Mascaron (architecture)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Art Deco mascaron above the door of Rue Mademoiselle no. 40, Paris, c.1930

In architecture and the decorative arts, a mascaron ornament is a face, usually human, sometimes frightening or chimeric, whose alleged function was originally to frighten away evil spirits so that they would not enter the building.[1] The concept was subsequently adapted to become a purely decorative element. The most recent architectural styles to extensively employ mascarons were Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau.[2][3] In addition to architecture, mascarons are used in the other applied arts.


Green Man[edit]

In the 11th century, European stonemasons began adding carved foliate mascarons, known as Green Men, to the decoration of churches, an image that early 20th-century scholars suggested had secretly represented a surviving pre-Christian god. Today, few scholars believe this idea. The Green Man is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring.[4]


A bucranium (plural bucrania) is basically an ox skull mascaron, usually used in Antiquity, for decorating funerary and commemorative monuments. The motif originated in a ceremony wherein an ox's head was hung from the wooden beams supporting the temple roof; this scene was later represented, in stone, on the frieze, or stone lintels, above the columns in Doric temples. The ox skull is usually decorated with ribbons and festoons. The motif is reused during the Renaissance, losing its Ancient symbolism, being reduced only to a simple ornament. Later it is no longer used until the 18th century, when the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum lead to Neoclassicism, a movement that tried to revive the aesthetic of Classical Greece and Rome.[8][9]


In Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mascarons were used mainly for decoration, but sometimes for threatening evil spirits. Since the Baroque, they were only used as an ornament, usually presented at the tops of various things (window or door keystones, handles, cartouches etc.).


Ancient Near East and Egypt[edit]

Mascarons were rarely present in the Ancient Near East. The ones used usually take the form of bull or lion heads. Good examples can be seen at the Lyres of Ur.

In ancient Egypt, Hathor was the supreme goddess of love, identified by the Greeks with Aphrodite. Her face was used for decorating multiple objects. She was most often depicted as a woman wearing a headdress with horns and a sun disk. Mirrors and sistra (a musical instrument used in ancient Egypt) feature a Hathor mascaron on the handle. Some mirrors feature her because in Egypt they were often made of gold or bronze and therefore symbolized the sun disk, and because they were connected with beauty and femininity.[12] Hathor was sometimes represented as a human face with bovine ears. This mask-like face was placed on the capitals of columns beginning in the late Old Kingdom. Columns of this style were used in many temples to Hathor and other goddesses.[13] Mascarons were also present on Egyptian canopic jars. These were vessels used for storing the internal organs removed during mummification. The earliest jars were simple, but during the First Intermediate Period, the lids of the jars began to be modelled in the form of human heads. From the 18th Dynasty, they were designed each with a different mascaron, so they resemble the four sons of Horus (baboon, jackal, falcon and human).[14]

Greco-Roman world[edit]

In ancient Greece, Rome, and in the architecture of the Etruscan civilization, lion mascarons were often used to decorate temple cornices. The tile-ends at the edges of a roof were concealed by ornamental blocks known as antefixae, which were sometimes decorated with human mascarons.[16]

Sometimes, mascarons were used for threatening. Medusa decorates the architrave of the temple of Didyma, and is intended to frighten the enemies of Apollo, stylized so as to be seen from a distance and allow play of light and shadow.

Besides faces, mascarons sometimes took the form of theatre masks. Theatrical manifestations are initially a sacred ceremony linked to the cult of Dionysus. These sacred ceremonies are reflected in decorative friezes with the faces of Dionysos (a.k.a. Bacchus), maenads (bacchantes among the Romans), satyrs, and Silenus, all with festoons between them, decorating religious buildings.

Later, the Roman Empire took all these decorative elements, as they incorporated many cultural elements of Ancient Greece.

Ancient China[edit]

In the Neolithic period in China, small jade objects were created. The hardness of jade gives it durability, which helped at its conservation over millennia. Some of these objects, like the cong, a straight tube with a circular interior and square outer section, were decorated with highly stylized mascarons.

During the Chinese Bronze Age (the Shang and Zhou dynasties), court intercessions and communication with the spirit world were conducted by a shaman (possibly the king himself). In the Shang dynasty (c.1600–1050 BC), the supreme deity was Shangdi, but aristocratic families preferred to contact the spirits of their ancestors. They prepared elaborate banquets of food and drink for them, heated and served in bronze ritual vessels. These bronze vessels had many shapes, depending on their purpose: for wine, water, cereals or meat, and some of them were marked with readable characters, which shows the development of writing. One of the most commonly used motifs on these vessels was the taotie, a stylized mascaron divided symmetrically, with nostrils, eyes, eyebrows, jaws, cheeks and horns, surrounded by incised patterns.[22]

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica[edit]

Middle Ages[edit]

The use of mascarons continued during the Middle Ages. They are found in Gothic architecture, especially in the 14th century [24] Mascarons were also used in medieval Russian architecture.


