Jaguar Helmet Masks — from Aztec and Maya to Diego Rivera, from Hercules to Knights in Shining Armor…and Hockey Masks

A mural by Diego Rivera: Indian Warrior, 1931

Jaguar Helmet Mask design

by Christopher Agostino

Performing in a school on Wednesday I used the facepainted version of an Aztec Jaguar Warrior helmet mask to illustrate a folktale from the Kayapo people of the Amazon, so imagine my delight and surprise on Thursday to see that same image depicted in this mural by Diego Rivera in the current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The helmet mask idea has been a favorite vehicle of mine for dramatic face designs for a long time, especially when I want to get a “wow” reaction while painting an adult male at a party. It is a pretty universal mask concept: a mask depicting a powerful animal that fits over the full head so that the wearer’s face is visible through the open mouth of the animal, framed by the animal’s teeth—and you can just see the mouth of the Indian Warrior peaking through behind the teeth of the jaguar in Rivera’s mural. Aztec, Mayan and Toltec sculptures and paintings portray warriors wearing such masks, sometimes depicting eagles, serpents or coyotes rather than the jaguar. The text accompanying this mural states: Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle”, which is probably only a partial explanation for the use of jaguar helmet masks.

Eagle Warrior

The symbolic use of animal imagery in traditional cultures often carries multiple layers of significance. The exhibition of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum a few years ago included many examples of this helmet mask concept, including the breathtaking, life-sized terra cotta sculpture of an eagle warrior from the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (found under the streets of Mexico City).

Deified Eagle Warrior

In addition to the idea of accruing power by association with powerful totem animals, the exhibit described how the ascension to the rank of eagle or jaguar warrior meant the individual was imbued with the spirit of the animal—not just the physical animal, but, more importantly, the animal in its spirit-world state, or god-state. So, we see in the “Deified Eagle Warrior” sculpture how the human in the spirit-world is completely enveloped by the eagle. I am reminded of the concept in Northwest Coast American Indian cultures and masks of the celestial eagle coming to earth in human form, kind of like an eagle/man superhero.

Contemporary Jaguar Dance

Which is not to negate the functionality of wearing something scary to scare your enemy in battle. The warrior’s interest in that is probably universal. Imagine what a warrior might have felt seeing this human/animal jaguar man rushing at him across a battlefield. In modern day Mayan festivals, dancers will wear jaguar masks made from the heads or skulls of real jaguars—which may have been the same way the Jaguar Warriors made their masks in ancient times—so as I explain to school kids in demonstrations, wearing that mask is like saying “don’t mess with me, I’m the one who killed him”. Other modern Mexican mask traditions include papermache or wooden masks recreating the Aztec helmet mask appearance or worn like helmets with the dancer’s face showing through the mouth as it opens and closes.  Holidays and festivals in Mexico can include a blend of ancient and modern, including the Indios, dancers in traditional Indian costume, such as these two spooky looking guys wearing animal skulls, horns and bones in a 2007 procession through the streets of Gunajuato (where “la vida no vale nada” according to the old song).

Guanajuato, Mexico 2007

Guanajuato, Mexico 2007

In the Diego Rivera mural, I’ve got to think that he put the Indian Warrior in that jaguar outfit in part to create an equivalency with the scary armor of the conquistador he has killed (“you may have armor, but we have jaguar-power”), and he is using a stone knife while the Spaniard’s steel blase lies broken underneath him. Now, if that conquistador had only been wearing the right armor, he might have done better.

Knight's helmet, 1460

New York kids love to visit the collection of knights in shining armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there you can find a golden helmet in the shape of a roaring lion that might have stood up to that jaguar.It was made for an Italian knight in 1460 and, again, its symbolic significance is not limited to the idea of him wanting to be as powerful as a lion.


Alexander the Great

This helmet mask is part of a European warrior tradition that goes back to Alexander the Great and the ancient Greeks, for it is meant to invoke the spirit of the greatest of all classical warriors:  the mythical hero Herakles (Hercules). Herakles slew the Nemean Lion and from then on wore its head and skin in a classic example of that general use of animal totem imagery in many cultures: “don’t mess with me, I’m the one who killed him.” On coins from ancient Greece, Alexander the Great is also depicted wearing a lion-headed helmet, to proclaim his personal mythic connection to the ancient hero. Lion-headed helmets have been showing up ever since.

Punia and the King of the Sharks

In our facepainting, we use this helmet mask concept for dragons, crocodiles, snakes and all the big cats. Anything with teeth. Years ago I used the concept to adapt a Northwest Coast American Indian storytelling mask depicting a man’s face inside a shark’s mouth to create the face I have used ever since in performance of the tale Punia and the King of the Sharks, and it always gets a response when I reveal the painted face. This past Halloween season I had the min-brainstorm at an event to try adapting it to a vampire and got one of my favorite new faces of this past year, the “Vampire’s Bite“.

As I said earlier, the concept is a crowd pleaser.People like big, ferocious looking teeth. And, when you have a kid with close-cropped hair or a bald man, you can make a real show of it and paint their whole head. I think it is important that you have some faces you can show off with.

