Masks are objects that cover the face for variety of different
reasons such as for protection, disguise, entertainment or ritual
practices. Masks are made from various materials, depending on
how / why they are being used. Earliest use of masks was for
rituals and ceremonies, and the oldest found mask is from 7000
BC. In the pre historic era, warriors and hunters wore animal-like
masks so as to disguise themselves, making hunting easier – they
would be made out of mud, animal’s skin and fur. Tribes used
masks for healing purposes and then this developed into theatre
because they were used to connect with the spirits and contact the dead, and to also allow
spirits to be inside them when performing.
Oldest theatre masks are from Ancient Greece and masks used in traditional Japanese Noh
drama. They worshiped Dionysus, son of Zeus and god / patron of the arts.
One reason for wearing a mask is to pretend to be someone or
something else. The mask can be a kind of language that expresses the
emotion of the figure one chooses to create. Their variations help the
audience to distinguish sex, age, and social status, in addition to
revealing a change in a particular character’s appearance. Some
masks served more than one purpose, e.g. In a large open-air theatre,
like the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, the classical masks were able
to bring the characters’ face closer to the audience, especially since they had intensely over-
exaggerated facial features and expressions. Masks were at that time were normally made
of wood, cloth or leather and were very creatively designed. Many masks were decorated
with hair from either other people, or even from animals. Only a small hole was drilled only
at a spot where the pupil of the eye was, so the actor could see through. Unfortunately
none of the old, traditional masks have survived.
Only 2-3 actors were allowed on the stage at one time, and masks permitted
quick transitions from one character to another. There were only male actors,
but masks allowed them to play female characters as well.
The Renaissance started approximately in 1400 AD. It saw
the creation of many masks, mostly in Italy and were much
different to any seen before. There were full faced masks,
half face, head and on a stick (venetian/ masquerade
masks). In Italy during the Renaissance, masquerade balls
were very popular among the rich. People would wear
colourful masks to hide their identities and to be
mysterious and also to celebrate. Masks generally would
cover the top portion of the face. It may have been placed on top of a type of stick, so that
the wearer held it to his face and removed it when desired. The masks were decorated with
attractive designs and jewels.
Comedies were a popular genre at the time, because it was the theatre’s response to the
political and economic crisis in the 16th century. Commedia dell’arte is one of these forms
of theatre meaning ‘comedy of artists’. Commedia dell’ Arte masks were often made of
leather and formed to show exaggerated facial expressions. Arlecchino or Harlequin is a
crafty servant character who wears a black mask with raised eyebrows. Pantalone is a
miserly old man who wears a mask with a big nose
and bushy eyebrows. These types of masks were
not worn by the citizens of Venice, only by the
performing actors. They were a group of street
performers when they started out who used masks
with exaggerated features for comedy, then when
more and more people joined, there were groups
of actors who travelled around together. In later
years, the tradition spread all over Europe. In the 20th century, when Mr. Bean was created,
the idea was influenced by Commedia dell’arte.
In the modern day (20th – 21st Century) masks are used for many different reasons, such as
for protection e.g. dentistry, safety e.g. engineering, to disguise oneself e.g.
Halloween, in films and theatre e.g. for certain characters, and at parties, e.g. fancy
dress. A popular example is medical reasons, if for example a person has suffered
damage to the face, they can be fitted with a prosthetic facial mask so that they feel
comfortable and socially acceptable. ‘Masks’ is now a wide topic due to the
incredible advances in technology and materials, meaning there is a lot more intricate
They have developed in ways that ensure they are more
comfortable to wear and much more varied. Almost anything a
person desires can be made into a mask, for example a style of
animal print, a superhero or a scary character for Halloween.