotation: Masks can be used to conceal the face to look like someone or something else. The Quetzalcoatl funnery mask was used as a religious tool to or a metaphor of transformation in a funneral.

Lesson Activities:

Activity 1: - Group Research in computer lab / 2 class periods

-Students will break into groups of 2 or 3 and will be given a designated set of questions they need to research about The Quetzalcoatl Mask.
-Students will be given 30 minutes to research their questions
-Students will be allowed to only use safe websites for their research
-The information will then be gathered, discussed and made into an information handout to be kept in their artist binder.
-Students will engage on the second day in conversation about symbolism and they will need to identify the symbolism on the mask.

Activity 2- Create a Skull Template Using Photoshop/ 2 class periods in computer lab
- Students will be given a brief introduction into the basic usage of tools of Photoshop including: pen, pencil, rectangle tool, elliptical tool, custom shape tool, brush, paint bucket, etc.
-Students will then recreate a mask template or a skull from the hand out given and the tools demonstrated.
-The skull template will then be printed out and kept in binder until ready to use.

Activity 3- Create salt dough and eggshell skull / 2 weeks of class
-Students will work in the same groups as the research portion and make a big batch of salt dough.
- Students then will sculpt their salt dough over the template made.
-This will then dry over the weekend.
-Students will paint a thin layer of black acrylic paint over the entire mask.
- After this dries students will then use the eggshells to make the mosaic texture on the mask.
- Student’s will paint the mask using different shades of turquoise and also add details where needed.
- The teeth will be made from the extra salt dough and pasted onto mask at the end.
- Student handout is attached bellow.

Activity 4- students will document and critique art work on the class webpage/ 1 class period and homework
-Students will first document their artwork using the class camera and backdrop.
-The teacher will then post them onto the class webpage.
-After all work is posted students will then need to log onto the class webpage and add two comments for every classmates work, one compliment and one constructive criticism.
Scoring Rubric
Possible Points
Points Earned
Activity 1
  • Group participation 5pts
  • Effective use of time 5pts
  • All questions answered in detail 5pts

Activity 2
  • Use of Photoshop tools 5pts
  • Craft of skull5pts
  • Effective use of time 5pts

Activity 3
  • Effective use of materials 10pts
  • Quality of final product 10pts
  • Effective use of time 10pts
  • Helping to keep workspace clean 5pts

Activity 4
  • Quality of photographs taken 5pts
  • Useful comments written on class webpage 10pts

Teacher Comments:
Total possible:80pts

Quetzalcoatl Mask Research Activity

Students will break up into groups of 3 or 4. Students will be given two questions per group to answer fully and in detail. The class will then regroup on the second day to collect the answers to all the questions and make a Word document containing all the answers to add into their artist folder. Number 11 will be answered by the students individually.

  1. Where does the Mosaic Mask of Quetzalcoatl come from?
  2. What culture is it part of?
  3. What time period is it from?
  4. What is it a symbol of?
  5. When was it used?
  6. How was it used?
  7. What was it used for?
  8. What materials is it made from?
  9. How was it made?
  10. What is a metaphor of transformation?
  11. What symbol do you want to represent you?

Photoshop Skull Template
You will need to create a Quetzalcoatl Mask Template using Photoshop. This template will be used to sculpt the mask in the next activity. The tools you can use are Pen, Pencil, Rectangle tool, elliptical tool, custom shape tool, brush, eraser and paint bucket. I will demonstrate how to use all these tools. Use the space below to take notes so when you are on your own you can have a reference. You will have two class periods to finish this activity. Please use your time wisely.

Pen and Pencil-

Rectangle, elliptical tool and custom shape tool-


Paint bucket-


photoshop skull.jpg
photoshop skull.jpg

photoshop skull.jpg

Salt Dough and Eggshell Quetzalcoatl Mask

Step1: Work in groups of 3 to make salt dough recipe:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 cups salt
  • 2 cups water (more if needed)
    • Mix three ingredients together and then separate the mixture equally into three separate containers. Keep them covered!
Step2: Form dough over template to create 3D mask.
  • Follow demonstration to build up mask.
  • Think of facial features and what symbol you want to add. Think of the serpent in the original.
  • Make teeth out of the remaining salt dough
  • Let dry over the weekend!
Step 4: Use black acrylic paint to cover the entire mask
  • Use only enough paint to cover the mask if you use too much the mask will become mushy
Step 5: Create the eggshell mosaic
  • Take the clean eggshells and break them into usable pieces. Not to small.
  • Brush glue over only portion of mask you are working on. Place eggshells on the glue to resemble a mosaic.
  • Use the eggshell to add details to the symbols you created on your mask.
Step 6: Painting and emphasizing symbols
  • Paint the mask using shades, tints and hues of turquoise.
  • Make sure you are using these shades and tints to emphasizes your symbols on the mask.

Documentation and Class Website Critique
Using the class camera and the backdrop set up take photographs of your mask that best emphasizes your work. Try different angles and also different sides of your work.

You will then go on to our class website and comment on all the art works. You will need to write one compliment and one constructive criticism. Make your statements useful and appropriate.

National Standards for Arts Education (Visual Arts) ( ):
National Educational Technology Standards for students ( ):