“Face masks” in art before covid-19. Part 1

The Lovers II, 1928, by René Magritte.

“Face masks” in art before covid-19

By pharmacist, Dr. in Chemistry Alisa Palatronis | September 29, 2021 | 16:16 min read

Art may be interpreted as a mirror of past, present and future. What always can rise a surprise is the fact how unpredictably accurate may an author appear with his visions. Where do those fantasies come from, how are they born and is there prophetic power in it? Or maybe the “art-inspired” world is just moving in that clearly shown direction as a programmed mind?

It should be borne in mind that the term “face mask” before the pandemic was associated almost exclusively with doctors (or other professions requiring safety) during their work. And yet “something” has appeared and “something” was constantly done with a human’s face or head in the works of many artists thorough centuries and millenniums.

Something that erased the personality or, on the contrary, very accurately identified it; something that distracted the viewer’s attention from the face in order to see more, or, conversely, nailed him to this “converted” face. Something that hides or protects the character from threats. In some works, a certain “trend tracing” by the masses is clearly demonstrated when author keeps our attention on the storyline but away from the face (the face – a human’s identity – which may indicate an individual emotions, sufferings, wishes and choice).

So-called “face mask” topic has already appeared en passant previously, here are a few articles: How the lions were fed by the artists and Taco Hemingway musician.

How the lions were fed by the artists

Taco Hemingway. Musician, insightful seer, or?…

In this article we will talk about so-called “face masks” in art which were created and were known to the world before covid-19, the pandemic of XXI century. To answer the question “What is its meaning?” the author of this article relies on the already existing opinions of art experts, giving a certain references where needed.

We start the list with the Hindu god Ganesha, as according to the discovery, published in the prestigious “Nature” journal, Indus Valley Civilization is at least 8,000 years old, and not 5,500 years old, taking root well before the Egyptian (7000BC to 3000BC) and Mesopotamian (6500BC to 3100 BC) civilizations (reference 1).

Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and wealth

Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and wealth.

Illustration: Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and wealth.

Ganesha is potbellied and generally depicted as holding in his hand a few round Indian sweets, of which he is inordinately fond. His vehicle (vahana) is the large Indian bandicoot rat, which symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to overcome anything to get what he wants. Like a rat and like an elephant, Ganesha is a remover of obstacles.

The wide mouth represents the natural human desire to enjoy life in the world. The large ears signify that a perfect person is the one who possesses a great capacity to listen to others and assimilate ideas.

The Lord Ganesha is also called Ganesh, Sumukha, Ekadanta, Kapila, Gajakarna, Lambodara, Vikath, Vidhnanashaka, Vinayaka, Dhumraketu, Ganadhayaksha, Bhalchandra and Gajanana or Ganapati. It is an elephant-headed Hindu god of beginnings, who is traditionally worshipped before any major enterprise and is the patron of intellectuals, bankers, scribes, and authors. His name means “Lord of the People” (gana means the common people) (references 2 and 3).

Anubis, the Egyptian god of death

Anubis - Egyptian god of death

Illustration: Anubis has always been represented in the same way, the human body, and jackal head.

The reason why the deity possesses the head of this animal is due to the intrinsic relationship that exists between the jackal and death.

According to Egyptian mythology, the main mission of the Egyptian god Anubis was to bring the spirit of the dead to the other world or the Duat (Duat is the realm of the dead in ancient Egyptian mythology). Anubis gives the power as master of the dead to Osiris when he resurrects as the god of reincarnation and crosses the Duat. He becomes a secondary god and embalmer in charge of the purification of the bodies (also known as the god of mummification) (reference 4).

Son of man in Bible

Son of the man in bible

Illustration: The Son of man with a sword among the seven lampstands, in John’s vision.

From the Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th century.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

In Daniel 7:13–14 the “Son of man” seems to symbolize the angels (perhaps the archangel Michael) and/or the righteous and persecuted Jews who will be vindicated and given authority by God rather than function as one individual, heavenly figure who represents the people (reference 5).

In the Hebrew Bible the expression “Son of man” is used in three main ways: 1) as a form of address (in the Book of Ezekiel, Old Testament); 2) to contrast the lowly status of humanity against the permanence and exalted dignity of God and the angels (Numbers 23:19, Psalm 8:4); and 3) as a future eschatological figure whose coming will signal the end of history and the time of God’s judgement (Daniel 7:13-14) (references 6).

Note: Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as “the end of the world” or “end times”.

“…and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” (Revelation 1:16)

As described by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, the Son of Man has immense power in this depiction. Like in Daniel he comes “with the clouds of heaven”. His gaze alone makes things tremble. Whether it is a double-edged sword in the mouth of the Son of Man, or his voice melts all things, or he strikes the earth with the rod of his mouth the effect it of this description is very intentional. The overall idea here is that this heavenly being is full of power. The sword comes out of his mouth. However, swords are always held by the hands of the worriers. To be precise, the sword is always held in the strongest hand (usually the right hand), signifying full control over the weapon.

The point in this text is not that the hands of the Son of Man are already full, but that the powerful sword under consideration here is God’s Words. The writer of the so-called Epistle to the Hebrews, who likely wrote before the Revelation was composed, put it this way:

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb.4:12) (reference 7).

As explained on the Nairaland Forum and Bibleref.com, John saw a sharp two-edged sword proceed from Jesus’ mouth (Revelation 1:16). The two-edged sword refers to the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12), as Jesus was anti-violence, while the Romans used a two-edged sword to kill their enemies by stabbing. Jesus’ Word condemns the wicked and assigns them to the second death (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:14). Now, Jesus doesn’t have a “physical” sword protruding out of His mouth. The Word He speaks is the sword of the Spirit. After you’ve deliberately and consciously meditatedunder on the Scriptures, the Word that comes out of your mouth becomes the Word of the Spirit with which you cut the enemy in pieces. When you face crises in life, practise meditation. When you receive that “rhema-word” from the Spirit, speak it over or against the situation (reference 8 and 9).