Painting at tiger helmet

Faces to use when the event is slow and you still want to make an impact, or something to paint when the host sits down after you’ve painted all the little kids at the party. There’s a photo here of me painting a man in a tiger helmet design at the start of a special event for government officials and their families. We were doing their kids, but I didn’t think we’d be getting a lot of the adults to sit down. So I wanted to make this one count. At the end of the evening he returned to thank me, telling me that so many people had stopped to look at him and take photographs that he had felt like the life of the party.

The 1st time I tried the Vampire Bite

Full head Tiger Helmet

recent Serpent Helmet

Jaguar Helmet from my book

Hans Silvester foto - animal helmet mask as aesthetic design


Panther helmet mask

Shark helmet mask

I was looking for examples of modern day hockey masks, which I knew sometimes use this concept, and I was surprised to learn that hockey goalies get the chance to design and create their own masks. Some of them, like Curtis Joseph’s “Cujo” mask, are so distinctive they bring the design with them as they change from team to team. Wow. What a cool example of the power of the mask. (hockey mask images from the website:   )

A Mayan painting from a temple wall that shows aristocracy in elaborate jaguar masks -- rising up higher on the head than the mask may have been, for there is a thin line painted in front of the face, seeming to indicate that there was a mask in front of the face, as if this is a depiction of the individual inside the mask as well as the mask he was actually wearing over his face

Modern Primitive: Why Look Back? – Part 1: To see their eyes…

Inspired by the photographs of Hans Silvester of the new styles of face art from the peoples of the Omo River area of Africa

by Christopher Agostino

While doing research yesterday for a new bodypainting project I read a passage that struck a chord, giving me a sharper insight into a theme that runs through my work. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art is a “comprehensive scholarly treatment” published in 1984 to accompany an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art which broke new ground by exhibiting Modern Art masterpieces side-by-side with the tribal art from Africa and Oceania that was a significant source of inspiration for those early modern artists, presenting the art objects of both the “primitive” and the “modern” on equal footing. At the culmination of his opening essay in the book, exhibit director William Rubin makes this statement of his most profound, or personal, goal for the exhibit:

“In the realm of my hopes, however, there is something less explicit, more difficult to verbalize. It is that the particular confrontation involved in our exhibition [between tribal objects and modern masterpieces] will not only help us better to understand our art, but in a very unique way, our humanity — if that is not saying the same thing. The vestiges of a discredited evolutionary myth still live in the recesses of our psyches. The vanguard modernists told us decades ago that the tribal peoples produced an art that often distilled great complexity into seemingly simple solutions. We should not therefore be surprised that anthropology has revealed a comparable complexity in their cultures. I hope our effort will demonstrate that at least insofar as it pertains to works of the human spirit, the evolutionary prejudice is clearly absurd.”

My visual and performing arts have become increasingly connected to cultures distant in time, space and tradition. This research into other cultures is fascinating to me, rich in ideas and images for the artist sponge in me to absorb, but that isn’t what drives this process.

When I tell an audience a 2,000 year old tale from China of a heroic young girl as I did this afternoon, modern white guy that I am I still feel a resonance of the common humanity at the heart of the story. I feel it… and will judge my performance in large part on my perception of how well I have been able to let my audience feel it. I’ve come to see how it is the qualities in a story that touch upon the universal question of what it means to be human that make some stories survive.

The juxtaposition of the very tribal Papua New Guinea design with the New York street scene and a bag of potato chips makes this a favorite foto of mine.

When I paint a New Yorker’s face in a design from some exotic culture, that also makes a connection to our common humanity. As I have grown more aware of this, with kids I’ll talk about a more concrete, though metaphoric, connection to their unusual new face — for example, that the Kabuki Samurai design they’re wearing is like becoming a superhero; or that the wildly colorful face from Papua New Guinea is like being painted for a birthday party, it just happens to be a party on the other side of the world. This is an understanding of the effect of my work that has grown gradually, and not a political or “new age” sensibility that led me to my explorations of the primitive. I started “looking backward” to the tribal and the ancient to become a better facepainter, as a way to understand the possibilities for painting a face that had already been discovered by cultures that have done it for generations.

Now, it seems that the lesson of a couple hundred thousand painted faces over 30 years is unavoidable, for whatever culturally alien or bizarre design I paint on someone, once I am finished I always see a pair of human eyes looking back at me from within the mask. This is my visceral understanding of the common humanity we share.

Writing as he was about famous artists and art objects with a power to change perception far beyond anything I could approach, William Rubin’s statement is a stronger, more militant sentiment about the necessity and potential of this joining of the primitive and the modern to open our world view, but I can’t be the first facepainter to wonder what effect it would have on cultural/racial prejudices if we all wore painted faces, and all we could see was each other’s eyes?

Picasso's revolutionary sculpture, Guitar 1912, and a Grebo mask (Ivory Coast, Africa) that he owned. Picasso stated that in creating this sculpture he studied the mask for its use of projections for eyes, nose and mouth from a flat plane, for how those projections implied another invisible plane ( a device he used for creating the sound hole of the guitar via a cylinder) and especially the quality in such tribal art that it is not illustrating a face but "re-presenting" it — a concept that concurs with a pivotal change between the art of the 19th century and the new art of the early modernists, i.e. their use of symbols and imagery to represent subject matter and thereby add greater conceptual depth.