Faces Behind the Mask

I wear the mask. It does not wear me.”

(Spoken by Phillippe in the classic story, The Man in the Iron Mask.)

A mask conceals…and protects. We humans don a metaphorical mask…our public persona…to obscure a portion of our true self, creating a controlled mystique. Then strive to reveal neither “too much” nor “too little” of ourselves, emanating an allure deemed “just right” for the occasion.

We are curious creatures, driven to discover what is hidden from view beneath a perceived charade. The game is to detect what lies behind the disguise. As we peel away the mask, what will be revealed? Something quite wonderful, or something very frightening?

Throughout the ages masks have been worn for a variety of reasons…cultural, practical, and evasive:

♦  Disguise or obscure recognition
♦  Imitate another (person or thing)
♦  Blend in with the present environment
♦  Frighten/intimidate
♦  Entertain
♦  Capture immortality
♦  Torture
♦  Protect

Alfred Nobel Death Mask

Alfred Nobel Death Mask

Death Masks

From ancient times through the modern era death masks have been popular with notable historical figures, many now housed in museums. They capture one final expression for posterity, immortalizing the essence of the one who has since passed. The intricate features of the lifeless form permeate the structure of the mold, staring through time as an eerie yet reverent symbol of our past.



Roman Theatre Masks

Roman Theatre Masks

Early theater performers donned large masks to enhance the enjoyment of audience members seated far from the stage.



(No luxury of a big screen to view for those in the “cheap seats”.) Masks of sadness and tragedy were painted with mournful expressions while masks of comedy showed happy, smiling expressions. These two contrasting views, comedy/tragedy represent the Muses Thalia and Melpomene, and are used as a modern-day theater emblem.

Some of our most beloved stories use the mask in a starring role. Mention the title Phantom of the Opera and a picture of the iconic white mask, popularized in the Broadway show, comes to mind. This became such a powerful symbol that the cover of the Playbill from the Majestic Theater didn’t bother to display the show’s title…the mask said it all.


Majestic Theater

The Phantom donned the physical mask to hide his disfigurement, and bewitched us through Christine, teaching her his alluring “music of the night” to reach where he dare not be seen. In the title song Christine enchanted us as she sang:

“Those who have seen your face,
Draw back in fear.
I am the mask you wear.” 

Another classic story, The Man in the Iron Mask, imprisons the title character within a physical iron mask. Hidden beneath its harsh exterior this man’s true identity was not only concealed from public view, but he himself admits that in an odd way it became a sense of security…leaving him less vulnerable to scrutiny.  “I’ve worn that mask so long I don’t feel safe without it.”,  Phillippe remarked.

On a more light-hearted note there was Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Stanley Ipkiss, the mild-mannered bank clerk who donned a likeness of Loki the Norse trickster god and was transformed into “The Mask”. He became his alter-ego, a ruthless green-faced being who sought revenge.

In “Silence of the Lambs”, Hannibal Lechter was fitted with a mask…for the protection of others. Creepy, intimidating…and memorable.


sketch by Carles V. Norris

More subtle, and less frightening, were those oh so tiny black masks worn by movie heroes Zorro, and the Lone Ranger. They may have fooled the “bad guys” but we certainly recognized our strong heroes “hidden in plain sight” beneath their weak disguises. Funny how the “bad guys” often wore similar masks to conceal their identity while performing unlawful acts. The mask alone did not identify “hero” or “villain”, yet (remarkably) we recoginzed the characters for what they were.



Venetian_Carnival_Mask_-_Maschera_di_Carnevale_-_Venice_Italy_-_Creative_Commons_by_gnuckx_(4701305147)Festivities from Carnival, Halloween, and lavish masquerade balls to the intricate facial makeup of a circus clown highlight the mask at center stage. On All Hallows Eve we walk among the spirits of those who have since departed this earthly world. Venetian_Carnival_Mask_-_Maschera_di_Carnevale_-_Venice_Italy_-_Creative_Commons_by_gnuckx_(4821068176)Will we cross paths with trick…or treat? Beautifully crafted, artistically styled, each mask is thoughtfully chosen and donned to herald our inner being as we step into the spotlight. A shroud of mystery forms as a veil of fog conceals the true self. In those brief moments we are free to release our inner inhibitions and radiate from beneath the guise of the mask.


A diving mask protects our sensitive eyes, allowing us to become more fully immersed in the experience of our new surroundings; some too spectacular to miss. An oxygen mask saves us from suffocation, offering its namesake life-sustaining force. A gas mask saves us from extinction against a deadly foe lurking in the air. A surgical mask can be worn to keep us from breathing in germs…and by others to keep their own germs away from us while they nurse us back to health. Athletes don masks while fencing, playing goalie, or catcher. (Sports fans show support of their team with creative face painting “masks”.)


Beauty masks are anything but beautiful…slathered on creams and lotions, concoctions and potions. Ah, but once the layers are removed, therein lies the true “beauty”. An extension of the mask is applied with mascara on the lashes, drawing attention to our eyes by creating an allure. Masking tape is so named because it hides and protects that which should not be altered.

18th century Icelandic manuscript "SÁM 66"

18th century Icelandic manuscript “SÁM 66”

The mask represents the trickster god, who exists across cultures. Loki, Hermes, Coyote, Raven, and Kokopelli to name a few. There is a bit of the trickster in each of us. The mask gives us permission to reveal and display another facet of our rich, complex persona.

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