Death mask

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The death mask of Blaise Pascal 001Paskal.JPG
The death mask of Blaise Pascal
Posthumous portrait bust of Henry VII of England by Pietro Torrigiano, supposedly made using his death mask WLA vanda Henry VII bust.jpg
Posthumous portrait bust of Henry VII of England by Pietro Torrigiano, supposedly made using his death mask

A death mask is a likeness (typically in wax or plaster cast) of a person's face following death, often made by taking a cast or impression directly from the corpse. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation of portraits. Such casts obviate idealised representations by revealing the actual features. It is sometimes possible to identify portraits that have been painted from death masks, because of the characteristic slight distortions of the features caused by the weight of the plaster during the making of the mold.

Wax class of chemical compounds that are plastic (malleable) near ambient temperatures.

Waxes are a diverse class of organic compounds that are lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures. They include higher alkanes and lipids, typically with melting points above about 40 °C (104 °F), melting to give low viscosity liquids. Waxes are insoluble in water but soluble in organic, nonpolar solvents. Natural waxes of different types are produced by plants and animals and occur in petroleum.

Plaster cast

A plaster cast is a copy made in plaster of another 3-dimensional form. The original from which the cast is taken may be a sculpture, building, a face, a pregnant belly, a fossil or other remains such as fresh or fossilised footprints – particularly in palaeontology.

Death permanent cessation of vital functions

Death is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include aging, predation, malnutrition, disease, suicide, homicide, starvation, dehydration, and accidents or major trauma resulting in terminal injury. In most cases, bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death.


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 such masks become valued for themselves. [1]

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th through the 15th centuries

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

19th century Century

The 19th (nineteenth) century was a century that began on January 1, 1801, and ended on December 31, 1900. It is often used interchangeably with the 1800s, though the start and end dates differ by a year.

In other cultures a death mask may be a funeral mask, an image placed on the face of the deceased before burial rites, and normally buried with them. The best known of these are the masks used in ancient Egypt as part of the mummification process, such as Tutankhamun's mask, and those from Mycenaean Greece such as the Mask of Agamemnon.

Culture societys way of life within anthropology

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization, mythology, philosophy, literature, and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

Ancient Egypt ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa

Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient North Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.

Mycenaean Greece Late Bronze Age Greek culture

Mycenaean Greece was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, spanning the period from approximately 1600–1100 BC. It represents the first advanced civilization in mainland Greece, with its palatial states, urban organization, works of art, and writing system. The most prominent site was Mycenae, in the Argolid, after which the culture of this era is named. Other centers of power that emerged included Pylos, Tiryns, Midea in the Peloponnese, Orchomenos, Thebes, Athens in Central Greece and Iolcos in Thessaly.

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; the coffin portrait was an alternative. Mourning portraits were also painted, showing the subject lying in repose. During the 18th and 19th centuries masks were also used to permanently record the features of unknown corpses for purposes of identification. This function was later replaced by post-mortem photography.

Effigy representation of a specific person in the form of sculpture

An effigy is a representation of a specific person in the form of sculpture or some other three-dimensional medium. The use of the term is normally restricted to certain contexts in a somewhat arbitrary way: recumbent effigies on tombs are so called, but standing statues of individuals, or busts, are usually not. Likenesses of religious figures in sculpture are not normally called effigies. Effigies are common elements of funerary art, especially as a recumbent effigy in stone or metal placed on a tomb, or a less permanent "funeral effigy", placed on the coffin in a grand funeral, wearing real clothing.

Coffin portrait

A coffin portrait was a realistic portrait of the deceased person put on coffins for the funeral and one of the elements of the castrum doloris, but removed before the burial. It became a tradition to decorate coffins of deceased nobles (szlachta) with such funerary art in the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the baroque in Poland and Sarmatism. The tradition was limited to Commonwealth countries, although the term may also describe the Ancient Egyptian mummy portraits.

Mourning portraits painting by an anonymous Baroque artist

A mourning portrait or deathbed portrait is a portrait of a person who has recently died, usually shown on their deathbed, or lying in repose, displayed for mourners. Though it seems like a morbid subject now, these were not rare in European homes of well-to-do people as a way of remembering and honoring the dead. Generally the name of the painter is unknown. Generally people were laid out in their best clothes with some sort of special headdress, and some sort of token in their hands. Today these portraits give insights into old funeral customs, but also various types of information regarding folk costumes. In the 19th century post-mortem photography continued the tradition.