Renaissance artists reread the myths of Greco-Roman Antiquity which gave them new subjects and ornaments. Archaeological discoveries like the excavations of the Baths of Caracalla by the farneses, or Laocoön and His Sons, inspired sculptors and architects of the 15th and 16th centuries. The Villa of Emperor Hadrian and the Pantheon in Rome offer construction models radically different from the Gothic style. The forms of Antiquity are coming back into fashion: columns, pilasters, pediments, domes, and statues decorate the buildings of this era.

In the Quattrocento, the last Gothic influences tended to disappear; It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that the decorative faces of Antiquity took their place again in the form of mascarons.

The Renaissance fashion spread into the rest of Western Europe. It arrived in France with the Italian Wars. Rosso Fiorentino (born in Florence in 1494, died in Fontainebleau in 1540) and Le Primatice (born in Bologna in 1504 and died in Paris in 1570) came to work at Fontainebleau for the King of France Francis I. Rosso, who worked in Italy until the sack of the city of Rome in 1527, mastered the stucco technique. Le Primaticce had collaborated in Mantua with Giulio Romano.

Baroque and Rococo[edit]

Succeeding Mannerism, and developing as a result of religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants across Europe, Baroque art emerged in the late 16th century. The name may derive from 'barocco', the Portuguese word for misshaped pearl, and it describes art that combined emotion, dynamism and drama with powerful color, realism and strong tonal contrasts. Between 1545 and 1563 at the Council of Trent, it was decided that religious art must encourage piety, realism and accuracy, and, by attracting viewers' attention and empathy, glorify the Catholic Church and strengthen the image of Catholicism. Since Baroque architecture and design extended the classical vocabulary of the Renaissance, mascarons continued to be used. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they were most often decorated keystones above arched doors or windows, inside a cartouche. They were present especially at the first floor of many palaces, which often have continuous arched windows and doors. Another frequent use was at the top of cartouches.

The Baroque was followed by the Rococo, which kept some of characteristics of the Baroque, like monumentality and curving shapes, but came with new features, like pastel colours, foliate ornamentation, asymmetry and an emphasis on secular architecture. The Rococo is also mainly associated with palace and domestic architecture, compared to how the Baroque is often seen as a mainly ecclesiastical style. One of the most noticeable characteristic is its delicacy. Besides the use of curving lines and flowers, the fanciness of the style is also visible in the many artworks that show scenes of aristocratic life. People in Rococo painting by artists like Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, François Boucher, or Jean Siméon Chardin have cupid-like faces. Of course, this feature is present in sculpture too, including mascarons. Like in the case of Baroque architecture, most Rococo mascarons are placed on keystones of arched doors or windows. Good examples of them are present at most hôtel particuliers from the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774).

The interactions between Western European nations and the rest of the world brought on by colonialist exploration have had an impact on aesthetics. Rarely, for making a building of an object more over the top, mascarons of Native Americans were added, showing them with stereotypical feather headdresses. Similarly, mascarons of Sub-Saharian Africans were added on buildings from the Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux, France. They are the result of the fact that colonization and slavery contributed to the wealth of the city of Bordeaux, both through the slave trade, the trade in goods produced by slaves and the possession of plantations. Out of all these forms of exoticism, the most popular one was Chinoiserie, a style in fine art, architecture and design, popular during the 18th century, that was heavily inspired by Chinese art, but also by Rococo at the same time. Because traveling to China or other Far Eastern countries was something hard at that time and so remained mysterious to most Westerners, European imagination were fuelled by perceptions of Asia as a place of wealth and luxury, and consequently patrons from emperors to merchants vied with each other in adorning their living quarters with Asian goods and decorating them in Asian styles. Where Asian objects were hard to obtain, European craftsmen and painters stepped up to fill the demand, creating a blend of Rococo forms and Asian figures, motifs and techniques. As a result, some European aristocrats built garden pavilion inspired by what architects imaged Chinese architecture as looking like. Of course, many of their elements are much closer to the Rococo than to Qing dynasty palaces. Some of these structures feature mascarons of people from the Far East, like in the case of the Chinese House from the Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, Germany, or the Chinese Pavilion from the gardens of the Drottningholm Palace in Sweden.[31]

Neoclassicism and historicism[edit]

Excavations during the 18th century at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had both been buried under volcanic ash during the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, inspired a return to order and rationality.[37] In the mid-18th century, antiquity was upheld as a standard for architecture as never before. Neoclassical architecture focused on Ancient Greek and Roman details, plain, white walls and grandeur of scale. Compared to the previous styles, Baroque and Rococo, Neoclassical exteriors tended to be more minimalist, featuring straight and angular lines, but being still ornamented.

