Humans have made masks from ancient times for use in ceremonies as well as for practical purposes. While they usually cover the face, they can be various sizes and used for display.
The word “mask” comes from the Latin word mascus for a ghost or a spirit as the Romans commonly made wax death masks of high status individuals.
These masks were collected by Dr. Mae Frantz and were given in her memory to the College of Education.
Masks have been used in ritual and theatrical performances for thousands of years. The ancient Romans called citizens persona which also meant “a mask.” This referenced the wax death masks made of important persons that were then worn by professional actors at family ceremonies to link the living and the dead.
Many cultures from all over the world use masks to reenact mythological or folk stories, both for entertainment as well as cultural education.
Today masks are primarily worn at celebrations such as Carnival or Halloween.
China, Japan, and India share a rich tradition of masks. These masks are usually brightly colored and depict faces that are highly exaggerated and abstract. They were frequently used by shamans to thank the gods for supporting human existence.
In both China and Japan masks became a traditional part of theater, both in Jingju (Bejing Opera) and Kabuki plays. While the masks depict gods, monks, demons, as well as men and women, they were traditionally worn only by male actors.
Europeans traditionally use masks to represent nature spirits, although with the emergence of Christianity theses entities were transformed into folk heroes, saints, and demons. European masks quickly became either a representative of good or evil shown through either ideal beauty or ugliness.
Perhaps the best known tradition of European masking is seen in the Italian Carnival that grew from earlier pagan celebrations but became entrenched in Roman Catholic traditions by the 15th century. Today the celebrations of carnival in Venice are world-famous, as are the masks that are crafted and sold to tourists.
Special thanks to the Madison Art Collection director, Dr. Kathryn Stevens, for organizing this exhibit and to Dr. Deborah Carrington for serving as curator of this collection.
Dr. Frantz served as a faculty member at JMU for twenty-eight years. She retired from the Communication Arts Department (now Communication Studies) in 1992. During her tenure in the department, she founded the Public Relations and Organizational Communication programs, currently two of the largest programs in the department. She also founded the JMU student chapter of International Business Communicators. After retiring from JMU, Dr. Frantz remained active in the JMU Faculty Women’s Caucus and the American Association of University Women. Dr. Frantz was a friend, mentor, and esteemed colleague.