In the cases of people whose faces were damaged by their death, it was common to take casts of their hands. An example of this occurred in the case of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the Canadian statesman whose face was shattered by the bullet which assassinated him in 1868.[ citation needed ]

Thomas DArcy McGee Canadian politician

Thomas D'Arcy Etienne Grace Hughes McGee, was an Irish-Canadian politician, Catholic spokesman, journalist, poet, and a Father of Canadian Confederation. The young McGee was a Catholic Irishman who hated the British rule of Ireland, and worked for a peasant revolution to overthrow British rule and secure Irish independence. He escaped arrest and fled to the United States in 1848, where he reversed his political beliefs. He became disgusted with American republicanism and democracy, and became intensely conservative in his politics and in his religious support for the Pope. He moved to Canada in 1857 and worked hard to convince the Irish Catholics to cooperate with the Protestant British in forming a Confederation that would make for a strong Canada in close alliance with Britain. His passion for Confederation garnered him the title: 'Canada's first nationalist'. He fought the Fenians in Canada, who were Irish Catholics that hated the British and resembled his younger self politically. McGee succeeded in helping create the Canadian Confederation in 1867, but was assassinated by Patrick J. Whelan in 1868.

When taken from a living subject, such a cast is called a life mask. Proponents of phrenology used both death masks and life masks for pseudoscientific purposes.

Phrenology study of human characteristics according to shape of the skull

Phrenology is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. It is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Although both of those ideas have a basis in reality, phrenology extrapolated beyond empirical knowledge in a way that departed from science. The central phrenological notion that measuring the contour of the skull can predict personality traits is discredited by empirical research. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The principal British centre for phrenology was Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820.

Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories, and continued adherence long after they have been experimentally discredited. The term pseudoscience is considered pejorative because it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those described as practicing or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the characterization.



Tutankhamun's mask CairoEgMuseumTaaMaskMostlyPhotographed.jpg
Tutankhamun's mask

Masks of deceased persons are part of traditions in many countries. The most important process of the funeral ceremony in ancient Egypt was the mummification of the body, which, after prayers and consecration, was put into a sarcophagus enameled and decorated with gold and gems. A special element of the rite was a sculpted mask, put on the face of the deceased. This mask was believed to strengthen the spirit of the mummy and guard the soul from evil spirits on its way to the afterworld. The best known mask is Tutankhamun's mask. Made of gold and gems, the mask conveys the highly stylized features of the ancient ruler. Such masks were not, however, made from casts of the features; rather, the mummification process itself preserved the features of the deceased.

In 1876 the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered in Mycenae six graves, which he was confident belonged to kings and ancient Greek heroes—Agamemnon, Cassandra, Evrimdon and their associates. To his surprise, the skulls were covered with gold masks. It is now thought most unlikely that the masks actually belonged to Agamemnon and other heroes of the Homeric epics; in fact they are several centuries older.

The lifelike character of Roman portrait sculptures has been attributed to the earlier Roman use of wax to preserve the features of deceased family members (the so-called imagines maiorum). The wax masks were subsequently reproduced in more durable stone. [2]

The use of masks in the ancestor cult is also attested in Etruria. Excavations of tombs in the area of the ancient city of Clusium (modern Chiusi, Tuscany) have yielded a number of sheet bronze masks dating from the Etruscan Late Orientalising period. [3] In the 19th century it was thought that they were related to the Mycenaean examples, but whether they served as actual death masks cannot be proven. The most credited hypothesis holds that they were originally fixed to cinerary urns, to give them a human appearance. In Orientalising Clusium, the anthropomorphization of urns was a prevalent phenomenon that was strongly rooted in local religious beliefs.


