Memory can fade over the course of time, erasing the details of even a loved-one’s face. As far back as 1323 BCE, people have endeavored to preserve, if not the memory, the essence of expression — the human face. Through the use of death masks in all of their forms, societies from all over the world have been able to retain one of the most precious mementos of their departed family members, royal elite, the famous and the infamous of popular culture.
Everything from the most exquisite and expensively crafted, to a simple wax or plaster casting has adorned the faces of the deceased, capturing their moment of death for anyone to witness. Eventually, this form of memento was replaced by photography, but even this new technology could not capture the likeness of a human face in all of its detail and depth.
Nearly every nuance, wrinkle, blemish and in the case of George Washington’s death mask, even hair can help to illuminate the image that can become blurred over time or distorted by an artist’s brush. Through the use of a death mask, we have the opportunity to know the faces of history, perhaps as intimately as their closest family and friends once did.
One of the most famous of ancient death masks, is that of Tutankhamun, aka King Tut. Although it was not an exact casting of the King’s face, it was intended to bear his likeness in a most elaborate fashion, which it succeeded in doing magnificently. Made for a king, this mask was sculpted of gold, colored glass and semiprecious stones. Two key points of interest about the mask are that it bears the emblems of a vulture and a cobra on the forehead – significant symbols of protection and divine authority.
Jumping in time to 1616, let us examine another important figure of history – William Shakespeare. Historians have debated the authenticity of his death mask, some claiming that it does not match the know portraits of The Bard, while others insist that the 3-D technology used to define the image is more accurate than any artist’s representation. It may be important to remember that an artist who offended their clients, soon lacked for them knocking at the door. But, you be the judge.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous face often is seen framed in galleries around the world. It is also on display in various versions of death mask castings ranging from bronze to simple plaster. Upon his death, castings of his image were in such high demand, that several versions were taken. It seems that even after years of exile, the emperor still commanded some amount of popularity.
One of the most famous of our Founding Fathers, if not the most inventive, was of course Benjamin Franklin. Interestingly, a copy of his death mask was scavenged out of an ash barrel by a homeless boy who sold it for around two dollars on Second Street in New York City to Lawrence Hutton, the editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1886-1898. This one purchase led to the discovery of more castings from around the world, culminating in one of the most extensive death mask collections ever put together.
Moving on to more notorious personalities, John Dillinger’s death mask sold at auction for $3,660 in 2010 to a Chicago businessman. Perhaps it is fitting that public enemy number one remains in the city of his death. Even the process of making his death mask was done in a somewhat nefarious manner. An amateur criminologist, Kenneth “Doc” Coffman, slipped past the guards of the morgue where Dillinger’s body was being kept. He then proceeded to cover the outlaw’s face with plaster without being caught. One would like to think that Dillinger would have approved.
Filed under: Death Practices on May 18th, 2011