Life and Death Masks of Famous People

Posted by By Limoge at 5 October, at 09 : 16 AM Print


At the end of many remarkable lives, historic figures were immortalized with death masks.  Easily the most haunting memento of the deceased, death masks have been in existence since the time of Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty and superstition. Created with either wax or plaster, the death mask was ususally created right after the moment of death. Before the widespread availability of photography, the death mask was also used as a sort of forensic tool to aid relatives in identifying a deceased body if their loved one was a missing person.  Life masks were also created using wax or plaster and was usually commissioned by the subject so that they could be immortalized for all eternity. Following are the life and death masks of some rather famous (and infamous) faces:

Alfred Hitchcock

As the director of such thriller classsics as Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest,  it’s only fitting that the King of Suspense is immortalized in his very own death mask (which would actually look quite good in the Bates Motel).  Hitchcock died of kidney failure on April 30, 1980.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon’s death mask is a marble cast mold. Much mystery and controversy however, surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the original cast molds.   There are several different versions of Napoleon’s death mask in circulation–after his death many people, including hero-worshippers, wanted to own a copy.

Only four copies of the original cast have been verified as genuine. A book has even been written on the subject (Les Masques Mortuaires de Napoleon by E. de Veaux). What is known however, is that Napoleon’s original death mask was created on May 7, 1821,  just a day and a half after his death on the island of St. Helena at age fifty-one. His cause of death is unknown.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died after suffering a series of strokes at his home in Gorki. Well-known sculptor Sergey Merkurov was asked to produce the death masks. Merkurov had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris and was one of Russia’s most famous artists.

He was considered the greatest Soviet master of post-mortem masks.  The famous statue of Lenin that stood in Lenin Square was also the work of Merkurov.  The death masks were made shortly after Lenin passed away on January 21, 1924, at 6.50pm.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln actually never had a death mask but he did have two life masks made during his lifetime. The first one was made during Lincoln’s visit to Chicago in the early spring of 1860. The second life mask was created on  February 11, 1865. When Lincoln compared the two,  it was clear how great a toll the Civil War had taken on his health.

Reportedly one friend who saw him a few weeks after the last  mask was made noted that he “looked badly and felt badly.” To another friend Lincoln confided, “I am very unwell.” Ironically in 2007, a study was done of Lincoln’s face, life mask, and medical records and it was concluded that he suffered from a disease called multiple mucosal  neuroma syndrome.

It was also determined that had he not been assassinated,  Lincoln would have succumbed to this disease rather quickly anyway.

Isaac Newton

Sir Issac’s scientific interests and activities continued almost to the day of his death in his eighty-fifth year. He presided at a meeting of the Royal Society in London for the last time in March 1727, but the trip exhausted him. Succeeding days brought severe pain from an old bladder complaint; he lapsed into a coma and died on March 20 at his home in Pitt Street, Kensington, where he had moved to escape the London air pollution.

Ludwig Von Beethoven

My day’s work is done; if a physician can still be of use in my case, ‘his name shall be called wonderful.’” With those English words from Handel’s Messiah, the long-deaf composer resigned himself to death.
Cirrhosis of the liver had resulted in jaundice and on March 26, 1827  Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his right arm high with first clenched as if in salute, and fell back dead.  Joseph Dannhauser, a young artist, took the mask on March 28, two days after the composer’s death and one day before his funeral.  When contrasted with Beethoven’s life mask of 1812, the facial change is indeed startling.

Alfred Nobel

The founder of the Nobel Peace Prize died on December 10,  1896. His original death mask and will is displayed at his residence in Karlskoga, Sweden.

John Keats

The great romantic poet lived his last days in Rome and died on February 23 1821. His death mask is currently on display at his house in Piazza di Spagna.

Leo Tolstoy

The famed Russian writer of such masterpiece novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, had his death mask created on the very pillow he succumbed on in November 1910.

Heinrich Himmler

Himmler,  a military commander, and a leading member of the Nazi Party died on May 23, 1945 by committing suicide after biting into a cyanide pill hidden in his mouth. Himmler apparently chose suicide over having to stand trial with other German leaders as a war criminal at Nuremberg. His death mask was created by British intelligence officials as a proof of his death.  Shortly after he died, Himmler’s body was buried in an unmarked grave. The precise location of his grave remains unknown. His death mask however, is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Benjamin Franklin

While there is no consensus whether this cast is a life mask or a death mask what is known however, is that the mask has a closer resemblance to images taken in his later years. Franklin died on April 17, 1790. He was eighty-four when he died.

James Joyce

The famed writer of the masterprice Ulysses died in Zurich, Switzerland on January 13, 1941. His death mask is on view at the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove, Dublin.

William Shakespeare

In 1842 a death mask was found in a ragpicker’s shop in Darmstadt, Germany that is 99.9% certain to be that of  William Shakespeare’s. The mask, bearing the date of 1616 (Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616) , features the writer’s high forehead, prominent nose and beard.
Engineers at Konica Minolta Europe scanned the death mask with lasers to construct a three-dimensional computer model. After superimposing the model with the death mask, perfect matches were revealed between the forehead, eyes and nose. This what Shakespeare was thought to look like.
Other tests performed on the mask proved that the writer suffered from cancer towards the end of his life.

George Washington

Like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington never actually had a death mask but he did have a life mask created.  Washington’s life mask was made in 1785 by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon when Washington was fifty-three. The life mask shows Washington as he really appeared in life–without the personal and, often, subjective interpretations of the many artists, painters and sculptors who came to sketch, paint and model his countenance. Washington died on December 14, 1799, at his home in Mount Vernon when he was sixty-seven.

John Dillinger

The bank robber who spawned numerous movies, urban legends, conspiracy theories and rumors of immortality died on July 22, 1934 after Federal agents moved to arrest him as he left a movie theater. Dillinger apparently pulled a weapon and attempted to flee but was shot three times and was killed.  He was thirty-one at the time of his death. At least four original castings of his face were made at the Cook County morgue and copies remain popular collector’s items.

Resusci Anne

Resusci Anne, also known as Rescue Anne or CPR Annie, is a training mannequin used for teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to both emergency workers and members of the general public. The distinctive face of Resusci Anne was based on L’Inconnue de la Seine, the death mask of an unidentified young woman reputedly drowned in the Seine River around the late 1880s.

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6 Comments

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  3. Abinet Amsalu, 2 years ago Reply

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  6. John Yeoman, 1 year ago Reply

    I own a death mask of Dr Samuel Johnson. I made it of myself, with two straws up my nose.I am not Dr Samuel Jonson, I think. But who knows? (More to the point, who ever will?) If my grandchildren market it efficiently, they might grow rich!

    Next year, I shall do a death mask of myself as Lady Gaga. I might have a problem with the liposuction, however..

    No, the death mask of Shakespeare is a fake.


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