Neoclassicism was the status quo from the mid to late 18th century, until the middle of the 19th. The transition from Rococo to Neoclassicism was not dramatic. The Louis XVI style in France shows clearly the strong interest of architects and designers for the volumes, proportions and motifs of ancient Greece and Rome, but their creations still have the aristocratic and cozy vibe of the Rococo. Similarly, some of the creations of Robert Adam, one of the most well known British architects who designed in the Neoclassical style, still have the delicacy of Rococo, like in the case of the Eating Room from the Osterley Park in London.

After the French Revolution, Neoclassical architecture and design advocated a return to austerity after the "excesses" of the Rococo and thus limited the use of mascarons. The Empire style of the First French Empire (1800-1815) didn't feature many mascarons, since they are rare in Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and design. The keystone often decorated in the past centuries was left empty at the beginning of the 19th century. The interest for Ancient Greece and Rome also led to an appetite for the Ancient Egypt. After the French campaign in Egypt and Syria, Egyptian art was brought to European collections, and the history, nature and life in Egypt were documented by scientists. Sometimes, Neoclassical buildings and designs mix Greco-Roman elements with Egyptian motifs.

In parallel with Neoclassicism, Romanticism was another movement that developed in the 18th century and that reached its peak in the 19th. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism, as well as glorification of the past and nature, preferring the medieval to the classical. A mix of literary, religious, and political factors prompted late-18th and 19th century British architects and designers to look back to the Middle Ages for inspiration.[38] In France, Romanticism was not the key factor that led to the revival of Gothic architecture and design. Vandalism of monuments and buildings associated with the Ancien Régime (Old Regime) happened during the French Revolution. Because of this an archaeologist, Alexandre Lenoir, was appointed curator of the Petits-Augustins depot, where sculptures, statues and tombs removed from churches, abbeys and convents had been transported. He organized the Museum of French Monuments (1795-1816), and was the first to bring back the taste for the art of the Middle Ages, which progressed slowly to flourish a quarter of a century later. Mascarons are not very common in the Gothic Revival, since in the Middle Ages they were mainly present on corbels.[39]

Besides the Middle Ages, thanks to Romanticism, interest appeared for other periods too, like the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo. Without a single overreaching authority in style, pluralism became widespread. The Gothic Revival coexisted with a revival of the Rococo and revivals of other historic styles, some being non-Western.

Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau[edit]

The revivalism of the 19th century led in time to Eclecticism (mix of elements of different styles). Because architects usually revived Classical styles, most Eclectic buildings and designs have a distinctive look. In France, they were usually mixes of elements taken from the Renaissance until Napoleon (including Neoclassicism and its forms). The most famous building of this type is the Opéra Garnier in Paris, which combines for example double columns taken from Baroque with rooflines of mascarons and festoons taken from Neoclassicism, on the main facade. Alone, these elements are reminiscent of a specific period, but they are put together in a coherent and harmonious way. Many of the mascarons from Eclectic architecture and designs of the 19th and very early 20th centuries are inspired by those found in Baroque and Rococo, and just like in the 17th and 18th centuries, they are often on a keystone and in a cartouche.

The Belle Époque was a period that begun around 1871–1880 and that ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It was characterized by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, colonial expansion, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovations. Eclecticism reached its peak in this period, with Beaux Arts architecture. The style takes its name from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where it developed and where many of the main exponents of the style studied. Buildings in this style often feature Ionic columns with their volues on the corner (like those found in French Baroque), a rusticated basement level, overall simplicity but with some really detailed parts, arched doors, and an arch above the entrance like the one of the Petit Palais in Paris. The style aimed for a Baroque opulence through lavishly decorated monumental structures that evoked Louis XIV's Versailles. Because of the ethereal vibe of the style, many Beaux Arts mascarons have a calm and confident expression, most of them being female. Male mascarons were also sometimes present in decoration, but usually as faces of Hermes, Poseidon or Hercules.

