May 1, 2019 getLISBON 0Comment

The International Festival of the Iberian Mask in Lisbon takes place every May since 2006 and is one of the traditions that precedes the Lisbon Festivities that take place in the following month.

This festival was held in the streets of the Pombaline Downtown with masked groups from Portugal and Spain. Given the dimension of the event and the gradual increase of the number of participants, it now takes place in the spacious Império Square, in Belém.

For four days, this grand event brings together various aspects of the popular culture around the ancestral rituals connected to the use of masks; an explosion of colour, popular art, music, gastronomy and handicraft of great historical and cultural wealth.

The high point are definitely the parades where Iberian masked groups, but also guests of other origins, interact with the audience, creating entertainment moments.

It is also worth mentioning a parallel programme that aims to involve the public: photography competitions and exhibitions, music shows, workshops, debates…This year be sure to hop over to Belém, in the west zone of Lisbon, to enjoy the festivity and capture that special photo that might be the winner of next year’s contest.

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But before going to see the masked people in the International Festival of the Iberian Mask in Lisbon, let’s find out about the use of masks.

Masks, A Liberator Cultural Heritage

Merdeiros de Vigo from Vigo, Spain
Merdeiros de Vigo from Vigo, Spain

Masks have the purpose of pretending or imitating an image different from that of the individual who uses it, allowing him or her greater freedom of satire or caricature; they’re related to the symbolic, enigmatic, secret and initiatory.

It is also a creative object of artisanal handicraft that ritualises states of mind. Expressions of joy, crying or terror are captured with colours that reinforce the sensations of jubilation, grief or madness.

Used since ancestral times, the masks have been reinvented and are a tradition that deserves to be preserved as a cultural heritage that reflects all human feelings.

The masked people assume antagonistic sides: sacred and profane; Christian and pagan, order and chaos…

The traditions of these people linked to Carnival or other festive periods include a ritual that allows the connection and communication with the supernatural, but also the reconciliation of elements of a community. This practice solves conflicts and strengthens ties. In fact, it turns out to be sort of a moraliser of a community.

The Masks in History

Bonitas de Sande from Galicia, Spain
Bonitas de Sande from Galicia, Spain

In Greek comedy, the masks were used as a prop. They obviously had the purpose of transforming someone’s identity but also of amplifying their voice in big open-air auditoriums where the performances took place.

The masks also protected the immoral behaviours in feasts of praise to Saturn in ancient Rome, which marked the end of winter and the beginning of the cycle of renewal of nature.

In the medieval times the masks continued being used in the parties and in the theatre plays where the traditional Cantigas de Escárnio e Maldizer (one of the genres of Galician-Portuguese lyric) were recited and aimed at satirising, causing laughter and lastly, at moralising.

During the Ancien Régime, despite being forbidden among the lower classes in some periods, the masks were used in parties of the nobility, where people took advantage of the anonymity to break the social rules.

The symbolic use of the masks connected to rituals of very religious and simultaneously superstitious rural communities was strongly censored over time, since its behaviour compromised the instituted powers, whether they were political or religious.

In Portugal, despite the vicissitudes of the 20th century marked by their prohibition on behalf of the Church and of the Estado Novo (nationalist corporatist authoritarian regime installed in Portugal from 1933 to 1974) and by the dispersion of these communities due to rural flight and emigration, the mask festivities resisted and were even empowered after the revolution of the 25th of April.

Máscaras de Vila Boa from Vinhais, Bragança, Portugal
Máscaras de Vila Boa from Vinhais, Bragança, Portugal

A masked man is imbued with a power that provokes, satirises, harasses, breaks the rules, inverts values. The mask confers on him sacredness but also impunity. The more repressed the community, the more violent the masked ones become.

Therefore, with time, there has been a gradual easing of the masked ones. Nowadays, the groups that come together seek above all to have fun and not let the tradition die. The show surpasses the ritual.

Suggestions for an Extended Programme

Since you’re going to Belém zone to the International Festival of the Iberian Mask, we suggest you visit the Jerónimos Monastery and see the tomb of the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões. The getLISBON’s article about this important personality proposes an interesting way of getting to know him. Check it out!

If you have children you can take them to the Recreational Park of Moinhos de Santana in order to expend a bit of their energy and to admire the views over the west zone of Lisbon next to the two mills of the 18th century.

Finally, you mustn’t miss out on the famous pastéis de Belém (Belém egg custard tarts)! ☺

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