Remembering the deceased: death masks captured final facial features

The use of death masks in funeral rituals is something that has been recorded in many ancient civilizations and cultures. From the time of the tombs of pharaohs and on into Archaic Greece and the Inca civilization, the death mask has personified deceased dignitaries, preserving what they looked like in plaster.

Detailed sculptures were made to capture the exact appearance and preserve the visage of royal and notable people from kings and conquerors to authors, composers, and poets. Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig van Beethoven, Dante Alighieri, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, and many more known names had death masks.

A death mask is an impression or cast of a deceased person’s face, typically made by oiling the skin and taking a plaster cast of his or her features. These masks were used in funerary effigy or as a model for a posthumous portrait. Plaster face molds served as an eerie glimpse into the final moments of the person’s life.

The masks were used as relics, general memento mori objects, practical tools for sculptors, objects of remembrance for dignitaries, study objects for medical studies, and objects of both entertainment and exhibition.

Death masks date back to to pre-Christian times. Romans and Egyptians used stylized masks of the deceased as part of their funeral rituals, the most famous ones being those of the pharaohs.

The most important process of the funeral ceremony in ancient Egypt was the mummification of the body, which was put into a sarcophagus enameled and decorated with gold and gems.

The Egyptian death mask was believed to strengthen the spirit of the mummy and guard the soul from evil spirits on its way to the afterlife. The best known specimen is Tutankhamun’s mask, which is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Made of gold and gems, the mask depicts the ancient ruler’s strongly stylized features. Masks like this one were not made from casts of facial features.  Instead, the mummification process itself managed to preserve the features of the deceased.

Another famous funeral mask was found at the ancient Greek site of Mycenae. It is the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold mask now on display in the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens.

German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the artifact in 1876, believed that he had found the body of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, leader of the Achaeans in Homer’s epic of the Trojan War, the Iliad, but modern archaeological research suggests that the mask dates to about 1600 BC, predating the period of the Trojan War by approximately 300 years.

In European history, the main purpose of the death mask from the Middle Ages until the 19th century was to serve as a model for sculptors in creating statues and busts of the deceased person. Not until the 1800s did these masks become appreciated in and of themselves.

In 15th-century Florence, the first instances of death masks were produced for civil purposes and became fashionable in private homes: death masks were incorporated into wreaths, placed in frames, or inserted in faceless busts.

One of the most famous Florentines cast posthumously during that time was Lorenzo de Medici, the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic.

In some European countries, death masks were used as part of the effigy of the deceased and displayed at state funerals.  Coffin and mourning portraits were also painted and showed the subject lying in repose. During the 18th and 19th centuries funeral masks were also used to record the features of unknown corpses for identification purposes.

In 19th-century Russia, masks became an after-death essential for royals and cultural luminaries including Alexander Pushkin, but the tradition dates back to the times of Peter the Great, emperor of Russia from 1682 to 1725.

The invention of photography and the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photography caused the practice of creating death masks to languish.

But there are also moulds, casts, and imprints that emerged from different regions from the early 20th century.

In 1930s America, it was common to create a moulage – an impression or cast – for use as evidence during criminal investigations. That was the case with the notorious gangster John Dillinger. The mask of Dillinger’s face was cast on July 25, 1934 in the Cook County Morgue three days after he was fatally shot. Due to his popularity and large crowds of people in the morgue, at least two groups of medical students created these casts without authorization. Today Dillinger’s mask is on display at the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C.

Representing a true portrait of the face at the time of death, the death mask is a tradition that spans thousands of years, with the practice reaching its peak at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. It simultaneously memorializes life and death, offering the living a sense of connection to the dead.

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