MetCollects Episode 12 / 2020
MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.
This exceptionally rare and enigmatically beautiful war mask is one of only two known examples from Tibet. The mask is subtly forged in iron to represent a human or divine visage, boldly damascened in gold with flame-like tendrils for eyebrows, around the mouth, and framing the face. Damascening is a specialized metalworking technique that involves scoring the iron surface with a series of fine, crosshatched lines and then burnishing silver or gold wire into the crosshatching to create vivid designs. It was brought to a very high level of refinement in the 15th century by Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan craftsmen for embellishing both secular and religious ironwork. As an additional decorative flourish, the eye openings of the mask are rimmed with narrow strips of copper alloy. The mouth opening is framed with a damascened gold line that forms a thin upper and lower lip. The areas of undecorated iron on the front have patches of bright metal, particularly at the cheeks and forehead, with the remainder showing a darker old patina. It is difficult to know if the original surface was intended to look like silvery steel or to be dark in order to contrast better with the gold ornament. There are three pairs of small holes, one at the top center edge and two at either side, probably for laces or straps to hold the mask in place. The interior surface is plain, undecorated iron.
This mask has already become one of the signature pieces of The Met’s world-famous collection of arms and armor from Tibet. War masks made of metal (usually iron or copper alloys) and intended specifically as armor existed in many cultures for nearly 2,000 years, from Roman Britain in the 1st century A.D. to Japan up to the end of the Edo period in the late 19th century. They were probably introduced in Tibet by the Mongols in the 14th or 15th century and were used in Central Asia and West Asia until at least the 16th century. While many types of Tibetan dance and ritual masks exist, this promised gift is the only known example of a decorated iron war mask from Tibet. The other war mask in the Met collection, although equally rare and important, is intentionally plain in its design and virtually without decoration. Like some of the other unique pieces from Tibet in the collection of arms and armor, these masks probably survived because they were preserved for centuries in a Buddhist monastery or shrine as offerings to guardian deities.
The Met’s collection of Tibetan arms and armor began with about seventy-five examples bequeathed to the Museum in 1935. By the early 1990s, many previously unknown and unprecedented types of Tibetan armor, swords, saddles, stirrups, and archery equipment were appearing on the art market. Over the past twenty-five years, with the support of the Museum and many generous donors to focus on this fascinating and new area of research and collecting, we were able to acquire about 175 more pieces, making it the finest, most extensive, and thoroughly published collection of Tibetan arm and armor in the world today.