Life masks, death masks

Masks often exaggerate reality, enhancing positive or negative features or distorting them through imaginary combinations.

Sometimes masks capture very closely the likeness of an individual. The best likeness is one drawn from direct copies of a person’s face – whether that person be alive or dead. This likeness could facilitate movement of a person from this life to the next or capture the image of an important person for all time.


Masks have long had association with the transition from life to death. Masked characters appear at funerals in many societies, to usher the spirit of the deceased to the next life. Masks feature prominently at religious celebrations that relate to our passage to another world, the assumption of which requires our personal victory over death.


     Tuthankamen’s famous burial mask,
     on display in the Egyptian museum in Cairo 2003;
     photograph by Bjorn Christian Torrissen from Wikimedia Commons

In Ancient Egypt, mummies were adorned with masks that represented the face of the deceased. The mask conveyed a face to the dead person for their trip to the afterlife. Most famous of these is the mask of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamen (1341-1323 B.C.), unearthed in the Valley of Kings by Howard Carter’s team in 1922. Now residing in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the 24.5 pound mask is a golden work of art that has become emblematic of Ancient Egypt.

Another iconic example of the funeral mask is the so called “Mask of Agamemnon”, discovered at Mycenae (Greece) in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann. The gold mask was found over the face of a body unearthed in a burial shaft. Recent research suggests that this is not in fact the funeral mask of the Greek king of the Trojan War (The Iliad, Homer), but dates from an earlier period. Nonetheless, the legendary association continues. The mask can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.


     Funeral mask also known as “Agamemnon Mask” National Archeological Museum,
     Athens 2005; photograph from Wikimedia Commons

Masks need not only look like a person. They can also be made by taking casts of a person’s face, and then making lifelike masks from the cast. This type of mask making dates at least from Ancient Egypt of 4,000 years ago, and also featured in Etruscan and Roman ancestor worship and family cults. Life and death masks were popular in Renaissance Europe and from that time, death masks are a common and accurate record of the appearance of many historic figures. Wax images of Queen Elizabeth I and other monarchs in Westminster Abbey of London were based on death masks. The example in this exhibit captures the likeness of Robert E. Lee, hero of the South in the American civil War.

The striking likeness of Abraham Lincoln in the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. (a replica is on display here) is a life mask. This plaster mask was created by artist Leonard Volk using wet plaster on Lincoln’s face to make the mould in April 1860, shortly before his nomination as Republican candidate for President. It was to be a template for later sculptures of Lincoln. Lincoln is reported to have said: “There is the animal himself,” on seeing the life mask in Volk’s studio.

Impressions of living people continue to be used for making excellent likenesses of them, such as the wax models made famous by Madame Tussaud’s. In modern film and television, a life mask of an actor can be used to test makeup and prosthetics, saving the studio – and the actor – hours of trialing on the real face. There have been more sinister motives for capturing people’s likenesses. Life and death masks have been taken in the past to measure differences in the face and head, often of famous individuals and criminals. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these were used in the study of craniometry, measuring differences in the skull to identify racial or intellectual capacities, a thin ‘scientific’ disguise for racial and socio-economic stereotyping.

A plaster life mask we have on exhibit is that of George Shull, a prominent American plant geneticist of the early 20th century who made major contributions to the development of hybrid corn. Other life masks are taken from popular actors and used for testing make-up. It is a challenge to identify their pale faces, devoid of the strong visual signals of skin color and hair.


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How do you feel looking at a mask taken from a dead person?

Does the mask somehow capture the essence of death?





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