What does the mask reveal? Masquerades and carnivals

18th June 2012
Masks are fascinating. To some it might seem peculiar that such an expressive and often lovely visage as the face that nature has bestowed upon humans should ever be concealed beneath such an impassive, often grotesque covering. And yet people have been wearing masks since the beginning of recorded history. Their uses are wide and varied - from the mask worn by actors in Greek drama through to the celebrated carnival masks of the European festivals such as Mardi Gras or the infamous Venecian Carnevale.

Death masks have been produced through many periods of history to record the likeness of the deceased person. Elaborate masks were the very foundation of great social events in the 18th century - the balls and masquerades of Georgian times. And in our own era, masks of a sort are still used in the celebration of Halloween or Guy Fawkes Night.

You can surely think of numerous other examples. Masks can depict gods or heroes, syrtrs or nymphs, friend or foe. They can be remarkably simple and plain. Or they can be fashioned and adorned with flowers, fruit, feathered plumes, precious stones or embossed metals. Their variety is limited only by our imaginations.
outdoor, venetian mased lady, most red colours

Disguise - or is it?

The carnival mask, Venetian mask or that worn at the masquerades in 18th Century London are perhaps the most spectacular and liberal in design. I have placed an example of one on the cover of my new novel. It is to represent the different forms that love can take and the ways in which these are often discovered in the most unexpected of places. It is easy to consider these kinds of mask, especially in a culture of perceived decadence and debauchery (18th century Georgian England for example), as merely a convenient disguise, allowing all manner of naughty goings on to take place in a social setting without the wearer having to reveal his or her identity. But the significance of the mask goes far deeper than that. It can be summed up in a simple question. Does the mask disguise or reveal the true person beneath?
book cover shows couple in Georgian-era fashions with fireworks and mask in sky

A matter of choice

The obvious answer is that it does conceal. Of course it does. But for the person attending a sumptuous 18th Century masquerade, there was always the liberty of choosing which mask to wear. You could choose what the design might be; what it was meant to depict or suggest to those who saw it. And so the mask became an instrument of self-expression. It was an extension of the unconscious, the inner dreams, desires and longings of the individual. But the poor old face might well belie such aspirations, or simply fail to demonstrate them adequately.

When masked, the individual relinquished his or her identity in the social sphere, be it prince or pauper, master or servant. Stripped of all the labels given by society, all the titles established through reputation or station in life, the person beneath the mask was allowed to be anybody, even to switch genders if required, and could choose to allow much or only a little of their inner wishes to be on display.
woman in elaborate carnival mask, blue
In the setting of the masquerade, therefore, words and deeds were cloaked in layers of mystery, suggestion and double entendres. Masks became the perfect vehicle for the inner self to take wing. A picture of celebration or a walk on the wild side; a call to romantic passion or an exploration of deepest desire. Liberated from ones self by the mask, anything might happen - and often did.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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