Picture this: nestled among the dusty dried flowers and dim Tiffany lamps decorating a Victorian library mantel is the face — peaceful in plaster — of a dead relative. It's macabre and a little bit morbid, but throughout much of history, the death mask — the wax or plaster cast made of a deceased person's face — was a common object in life, religion, and even decor.
Before photography, a death mask was often created to document the faces of the dead for posterity — usually the famous or wealthy members of society. Dante has one, so do Mary Queen of Scots, William Blake, and Napoleon. The recently-deceased face was wrapped with wet plaster or soft wax to create a mold, which could then be filled to create a three-dimensional model of the face. Usually it was a doctor who took the mold, working quickly lest the dead body bloat and distort the face.
The masks had several purposes. Early masks in ancient Egypt weren't modeled directly on the face, but painted on linen or (more expensively) crafted from metal and worn by corpses so their spirit could identify their own mummified bodies (and wrapped faces) in order to move to the afterlife. The most famous of these is the golden burial mask of King Tut, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1922.
In Europe, death masks provided reference for artists who used the likenesses to paint portraits of the dead, postmortem. They also served as mementos, to remember and honor the dead. Many copies could be made from one mask, allowing multiple family members (or fans of the famous) to display the heads as decor. Sometimes they were kept for more spiteful purposes: J Edgar Hoover famously kept a model of John Dillinger's death mask, complete with his gun-shot glasses and a cigar found in his pocket, in his F.B.I. office for 40 years.
But interestingly, the most famous death mask is not of a prominent, well-to-do person at all, but of an unknown woman. L'Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine) was a suspected suicide. Her body was found in the Seine in the 1880s and, the legend goes, a pathologist at the Paris morgue was so struck by her pretty face that he captured it with a death mask. Copies of the beautiful mask soon spread around Paris, becoming a fashionable accessory for artists and bohemians to display at home. Her enigmatic face has been the muse for countless artistic works ever since. In 1958, she also served as the inspiration for a device you may recognize: the CPR mannequin Resusci Anne. If you know CPR, then you've no doubt kissed the face of L'Inconnue de la Seine.
Tell us, would you display the faces of the dead in your home?