21 May 2022

Death Masks of the Famous

It was the tradition for many centuries for death masks to be made of monarchs, artists and politicians in the time directly after their demise. Take a look at the many faces of death and find out who this is above.

Modern sensibilities may find them rather morbid but before the age of photography there was a limit to the amount of visual mementoes available to those left behind after the decease of a loved one (such as that of Blaise Pascal, left). They were also used for other purposes, such as to record the features of unknown corpses or in burgeoning scientific methodologies.

It was usually the wealthier who would have a death mask created and as such we are left with a surprising record of famous faces from the past. As expensive as they were, the death mask remains an intriguing testament to the time post mortem of many of the world’s famous people.

Ludwig van Beethoven
One of the most acclaimed composers of all time, Beethoven is justly famous for composing much of his work after he became completely deaf. This condition led him on many occasions to attempt to commit suicide but it wasn’t that which killed him. He first fell ill in 1825 and was bedridden for four weeks – a period which gave him the inspiration to write the Fifteenth Quartet, himself calling it a ‘song of thanks’. Good health was not to continue as in December 1826 he was inflicted by terrible bouts of diarrhea and vomiting which almost killed him. The year after it did.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock dealt with death any number of times in his films – murder most horrid quite often – and in his death he retains a certain air of petulance. He had a career that spanned six decades and most people are surprised to hear that he died as late as 1980. He directed over fifty feature films and is regarded by many as the most influential British film maker of all time. He died of renal failure in California at the age of eighty. It is somewhat ironic that the film-maker who made generations of moviegoers wet themselves with fright should die of a kidney related illness.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln’s face is still one of the most immediately recognizable in the world, despite the fact that he was assassinated almost one hundred and fifty years ago in 1865. The sixteenth President of the United States, he was expecting an enjoyable night out at the theatre and what he got instead was a single shot to the head which lodged six inches inside his brain. The assassin’s shot was timed to coincide with what was (it seems) considered the funniest line of the play ‘Our American Cousin’. So it was that the last words Lincoln heard were, in all probability ‘You sock-dologizing old man-trap’.

The Making of...
The making of a death mask is a messy business – literally. They are difficult to make and the best position for the corpse is not lying down but sat up (as you can see in the picture). The shift from sculpture to masks came about in the Middle Ages when the art of waxwork and plaster casting became more sophisticated. The tradition evolved from royalty to eminent people and continues to this day. Another use, rather than in memoriam for an individuals was for the scientific study of human physiognomy. It was said that experts could tell criminals from the shape of their heads. Casts were also used to record and collect data on the racial differences in the human head.

Ned Kelly
Bank robber, police killer and gang member, Kelly is probably the most famous Australian ever, Kylie Minogue and Dame Edna Everage aside. He is a hero to many - a Robin Hood figure - and for two years was an outlaw on the run. When the police finally caught up with him he was hanged by the neck until he died. As was British law at the time no records were kept as to the disposal of his body (as he was a condemned man). However, following the practice of the time his head was given to phrenologists to study and the above death mask was made. The skull, when returned to the police, was used for many years as a paperweight until if found its (perhaps) rightful place in a museum.

Thomas Paine
If you are an American reading this, then you have a lot to thank the man above for your ability to live, be free and pursue happiness wherever you may go. In 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man, the definitive guide to the ideas of the Enlightenment period and is one of the Founding Fathers of the USA. He died in 1809 at home. The New York Citizen recorded the event - ‘He had lived long, did some good and much harm’ so the people were not too thankful at that particular point. Nor was he to be left in peace either. Some years after his death the radical thinker William Cobbett dug up his remains and took them to the UK, planning to give him a burial fit for a hero. He still had them twenty years later when he expired himself and nothing has been heard of them since, bar claims which cannot be properly verified.

Woodrow Wilson
The 28th President of the United States, Wilson played a pivotal role in both the First World War and took personal control of the negotiations of the Armistice. He is less fondly remembered for his rather dubious ideas about racial supremacy. His mother was a hypochondriac – a tendency Wilson inherited himself somewhat. Having said that he had his first stroke at the age of thirty nine and then one in 1919 which left him severely debilitated. He died in 1924 of complications arising from the earlier stroke.

Dante Alighieri
Dante died in 1321 and is best remembered for his Divine Comedy, considered one of the Italian language’s finest masterpieces, and a landmark in world literature. He finished his great poetic work and expired soon afterwards. Although records are sparse it is thought that he was on his return to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission to Venice. Venice was known then for its swampy surrounds which were full of malaria carrying mosquitoes and it is thought that one of these bit Dante. He was fifty six, which seems young now but was not a bad age in the Middle Ages at all.

Oliver Cromwell
Instrumental in killing a king and changing the course of British history, Oliver Cromwell was best known for making England in to a Republican Commonwealth – many years before the French or the American Revolutions. That period, known as the Inter-regnum, was interrupted by the return of the Monarchy after his death. Cromwell had died in 1658 from a combination of what did for Hitchcock and Dante – malaria and a kidney infection. It is thought that following his kidney infection he died from septicemia. He is one of the few people ever to be recorded as being executed after his death. On the restoration of the monarchy his remains were exhumed. His body was thrown in to a pit and his head was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall for four years. Gruesome.

Richard Wagner
Opera may not be your cup of tea but Wagner is one of those immediately recognizable names when it comes to that particular musical genre. He is probably best know for his supreme effort, The Ring Cycle, composed of four operas and the epitome of the synthesis of the poetic, musical, visual and dramatic arts. Or a complete and utter yawn-fest if it isn’t your cup of tea. Venice is what did him in too – he suffered a heart attack there in 1883 following years of suffering with angina.

Stanford Leland Jr
There is nothing in this world which is sadder than parents losing their only child and when Stanford Leland Jr died his incredibly rich parents spent the rest of their lives helping to create a university in memorial to their son.  It is now known mostly simply as Stanford University after this unfortunate fifteen year old. He took ill during a grand tour of Europe and succumbed to typhus in Florence, Italy. His parents transformed and channeled their grief in to Stanford University, stating the children of California shall be our children. Stanford University continues to thrive to this day.

Nicola Tesla
From the young to the old – did you guess whose face featured in our very first death mask? When the inventor Nicola Tesla died in 1943 it was at the age of 86 and the cause of death was heart thrombus. He was (of course) strikingly different to the handsome man of 37 who had posed enigmatically for his portrait over fifty years before (left).

He died alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. The pallbearers at his funeral were all Nobel prize winners. Too little, too late. Despite his many revolutionary developments, Tesla had been ultimately ostracized by the scientific community and seen as a mad scientist by many late in his life. He died in severe debt.

Image Credits
Blaise Pascal
Nicola Tesla at 37