Preserving the Face of Death: Death Masks

One of Napoleon's Death Mask, via Flickr user Paul Lowry

One of Napoleon’s Death Mask, via Flickr user Paul Lowry

Earlier this week, a historic artifact went up for auction at Bonhams, one of the world’s largest auctioneers in fine art and antiques. The piece had been estimated to sell for between £40,000-60,000, but ended up tripling that and finally being auctioned for  £169,250. The relic was a very personal item of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a death mask made shortly after his demise on the island of St Helena on May 5th, 1821. Following Napoleon’s death, a plaster mold was made of Napoleon’s face- however there is debate whether this was done by his physician Francesco Antommarchi or a British doctor, Francis Burton, though most evidence points to the former. This plaster cast was then used to make a sparse number of copies, currently it is thought that only four were ever one. One bronze version was taken by Antommarchi to New Orleans to be given to the city, a painted plaster copy was given to colleague that eventually gifted it to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and one resides in the Boston University Mugar Library. The final mask was given to the Reverend Richard Boys by painter, J.W. Rubidge, who assisted Antommarchi in making the mask. Boys received it before Napoleon’s entourage left the island towards the end of May. Boys, Senior Chaplain of St Helena, kept the artifact and passed it down through his family until it was sold at auction earlier this week (Bonham’s Press Release 2013).

Death masks are an important artifact throughout history. Without photography, they were the only way of perfectly preserving the face of the deceased. The creation of the death mask is a very ancient tradition, and part of many culture’s funerary rites. In Ancient Rome, wax masks of the family ancestors were worn by someone who closely resembled the deceased and followed the newly dead in the funerary procession. In the 19th century, they were considered more of a souvenir and curio for the infamous dead like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy. In order to create these masks, wax or plaster is covered over the face of the dead until it solidifies. From this cast, a mask is made from a variety of substances. Often masks were made of royalty or eminent figures in history, such as Henry VIII or William Shakespeare. In more recent history, Alfred Hitchcock and Benjamin Franklin. It was also used to preserve the faces of the unknown, if an individual died without identification, a plaster mask would preserve their final appearance and allow a better chance of identification than the decaying remains. An interesting fact is that the Resuscitation Annie CPR mannequins used by the Red Cross and other organizations is based on a death mask of an unidentified women who was reportedly drowned in France in late 1880’s.

Making a death mask, via Death Doesn't Lie on Obit Mag

Making a death mask, via Death Doesn’t Lie on Obit Mag

In order to create a death mask, there was a specific process: First, the deceased’s hair and eyebrows were covered with clay or oil so that the plaster would not stick to it. Next, plaster was ladeled over the head of the individual. Sometimes this meant propping them up into a sitting position as seen in the picture or carefully doing it lying down. Next a thread was placed from the bottom of the chin to the top of the forehead in this thinner plaster. Fourth, thicker plaster was added and the string was removed to create a mask in two halves for easier removal. Once hard, the mold was removed, and then placed back together. Before a mask could be made, the plaster cast was cleaned and then filled with modeling clay or new plaster to make the mask. Finally, the masks were often painted or decorated, sometimes made into more elaborate metal masks, or just left plain and displayed (Beccia 2008).

One very famous specialist in creating death masks is Anna Maria Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud. She began her career creating death masks of individuals who had died during the French Revolution.  When she was 17 years old, she became an art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister at the Palace Of Versailles. As the revolution raged on, she was forced to prove her allegiance by making the death masks of executed aristocrats. While most of the original wax sculptures created from these death masks were destroyed in various fires and bombings, a number of a original plaster casts exist- allowing for new masks to be created.

Death masks are interesting because they preserve both a likeness of the deceased but also a dissimilarity. In death the face loses its movement and emotion that made it the individual, but it does preserve some of the unique traits that define the individual. It can preserve how the last years of a person’s life treated them, such as the gaunt face of Abraham Lincoln at death showing the stress of the war. As Jays writes on the subject, “Death doesn’t lie, so death masks – a cast of the face in wax or plaster, taken just hours after breath has gone – promise truthful representations of the departed. In an era before photography, these masks give us each beauty and blemish, a living presence in unchanging material”.

For a great collection of death masks, see the online Hutton Collection.

Works Cited

Jays 2009. Death Doesn’t Lie.

Beccia 2008. Death masks. Raucous Royals.

Bonham’s press release 2013. Bonhams.

6 responses to “Preserving the Face of Death: Death Masks

  1. Interesting article! We had one death mask on the front wall of our alma mater and that one was made in 1969.
    Nazies also made plaster death masks of some of their prominent figures.

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  3. Excellent post Katy.
    I once had the experience of doing a death mask. A dental alginate was used with a thin plaster jacket instead of using just plaster.
    I would agree with your comment that death masks do and do not look like their subject. The same also applies to life masks as well.

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