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A death mask is a wax or plaster cast made of a person’s face after their death. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation of portraits. It is sometimes possible to tell if paintings have been copied from death masks, because shape of the face is changed by the weight of the plaster during the making of the mold. In some cultures a death mask may be a clay or other item placed on the face of the dead person before burial rites. The best known of these are the masks used by ancient Egyptians as part of the mummification process, such as Tutankhamon’s burial mask.
In the 17th century in some European countries, it was common for death masks to be used as part of the effigy of the deceased, displayed at state funerals. During the 18th and 19th centuries they were also used to keep a record the faces of unknown bodies. This is now done with photographs.
Masks of dead people are a tradition in many countries. The most important process of the funeral ceremony in ancient Egypt was the mummification of the body. After prayers and consecration, the body was put into a sarcophagus decorated with gold and gems. A special part of the rite was a sculpted mask, put on the face of the dead person. This mask strengthened the spirit of the mummy and guarded the soul from evil spirits on its way to the afterworld. The best known mask is that of Tutankhamun. Made of gold and gems, the mask shows the highly stylized features of the ancient ruler. Such masks were not, however, made from casts of the features. The mummification process itself kept the features of the dead person.
In 1876 the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered in Mycenae six graves, which he believed were those of kings and ancient Greek heroes—Agamemnon, Cassandra, Evrimdon and others. To his surprise, the skulls were covered with gold masks. It is now thought by some unlikely that the masks actually belonged to Agamemnon and other heroes of the Homeric epics.
In the late Middle Ages, a shift took place from sculpted masks to true death masks, made of wax or plaster. These masks were not buried with the dead. Instead, they were used in funeral ceremonies and were later kept in libraries, museums and universities. Death masks were taken not only of dead royalty and nobility (Henry VIII, Sforza), but also of important people—poets, philosophers, and dramaturges, such as Dante, Filippo Brunelleschi, Torquato Tasso, Blaise Pascal and Voltaire. Like in ancient Rome, death masks were often then used in making marble sculpture portraits, busts or engravings of the deceased.
In Russia, the death mask tradition dates back to the times of Peter the Great, whose death mask was made by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Also well known are death masks of Alexander I, Nicholas I and Alexander II.
Death masks were used by scientists from the late 18th century onwards to record differences in human physiognomy. The life mask was also increasingly common at this time, taken from living persons. Anthropologists used such masks to study physiognomic features in famous persons and notorious criminals. Masks were also used to collect data on racial differences.
Before the invention of photography, the faces of unknown bodies were sometimes kept by making death masks so that relatives of the dead could recognize them if they were looking for a missing person.
One such mask, known as L'Inconnue de la Seine, recorded the face of a young woman who had drowned in the Seine River at Paris around the late 1880s. A worker at the Paris morgue was so taken by her beauty that he made a plaster cast of her face. She was considered so beautiful that in the following years copies of the mask became a fashionable item in Parisian Bohemian society. The face of Resusci Anne, the world’s first CPR training mannequin, introduced in 1960, was modeled after L'Inconnue de la Seine.
- H.W. Janson with Dora Jane Janson, History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, and New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1962, p. 141.
- Virtual Museum of Death Mask URL accessed on December 4, 2006.
- Elizabeth Bronfen, Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, MUP, 1992, p. 207.
- "The Girl from the River Seine". Laerdal. http://www.laerdal.com/us/docid/1117082/The-Girl-from-the-River-Seine. Retrieved 08 October 2012.
- Laurence Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks
- Before and After Death Photographic portraits of people before, and immediately after, they die
- Collection of Death Masks History of death masks, Pictures of death masks and historical resources
- Ancient Egyptian Masks by Egy King