Mountain spirits and carnival masks at Museum Rietberg Zurich


Geographically speaking, it is in the south-southeast of the Lake Zurich. This side is called Silver Coast, contrast to the Gold Coast of the other side of the lake. Because the sun shines by grazing the mountains, shadows are darker. The light is somewhat dreary, and the streets of buildings with beautiful neo-classical carvings are full of stories. Although there must be a lot of stories to tell, the streets seem to trap us into puzzles to be solved whenever we walk on the streets.

Getting off the tram and walk to the left. After passing the iron-gate on the slope, and on the top of a small hill, you will see an elegant villa build by Otto Wesendonck, a successful silk trader in the mid 19th century. This mansion is the old wing of Museum Rietberg. The building right in front of that is the new wing and most of you who are involved in architecture may be familiar with this building since it has held world-class competitions.

The collections of Museum Rietberg include Oriental, African, American and Oceanic arts, and this is very unusual for an European museum.
However, that is the part where you find the Swiss folklore art, and I realized for the first time at this exhibition of Performing Masks Swiss Carnival, which displays carnival masks, that the museum has an enormous permanent collection of Swiss masks.


Carnival mask, Tschäggäta Switzerland, Lötschen valley, early 20th century

It was the time when I was wondering where the mountain people are now. One day by chance on TV, I saw the people who were walking through the field of snow, by wearing huge masks that were hard to tell whether they were those of animals or humans.

I was told it was a traditional local festival called Tschäggätä in the Valais region, to get rid of evil spirits. It is held on the Thursday before the Ash Wednesday in February. It is very interesting because the way it looks and the custom to wake up children by visiting houses are similar to the Japanese Namahage.
Although there are various stories as to the masks, it is said that the masks used for this occasion is the oldest ones in Switzerland. Because their facial expressions are too fantastic, super-human and mystic, it had already attracted the attention of ethnologists by the end of the 19th century.


Museum Rietberg Zurich Carnival mask Carver: Albert Anton Willi (1872-1954) Switzerland, Domat/Ems

Furthermore, the masks in the Salganz region where Rumantsch, one of the Swiss 4 languages, is the official language, have the characteristics of rich expressions which extend vertically and horizontally. When I was going through the exhibition catalogue, I found one photo where Mr. Albert Anton Willi, who was a sculptor in this region, was putting an expression of a mask on his face in front of a mirror.


Many of the masks displayed this time are made by curving woods and coloring, by using animal skins, sheep -skin and textiles and so on. While there are 3 major regions where the masks are handed down through generations, it is overwhelming to see the enormous variety of expressions. I wonder this tells us that individualism were accelerated more in the days when the nature was severe and the people had to live in the environment where communications were cut off due to the rugged mountains.

In this country surrounded by the mountains, religions before Christianity was brought in, or faith before religion, have been affected in various ways by the surrounding countries. In some regions, they have integrated with Catholicism and re-grown as individual cultures.

Awe and respect for huge mountains. I hear that the roots of many mythologies and legends can often be found in the regional festivals.

From the Alpine mountains or deep in the forests, in the room deep in the museum, the sprits are conspicuous.

Leave your comment

Not published.

If you have one.