What do Day of the Dead face painting designs mean?
A mixture of Aztec and European symbolism explain the meaning of Dia de los Muertos face painting designs. The Day of the Dead tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of indigenous Mexican people.
The most common design for Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead), is to paint the face to resemble a skull. For people not familiar with Latin American culture and the celebration of the day of the dead, this might seem strange and even scary. However, the skull has a uniquely positive meaning in Dia de los Muertos, very different from the skeletons and ghosts of Halloween.
Symbols in Day of the Dead face-painting
Skulls – known as calaveras orcalacas in Mexico – are an essential part of the symbolism of Dia de los Muertos in mexico. They are used not only as the basis for painting faces, but also are the shape of candy such as sugar skulls and for many skeleton-inspired decorations.
The day of the dead in Mexico is a fascinating mixture of Spanish Catholic and native Aztec traditions and beliefs. Skulls and skeletons were an important part of All Saints Day festivals in medieval Europe, especially since the Black Death ravaged the population of Europe in the 1300s. Across Europe artists, playwrights and poets mused on the theme of 'memento mori' (remember death) and the 'dance of the dead'. Many artworks and books from the time depict dancing skeletons, or portraits with a skull to 'remember death'.
At the same time, in Mexico, the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion – death was a positive step forward into a higher level of conscience. For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth.
People in Mexico wear traditional skull masks, and the tradition of painting faces to look like a skull has grown up as a variation to this. The wearing of masks has been a powerful symbol throughout traditional cultures, of the ability of humans to get in touch with their darker, chaotic side. Face-painting as skulls is a chance to overcome fear of death, act recklessly and get up to the mischief that is forbidden at other times of the year!
Flowers are also symbolically important part of day of the dead. Many face-painting designs of skulls incorporate flowers, and this symbol has a meaning of its own. The flower most associated with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico is the marigold, or Cempazúchitl which is known as the flower of the dead. In Aztec belief the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, their god of the dead. According to Mexican belief, the souls of departed family and friends return to earth on the day of the dead, and it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps to guide them back.
Flowers are often incorporated into Dia de los Muertos face-painting skull designs (and tattoos for that matter). This mixing of the skull, associated with death with flowers, a symbol in western culture associated with life and love, may seem strange to some. However, the meaning of el Dia de los Muertos face-painting is not only to remember the dead, but also to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life!