Besides Beaux Arts, another movement that was popular during the Belle Époque was Art Nouveau. Rejecting eclecticism, Art Nouveau was one of the first styles of Modernism. It had multiple versions in different countries. The Belgian and French form is characterized by organic shapes, ornaments taken from the plant world, sinuous lines, asymmetry (especially when it comes to objects design), the whiplash motif, the femme fatale, and other elements of nature. In Austria, Germany and the UK, it took a more stylized geometric form, as a form of protest towards revivalism and eclecticism. The geometric ornaments found in Gustav Klimt's paintings and in the furniture of Koloman Moser are representative of the Vienna Secession (Austrian Art Nouveau).[43] Art Nouveau mascarons consist often of faces of young women, showing the preference of many Art Nouveau artists for the femme fatale, a typology of the mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps. She is often shown as a creature of the night, fused with the natural world. Just like Beaux Arts ones, many Art Nouveau mascarons have calm and confident expressions. Some of the most impressive are found in jewelry. Art Nouveau mascarons were sometimes maximalist, the face having different accessories and/or foliage around it.

Interwar period[edit]

Art Deco is a style created as a collective effort of multiple French designers to make a new modern style around 1910. It was obscure before WW1, but became very popular during the interwar period, being heavily associated with the 1920s and the 1930s. The movement was a blend of multiple characteristics taken from Modernist currents from the 1900s and the 1910s, like the Vienna Secession, Cubism, Fauvism, Primitivism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Futurism, De Stijl, and Expressionism. Because of this, mascarons are more angular and stylized, mask-like, clearly influenced by Cubism, a fine art movement with highly stylized and geometrized human figures, like those found in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon painted by Pablo Picasso. Painters, sculptors, designers and architects also found inspiration in non-Western regions, like East Asia, Pre-Columbian Americas or Sub-Saharian African art.[49] Art Deco had four phases: early, mature, late, and Streamline Moderne. The buildings of the 1910s and early 1930s are compositionally and stylistically similar with the Beaux-Arts ones from the 1900s and 1910s, but highly stylized and with a refined geometry. Pilasters and other Classical elements are used during this decade, but geometrized, together with simple floral motifs and abstract ornaments. An example of early Art Deco is the Central Social Insurance Company Building (now the Asirom Building) on Bulevardul Carol I, Bucharest, by Ion Ionescu, 1930s. Most Art Deco mascarons are present on early Art Deco buildings and designs. Mature Art Deco, highly associated with the 1930s, was more modern and exuberant compared to the early form. Stepped setbacks are a key feature of this period. Late Art Deco, from the late 1930s and the 1940s, paves the way for the International Style, but without completely abandoning ornamentation. More complex ornaments like mascarons or foliage disappear completely during this period, being seen as out of fashion. Facades with 90° angle corners and decorated minimally only with simple cornices at each level are key features of this phase. However, this doesn't mean that these buildings are banal or dull. Materials of bright colours were used inside, especially marble and granite, and the exteriors usually had lightning rods. At the same time, Streamline Moderne was also popular in the 1930s and 40s, characterized by rounded corners and overall dynamism.

Although Modernism was mainstream under the form of Art Deco during the interwar period, revivals of historic or local styles continued. In Romania for example, Mediterranean Revival architecture was one of the main styles of the 1930s, together with Art Deco and Romanian Revival (the national style). Of course, some of these styles used mascarons for ornamentation.

At the end of the interwar period, with the rise in popularity of the International Style, characterized by the complete lack of any ornamentation, led to the complete abandonment of any ornaments, including mascarons.


Postmodernism, a movement that questioned Modernism (the status quo after WW2), promoted the inclusion of elements of historic styles in new designs. An early text questioning Modernism was by architect Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), in which he recommended a revival of the 'presence of the past' in architectural design. He tried to include in his own buildings qualities that he described as 'inclusion, inconsistency, compromise, accommodation, adaptation, superadjacency, equivalence, multiple focus, juxtaposition, or good and bad space.'[53] Venturi encouraged 'quotation', which means reusing elements of the past in new designs. Part manifesto, part architectural scrapbook accumulated over the previous decade, the book represented the vision for a new generation of architects and designers who had grown up with Modernism but who felt increasingly constrained by its perceived rigidities. Multiple Postmodern architects and designers put simplified reinterpretations of the elements found in Classical decoration on their creations. However, they were in most cases highly simplified, and more reinterpretations than true reuses of the elements intended. Because of their complexity, mascarons were very rarely used in Postmodern architecture and design.[54]

See also[edit]


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