Actress Beauty Gonzalez was spotted this week at the GMA Gala wearing a corseted nude gown, which she accessorized with what she described in an Instagram post as “centuries-old gold neck piece and earrings made of excavated eye and mouth covers from distant places like Butuan and Surigao.” These, she said, are reworked in “a modern setting” by jeweler Erica Concepcion Reyes of Riqueza Jewellery.
While most netizens were wowed by Gonzalez’s look, some criticized her jewelry of choice, which she said was “an appreciation for Philippine ancestral gold.” A news story even mentioned that said jewelry “had already made a previous appearance at the National Museum and Ayala Museum,” though it did not specify when and in what manner.
‘Exhibiting impunity and crassness?’
Cultural critic and independent curator Marian Pastor Roces, on the other hand, is not so keen on Gonzalez’s gold accessories. In a Facebook post, Roces called the pieces, “grave robber stuff.” While she acknowledged that these might be legally excavated, she said this would then mean that it belongs to the National Museum of the Philippines or the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
“If the pieces were excavated decades ago and therefore privately owned by sensible collectors before current restrictions, the question still remains: why death masks as necklace?“
Noting that Gonzalez, which she dubbed “fashion victim,“ is wearing around 10 mouth and eye covers fashioned from excavations of many individuals, she said, “That is an astounding number of desecrated graves!
“How on earth is this an homage?“ she asked, referring to a headline praising Gonzalez’s look. “Exhibiting impunity and crassness? Wearing archaeological gold death pieces, flaunting excess, is odious. Ignorance (blended with arrogance) can‘t possibly be fashionable.”
Burying the dead with gold ornaments
Gold eye and mouth coverings for the dead are part of sacred ancient burial practices in the country. According to the National Museum of the Philippines’ website, “The early Bisayans believed that the gold coverings in the eyes, nose, and mouth protect the dead from evil spirits who want to occupy the dead body.”
The brightness of the gold is also believed to drive away evil spirits. The choice of precious metal can be traced back to its association with social status. It was customary for persons with high ranks to be buried with as much gold as possible such as gold face covers, small gold in between the burial shroud, gold accessories, jewelry, and beads, and other prized possessions like ceramics.
The Oton Death Mask, a late 14th-century to 15th-century set of gold eye and nose covers excavated in 1973 in Iloilo, was the first of its kind to be recovered and declared a National Cultural Treasure. It is now in the collection of the National Museum.
The CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition noted that so far, the largest quantities and the widest range of gold ornaments have emerged from Butuan and Surigao in northeastern Mindanao and in Samar in eastern Visayas.
Purissima Benitez-Johannot, a museum archivist who’s worked with the Ayala Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote, “Ancient Filipinos made two types of face covers for their high-ranking dead: (a) gold masks with the eyes, nostrils, and mouth cut out; and (b) gold sheets to cover orifices, sometimes accompanied by a diadem (ornamental headband).”