Distorted faces by Picasso

Portrait of woman in d`hermine pass (Olga), 1923, by Pablo Picasso.

Illustration: Portrait of woman in d`hermine pass (Olga), original title: Portrait de femme au col d`hermine (Olga), 1923, by Pablo Ruiz Picasso.

Image source: wikiart.org

Pablo Picasso (1881, Málaga, Spain – 1973, Mougins, France) was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and theatre designer.

There are some who speculate that Picasso’s style of painting distorted faces is rooted in his history of practicing caricature. “There are so many realities that in trying to encompass them all one ends in darkness,” Picasso once said. “That is why, when one paints a portrait, one must stop somewhere, in sort of a caricature.”

As it is said on Voluptart.org, some say Picasso’s distorted faces are merely his way of showing the audience how he views a person, or his attempt at portraying the person from every possible angle at once. It could be that Picasso was trying to capture the sitter’s emotions, thoughts and struggles in one single painting (reference 10).

However, some persons, for example Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline with whom he spent 11 years in marriage until his death, appears to be beautiful in his painting. True emotions and mutual love play as an inspiration for this beautiful painting of Jacqueline by Picasso. Perhaps Picasso saw his wife as a whole and completely beautiful woman from any angle of her physical, emotional or psychological perspectives.

The Lovers by Rene Magritte

The Lovers II, 1928, by René Magritte.

Illustration: The Lovers II, 1928, by René Magritte.

Image source: renemagritte.org

Rene François Ghislain Magritte (1898, Lessines, Belgium – 1967, Schaerbeek, Belgium) was a Belgian surrealist artist.

Enshrouded faces were a common motif in Magritte’s art. The artist was 14 when his mother committed suicide by drowning. He witnessed her body being fished from the water, her wet nightgown wrapped around her face. Some have speculated that this trauma inspired a series of works in which Magritte obscured his subjects’ faces.

Magritte disagreed with such interpretations, denying any relation between his paintings and his mother’s death. “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing,” he wrote, “they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

Some have interpreted “The Lovers II” as a depiction of the inability to fully unveil the true nature of even our most intimate companions (reference 11).

Spider-Man by Amazing Adult Fantasy

Illustration: Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962).

Illustration: Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962).

Cover art by Jack Kirby (penciler) and Steve Ditko (inker).

Image source: Wikipedia

Amazing Adult Fantasy, retitled Amazing Fantasy in its final issue, is an American comic book anthology series published by Marvel Comics in 1961 – 1962. The final 1960s issue, Amazing Fantasy #15, introduced the popular superhero character Spider-Man (reference 12).

Son of the Man by Rene Magritte

Son of the Man, 1964, by René Magritte

Illustration: Son of the Man, 1964, by René Magritte.

Image source: wikioo.org

René François Ghislain Magritte (1898, Lessines, Belgium – 1967, Schaerbeek, Belgium) was a Belgian surrealist artist.

About the painting, Magritte said: “At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

The painting by Magritte is a prominent motif in the 1999 art heist remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. In this film, a copy of the painting “The Son of Man” is prominently displayed as to show “the stereotypical faceless businessman”.

There are numerus paintings by Rene Magritte where he depicts symbolic content and brings the message of the whole painting “somewhere around the face”. These paintings are as follows: The Enchanted Pose, Man in a Bowler Hat, Not to be reproduced, The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James), The Pilgrim, Collective Invention, Natural Encounters, The Central Story, Rape, The Art of Living, The Glass House, Lovers I (Les Amants I), The Wonders of Nature, and The Therapist (references 13–17).

La Grande Guerre by Rene Magritte

The Great War on Façades (La Grande Guerre Façades), 1964, by René Magritte.

Illustration: The Great War on Façades (La Grande Guerre Façades), 1964, by René Magritte.

Image source: wikioo.org

The Great War on Façades (La Grande Guerre Façades) is another Magritte painting featuring similar imagery as in The Son of Man.

Based on the description on Renemagritte.org, both feature a person standing in front of a wall overlooking the sea. The Great War on Façades, however, features a woman holding an umbrella, her face covered by a flower.

Magritte painted The Great War in 1964 while remembering his experiences with the WWI and WWII, and confronting, like all of us, the nice perspective of WWIII.

Her face, so we believe, should be as beautiful as her garment. What covers the face of war? – The dirt thrown at it by the truth about war stating that this dirt is the coffin flowers (reference 18).

To be continued…


  1. Indus-era-8000-years-old-not-5500-ended-because-of-weaker-monsoon
  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ganesha
  3. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/religion/rituals-puja/symbolic-description-of-lord-ganesha/articleshow/68207007.cms
  4. https://www.cleopatraegypttours.com/travel-guide/anubis-the-egyptian-god/
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_man_(Christianity)
  6. By Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II. – Bamberger Apokalypse Folio 3 recto, Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, MS A. II. 42, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=358145
  7. Jewish Studies / Two edged sword
  8. https://www.nairaland.com/1189689/jesus-no-sword-mouth-understanding
  9. https://www.bibleref.com/Revelation/1/Revelation-1-16.html
  10. Why did Picasso’s paintings have distorted faces
  11. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/rene-magritte-the-lovers-le-perreux-sur-marne-1928/
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Fantasy
  13. Rene Magritte paintings
  14. https://www.renemagritte.org/the-son-of-man.jsp
  15. Rene Magritte explained
  16. http://www.rene-magritte.com/paintings/
  17. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rene-Magritte
  18. https://www.renemagritte.org/the-great-war.jsp


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