A death mask is a wax or plaster cast made of a person’s face following death. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation of portraits. 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. In othercultures a death mask may be a clay or another artifact placed on the face of the deceased before burial rites. The best known of these are the masks used by ancient Egyptians as part of the mummification process, such as Tutankhamun’s mask.
In the 10th 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 permanently record the features of unknown corpses for purposes of identification. This function was later replaced by photography.
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.
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.
Masks of deceased persons are part of traditions in many countries. The most important process of the funeral ceremony inancient 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 that of Tutankhamun. 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 by some unlikely that the masks actually belonged to Agamemnon and other heroes of theHomeric epics.
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 wax masks were subsequently reproduced in more durable stone.
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—poets, philosophers, composer, and dramaturges, such as John Keats, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Ludwig van Beethoven,Joseph Haydn, Dante Alighieri, Filippo Brunelleschi, Torquato Tasso, Blaise Pascal and Voltaire. As in ancient Rome, death masks were often subsequently used in making marble sculpture portraits, busts or engravings of the deceased.
Oliver Cromwell’s death mask is preserved at Warwick Castle. Another notable death mask is that of Napoleon Bonaparte, taken on the island of Saint Helena and displayed at London’s British Museum.
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.
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.
In early spring of 1860 and shortly before his death in April 1865, two life masks were created of President Abraham Lincoln.