Last week's post briefly covered immortalizing the dead through death masks. A death mask is a plaster, wax or metal casting of the deceased’s face. With the Renaissance’s art movement toward naturalism, death masks were taken to create an exact likeness from which subsequent portraits could be made. But unlike portraiture, they were often a far more accurate representation of the deceased.
During the 16th century, funeral effigies of dead kings and queens were carved from oak or wax and placed on top of coffins. The image to the right is a wooden effigy of Henry VII covered with linen and stucco. Traces of paint still exist on the face and a wig once sat on the head. You will notice that the eyes are open, not closed. Although difficult to prove, the obvious realism of Henry’s effigy may have been achieved with the help of a death mask.
Sometimes little embellishments like paint, eyelashes and hair were added to create a more idealistic representation as can be seen in Mary Queen of Scots’ death mask shown here.*
As works of art themselves, death masks in the 16th -17th century had little value. They were viewed simply as a tool to assist in portraiture. And although unquestionably a macabre practice, the death mask was not designed to capture the subject in death, but to portray how the subject looked during life.
All of that changed when heads started to roll during the French Revolution. The Revolution's hatred was never satiated by the slice of the guillotine. The mob wanted an effigy to quench their thirst for blood. And that is when Marie Grosholtz , otherwise known as Marie Tussaud, found herself employed unwillingly by the angry Parisians of the Revolution. Marie made wax death mask of many famous victims of the revolution including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Madame Elizabeth, Princess Lamballe, Robespierre, Danton, and Marat to name just a few.
To the right is the death mask taken of Marie Antoinette. Marie Tussaud did not attend Marie Antoinette’s execution, but she did see the queen go by in her tumbril on the way to the scaffold.
*It is doubtful that Mary's death mask was created at the time of her death.
With Halloween around the corner, here is how to make your own death mask using the 16th century techniques:
Dead or Live subject
1. Paint the hair over with a thick solution of modeling clay or oil so that the plaster will not adhere to it.
2. Ladle thin plaster over the face.
3. Place a thread from the bottom of the chin to the top of the forehead.
4. Ladle a thicker plaster over the face.
5. Before the second layer dries, remove the thread to divide the mask into two halves.
6. After the mold is hard, carefully remove it from the face. This step is hard. Be careful.
7. Fit the two halves together.
8. Clean the inside of the plaster mask and refill it with modeling clay and plaster to make the final model.
9. Add hair, eyelashes...glitter. Be creative. This is YOUR death mask.
Stay tuned for a future post on Marie Tussaud and her wax models.
Benkard, Ernst. Kolbe, Georg. Green, M. Margaret. Undying Faces: A Collection of Death Masks. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003