The eerie masks that preserve history and breathe life into the dead
Masks are one of the few things on the earth that connect all of humanity throughout time. We have created masks since our very beginnings in order to disguise, protect, or entertain. They have been used by cultures around the globe for performances and rituals, ceremonies and festivals. Most notably, masks hide our identities, and allow us to become something we’re not.
Death masks are a continuation of an ancient tradition. However, far from being masks which conceal, they are masks created to reveal.
Faces of Death
Death masks are clay, wax or plaster casts of someone’s face, taken to preserve their image shortly after death. In antiquity, this was done often following a death to identify rank or standing, to use in funerary rites, and to perfectly preserve the image of honoured or eminent people.
Two men making a death mask, New York, circa 1908. ( Public Domain )
Death masks from ancient Egypt are renowned - the distinctive golden mask of King Tutankhamun is recognizable around the globe and is symbolic of an epoch and culture. Mummification preserved the deceased’s facial features in a satisfactory way for the ancient Egyptians, so early masks were stylized by artists, and not made from a cast of the face. Such representations of the dead not only honoured the deceased, but created connections to the afterlife, and its associated power. From Biography, Andrew Cannizzaro writes, “The Egyptians believed that the death mask, which would be buried with the individual, would allow the person's spirit to find his/her body in the afterlife. In some African tribes it was believed that death masks could imbue the wearer with the power of the deceased.” Ancient Romans used wax to capture the faces of deceased family members, and then later, carved stone replicas were sculpted from the castings.
The iconic death mask and coffin of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun (Jerzy Strzelecki, Creative Commons )
It was during the late Middle Ages that Europeans began casting death masks in plaster or wax. A negative cast of the face was made which acted as a mould for the positive image. Several copies of a death mask could then be created. These masks were not interred with the dead, but preserved and used to create bronze or stone busts. The creation of death masks moved from being exclusively for royalty into the realm of notable or respected persons, such as German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and French philosopher Voltaire. These masks provided a final viewing of the deceased, and commemorated their legacies.
Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321 Death Mask ( Hutton Collection )
Life masks are casts taken of a living person, and as with a death mask, a cast is made from a plaster coating that forms the mould from which busts and reproductions can be made. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had two life masks made – one in 1860 and another shortly before his death in April 1865. Casts of his hands were also made. Abraham Lincoln Online writes of the artist who took the first cast, Leonard Volk, on how he created a priceless legacy, “Virtually every sculptor and artist uses the Volk mask for Lincoln ... it is the most reliable document of the Lincoln face, and far more valuable than photographs, for it is the actual form."
Sometimes casts of hands were done in place of masks in cases where the face had been damaged by death.
A life cast of Abraham Lincoln done by sculptor Leonard Volk in 1860 (Dannyboy7783, Creative Commons )
Art and Science
Scientists in the late eighteenth century and onwards used death masks to study facial changes across history, and anthropologists used them to examine the features of famous people, criminals, and various races.
The creation of death masks was an art and a science that largely died out after the invention of photography. However, they were still used as investigation tools into the mid 1900’s, especially in the cases of unidentified bodies. The casts were done so relatives might recognize their missing family members long after a found body had decomposed. A death mask of the mysterious ‘Somerton Man’ was created as late as 1948.
High profile and historic faces still fascinate the public, as revealed during a recent auction at Bonhams. In 2013 the famous British auction house sold the death mask of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for £170,000 ($260,000). Even death masks of the historic common man resonate with us in modern times. One of the more well-known death masks is dubbed “ L'Inconnue de la Seine ”. French for ‘ the unknown woman of the Siene ’, the alleged death mask was a plaster casting of the face of a beautiful, young, unidentified woman who had drowned in the Seine River in Paris in the 1880’s. A mortician thought the girl’s beauty and expression so mesmerising that he had the cast made to preserve her forever. Her enigmatic smile is often compared to that of the famous Mona Lisa. So fashionable was the death mask that it became a popular cultural icon, reproduced in art, fashion, and literature. Her face is the basis of modern CPR rescue dolls – Resusci Annie .