Bronze death mask of Napoleon Napoleon Death Mask.jpg
Bronze death mask of Napoleon

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 interred with the deceased. Instead, they were used in funeral ceremonies and were later kept in libraries, museums, and universities. Death masks were taken not only of deceased royalty and nobility (Henry VIII, Sforza), but also of eminent persons—composers, dramaturges, military and political leaders, philosophers, poets, and scientists, such as Dante Alighieri, Ludwig van Beethoven, Napoleon Bonaparte (whose death mask was taken on the island of Saint Helena), Filippo Brunelleschi, Frédéric Chopin, Oliver Cromwell (whose death mask is preserved at Warwick Castle), Joseph Haydn, John Keats, Franz Liszt, Blaise Pascal, Nikola Tesla (commissioned by his friend Hugo Gernsback and now displayed in the Nikola Tesla Museum), Torquato Tasso, and Voltaire. As in ancient Rome, death masks were often subsequently used in making marble sculpture portraits, busts, or engravings of the deceased.[ citation needed ]

In Russia, the death mask tradition dates back to the times of Peter the Great, whose death mask was taken by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Also well known are the death masks of Nicholas I, and Alexander I. Stalin's death mask is on display at the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia.

One of the first real Ukrainian death masks was that of the poet Taras Shevchenko, taken by Peter Clodt von Jürgensburg in St. Petersburg, Russia. [4]

In early spring of 1860 and shortly before his death in April 1865, two life masks were created of President Abraham Lincoln. [5]


Two men in the process of making a death mask, New York, c. 1908 Making Death Mask Edit 4.jpg
Two men in the process of making a death mask, New York, c. 1908

Death masks were increasingly used by scientists from the late 18th century onwards to record variations 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 people and notorious criminals. Masks were also used to collect data on racial differences.

Forensic science

L'Inconnue de la Seine L'inconnue de la Seine (masque mortuaire).jpg
L'Inconnue de la Seine

Before the widespread availability of photography, the facial features of unidentified bodies were sometimes preserved by creating death masks so that relatives of the deceased could recognize them if they were seeking a missing person.

One mask, known as L'Inconnue de la Seine, recorded the face of an unidentified young woman who, around the age of sixteen, according to one man's story, had been found drowned in the Seine River at Paris, France around the late 1880s. A morgue worker made a cast of her face, saying "Her beauty was breathtaking, and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved." The cast was also compared to Mona Lisa, and other famous paintings and sculptures. In the following years, copies of the mask became a fashionable fixture 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. [6] [7]

See also

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Embalming Method of preserving human remains

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Bust (sculpture) Sculpture of a persons head and shoulders

A bust is a sculpted or cast representation of the upper part of the human figure, depicting a person's head and neck, and a variable portion of the chest and shoulders. The piece is normally supported by a plinth. The bust is generally a portrait intended to record the appearance of an individual, but may sometimes represent a type. They may be of any medium used for sculpture, such as marble, bronze, terracotta, wax or wood.

Ancient Egyptian funerary practices

The ancient Egyptians had an elaborate set of funerary practices that they believed were necessary to ensure their immortality after death. These rituals and protocols included mummifying the body, casting magic spells, and burial with specific grave goods thought to be needed in the Egyptian afterlife.

Art of ancient Egypt Art produced by the ancient Egyptian civilization

Ancient Egyptian art is the painting, sculpture, architecture and other arts produced by the civilization of ancient Egypt in the lower Nile Valley from about 3000 BC to 30 AD. Ancient Egyptian art reached a high level in painting and sculpture, and was both highly stylized and symbolic. It was famously conservative, and Egyptian styles changed remarkably little over more than three thousand years. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments and now there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past. The wall art was never meant to be seen by people other than the afterlife for when they needed them.

Clusium was an ancient city in Italy, one of several found at the site. The current municipality of Chiusi (Tuscany) partly overlaps this Roman walled city. The Roman city remodeled an earlier Etruscan city, Clevsin, found in the territory of a prehistoric culture, possibly also Etruscan or proto-Etruscan. The site is located in northern central Italy on the west side of the Apennines.

Roman funerary practices

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Mask of Agamemnon gold funeral mask discovered at the ancient Greek site of Mycenae

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Verism is the artistic preference of contemporary everyday subject matter instead of the heroic or legendary in art and literature; it is a form of realism. The word comes from Latin verus (true).

