Death Masks: Momento Mori

When I was at college my class were studying the Mycenaean’s, there was lots of stuff about cyclopean walls and the lion gate, I find all of that interesting now however at the time I was so dull and not at all what I expected studying classical civilisations to be like. And then our teacher showed us a photo of Agamemnon’s death mask. A flattened gold coloured sheet of metal with a clear outline of a face in it. I was absolutely captivated, not just because of the workmanship that despite millennia of exposure and battering from the natural world was still apparent. This was the most detailed representation of a face I had seen from that period. Most Hellenistic art of the time was stylised to the point of iconographic and one person looks very much like any other. However this was someone’s genuine attempt to represent the likeness of a specific individual. A great king whose name has rung through the ages, and we can see his face.

I often warn about reliance on grave goods. They are, in my opinion, very poor indicators of a society and its values. Almost all members of a pre-Christian society were too poor, or practical to be buried with items that were still useful. The grave goods we see, for examples in burials like Sutton Hoo represent the profoundly wealthy fraction of a society. We find a man buried with an ornate iron, gold or copper gilt sword and we presume this was a culture that was highly militaristic as opposed to a man who liked shiny sticks. This however doesn’t hold true of death masks, they are highly specific to an individual and reflect, as a rule what their culture thought of them.   

I also like the concept that in looking at a death mask you can see the person as they could never have seen themselves, in death. This practice appears to have been reserved for the very important men in history, great kings or artists. However there was a peculiarity of Victorian Britain which was picked up in a much smaller way across the world, collecting souvenirs of famous criminals.

Side Note: I used the term “great men” here intentionally. History, being written largely by men in cultures that mostly marginalise women, rarely mentions great women. Ah misogyny! I also wonder from time to time how much of our taught history is male heavy because of the ridiculous ratio of historians and researchers who are men. I will however get onto the world’s most famous death mask, which is one of a woman.

As a rule, a death mask is made by making a mould of the recently deceased face using plaster or clay, when removed molten metal could be poured into the mould to reverse the impression. Much earlier death masks would have been artistic representations of a person’s features. Agamemnon’s death mask and the myriad of death masks found in Egypt are in this number. The purpose of the death mask varies with culture and time. Initially they were face coverings buried with the great person to preserve their features as their flesh rotted and the bones disintegrated.

I have often commented that humans are by nature incredibly complex arrangements of contradictions. We cast our great heroes in stone, great statues or sculptures offer the only immortality we can guarantee. Nothing we do is forever, a number of Hellenistic cultures believed that the only immortality was in the memory of others, and they celebrated their great heroes, Achilles, and Heracles in their oral tradition which remains with us today, millennia later.

As I mentioned there was a very British preoccupation with executions, families used to take a packed lunch up to Tyburn Hill to watch the days hangings, vendors used to ply their trade through the packed crowds at a beheading. It wasn’t unheard of for the noose used to end a particularly notorious convict to be auctioned off after the main event. Death masks then were probably a lot like commemorative plates today.

Side Note: I have no idea if the concept of the commemorative plate translates culturally internationally. In Britain every time there is a royal wedding, death or birth a series of dinner plates is developed for sale. Even in a constitutional monarchy capitalism is alive and well.    

The most famous death mask that almost everyone would have encountered at some point in their life was that of an unknown woman pulled from the Seine in the 1880s. As was the practice at the time for an unidentified body, a death mask was created to allow her face to be seen and anyone who knows her to come forward. The lady was described as extremely well kept, with good hair, teeth and skin. Her clothes were indicators of a lady of a particular level of status.

Side Note: I do wonder if all of this would have been done for a woman who appeared dishevelled with bad teeth and dressed in rags. In safeguarding we refer to people the systems seem to work less hard for as “the less dead” so this is not a new concept.

 L’Inconnue de la Seine was never identified but in the 1950s a prominent healthcare company were looking for a face for their new resuscitation training mannequin. Being one of the only female death masks available, and given her passive unblemished features our unknown lady was named Annie and has spent the last seventy years teaching people to save lives. I do wonder if there wasn’t a certain amount of homophobia involved in the decision to commit more resources to locate and obtain one of the few death masks of a pretty young woman in existence over the far more readily available male death masks. Given that a core part of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until very recently was the administration of “rescue breaths”. I may just be being cynical. I do think learning CPR using a training aid with the face of Abraham Lincoln or Alexander the Great would be extremely cool.   

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