Death Masks

Sir Walter Scott

Death masks were wax or plaster molds applied post mortem to create a replication of the dead’s face, and could then be reproduced further. Casts became popular to display or use as a model for a bust or portrait in the late Middle Ages. This practice was common until the end of the 19th Century. Some of the surviving masks are wonderfully expressive. While admittedly morbid, there’s something touching and honest about the surviving portraits. They would have served as accurate reminders in the age before photography, perhaps less flattering than portraits but seemingly immediate.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
William Wordsworth
Dion Boucicault
Isaac Newton
All these images came from this online archive of Princeton’s. Even more can be found here at this Paris shop still in existence today. For a brief audio exploration of death masks, check out Radiolab’s podcast here and learn where the face of the CPR dummy came from.

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