Wax sculpture

A wax sculpture is a depiction made using a waxy substance. Often these are effigies, usually of a notable individual, but there are also death masks and scenes with many figures, mostly in relief.

Reserve head

Reserve heads are distinctive sculptures made primarily of fine limestone that have been found in a number of non-royal tombs of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt; primarily from the reigns of pyramid-building pharaohs Khufu to Khafre, circa 2551-2496 B.C. While each of the heads share characteristics in common with each other, the striking individuality of the pieces makes them some of the earliest examples of portrait sculpture in existence. Their purpose is not entirely clear; the name comes from the prevalent theory first put forward, in 1903, by the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt that the head was to serve as an alternate home for the spirit of the dead owner should anything happen to its body.

<i>LInconnue de la Seine</i> anonymous woman famous for her death mask

L'Inconnue de la Seine was an unidentified young woman whose putative death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artists' homes after 1900. Her visage inspired numerous literary works. In the United States, the mask is also known as "La Belle Italienne".

Roman portraiture

Roman portraiture was one of the most significant periods in the development of portrait art. Originating from ancient Rome, it continued for almost five centuries. Roman portraiture is characterised by unusual realism and the desire to convey images of nature in the high quality style often seen in ancient Roman art. Some busts even seem to show clinical signs. Several images and statues made in marble and bronze have survived in small numbers. Roman funerary art includes many portraits such as married couple funerary reliefs, which were most often made for wealthy freedmen rather than the patrician elite.

Animal mummy mummified animal

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Portraiture in ancient Egypt

Portraiture in ancient Egypt forms a conceptual attempt to portray "the subject from its own perspective rather than the viewpoint of the artist ... to communicate essential information about the object itself". Ancient Egyptian art was a religious tool used "to maintain perfect order in the universe" and to substitute for the real thing or person through its representation.


Pseudo-athlete is a concept in Roman portraiture, favored in the late Republican Period, to describe a sculpture that has a combination of a veristic head and an idealized body. Verism shows the person portrayed without idealizing features, with warts, wrinkles, and other physical defects and deformities. Verism goes beyond a realistic rendering. There was a positive value of age and experience in Rome, so it manipulates the facial expression in an attempt to convey the stern traditional Roman values. One of the potential origins of the veristic style is from Roman funeral masks. The masks were used to give an impersonation of the deceased at the Roman Forum. Therefore, it was critical that the masks reproduced the appearance of the deceased and portrayed all of their features. The public funerals were to portray the character of the deceased, so artists were encouraged to make the masks as expressive as possible using the traditionally prized Roman values: stern moral seriousness (gravitas), firmness and strictness of judgement (severitas), determination and self-possession (constantia), and so on. While the origin of verism is highly debated as to whether it was from Italic, Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, or Greek influence, the purpose for realistic, unidealized rendering was specific. The signs of age were used as indicators of wisdom and authority. The body remains idealized due to Greek influence. In Greek sculpture there is a concept of heroic nudity. It is used to indicate that a sculpture's apparently mortal human subject is in fact a hero or semi-divine being.

Death masks of Mycenae

The death masks of Mycenae are a series of golden funerary masks found on buried bodies within a burial site titled Grave Circle A, located within the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. There are seven discovered masks in total, found with the burials of six adult males and one male child. There were no women who had masks. They were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann during his 1876 excavation of Mycenae.


  1. WALLECHINSKY, Irving; WALLACE, Irving (1978). The People's Almanac #2. New York: Bantam Books. pp. 1189–1192. ISBN   0553011375.
  2. 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.
  3. N. Steensma, Some considerations on the function and meaning of the Etruscan bronze "masks" from Chiusi (seventh century BC), in: H. Duinker, E. Hopman & J. Steding (eds.), Proceedings of the 11th annual Symposium Onderzoek Jonge Archeologen, Groningen 2014, p. 65-74.
  4. Virtual Museum of Death Mask URL accessed on December 4, 2006.
  5. "Portraits of the Presidents". National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution.
  6. Laerdal company website: The Girl from the River Seine URL accessed on January 8, 2013
  7. A Death Mask to Help Save Lives Archer Gordon, M.D., PH.D. URL accessed on June 8, 2007