Now we have photography. But once upon a time, people relied on life or death masks to know what a historical figure really looked like. The masks were made by covering a person’s face with wax or plaster for about an hour. After the material dried, it was removed. And voila, one had a mask with the true features of that person.
Life masks were made while the person was alive. Death masks, after the person died, to preserve their features for posterity.
Here are the masks of 11 famous historical figures so you can see what they really looked like:
1. Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask
Died: 1821, aged 51.
He invaded France’s neighbors and created the First French Empire.
But many did not appreciate the ambition and autocratic ways of this great general. So they exiled Napoleon to the remote island of St. Helena.
He died on the island, and one of his doctors made the death mask.
Duplicates of his mask are displayed in several museums.
2. Mary Queen of Scots’ death mask
Died: 1587, aged 44.
Mary Stuart claimed the crown of three countries.
She inherited the Scottish crown from her father. Then Mary married the French king, and become queen consort of France. And, finally, she tried to wrestle the English crown from her cousin, Elizabeth I.
Mary lost all three thrones.
And her attempt to win the English crown led to her execution. This popular historical figure was beheaded when she was only 44 years old.
3. George Washington’s life mask
Life mask taken in 1785, aged 53.
George Washington is the patriot that led the American Revolution against Britain. After winning the war, he became the first president of the United States of America.
French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon wanted to make a statue of George. So he visited the patriot in Virginia, while he was still alive, and made a plaster cast of his face.
Many of the statues of George are based on this life mask.
4. Peter the Great of Russia’s death mask
Died: 1725, aged 52.
Peter the Great was a strong ruler who propelled Russia into the modern era. He was a visionary and a reformer.
And through his military conquests, Peter turned Russia into an empire.
5. Queen Marie Antoinette’s death mask
Died: 1793, aged 37.
This foreign princess married the future king of France when she was a teenager.
Famously, in France, Marie Antoinette became obsessed with clothes, lovers, and parties.
Her mother, the Queen of Austria, urged Marie Antoinette to pay attention to her subjects. But Marie Antoinette would not. When someone told her the people were hungry and did not have bread to eat, she may or may not have said: “Let them eat cake.” A witty reply, but an unwise one for a queen.
Her rule and her husband’s did not end well. The French revolutionaries beheaded both of them.
The same revolutionaries had arrested a woman named Tussaud. Since Tussaud knew how to make wax masks, the revolutionaries freed her. They charged her with making death masks of those killed by the revolution.
So Tussaud made the death mask of Marie Antoinette. She later moved to London and took the masks with her. There, she opened a museum, the celebrated Madame Tussaud’s, where Marie Antoinette’s death mask is on display.
6. Maximilien Robespierre’s death mask
Died: 1794, aged 36.
Robespierre was another victim of the French Revolution. Which is interesting, since he was one of its most fervent supporters. But he turned out to be too fervent.
Robespierre is remembered as the man who sent France spiralling into the Reign of Terror.
After the fall of the monarchy, Robespierre became powerful. And he got really good at signing death sentences.
Eventually, the French had enough of his bloody ways and sent him too to the guillotine.
Madame Tussaud was charged with making his death mask.
7. Oliver Cromwell’s death mask
Died: 1658, aged 59.
Oliver Cromwell was another controversial figure.
He is hailed as the father of freedom by some and as a regicidal dictator by others. Everyone can probably agree that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Then Oliver became the head of the short-lived Republican Commonwealth. and introduced many reforms.
Oliver Cromwell died from natural causes.
Not one, but six death masks were made directly from his face so everyone would remember this English historical figure.
8. Ludwig van Beethoven’s life mask
Life mask made in 1812, when Ludwig was 42.
Beethoven is known worldwide for his music.
When the German composer was 42 years old, artist Franz Klein made his life mask.
Many of the portraits of the musician are based on this mask.
Another mask was made 15 years later, when Beethoven died.
9. Wolfgang Mozart’s death mask
Died: 1791, aged 35.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy.
The Austrian composed several pieces before he was 10 years old. As a child, he toured the European courts with his father, playing his music for the rich and famous.
Wolfgang died when he was only 35, and there is a bit of controversy as to whether this mask is really his face.
Count von Stritetz had a death mask made from Mozart’s face. But the mask went missing in 1821 after both the count and his wife died.
Then, in 1947, sculptor Willy Kau found this death mask in an Austrian antique shop. The sculptor, who after all worked with faces all the time, thought the mask resembled Mozart. He took it to the authorities to have it authenticated, but the results were inconclusive.
In the late 1950s, more studies were made, and they found initials engraved in the mask. Apparently, they belong to a bronze caster who lived right next door to… Mozart.
Today, experts are inclined to believe the death mask is Mozart’s, but no one is 100% sure.
10. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s death mask
Died: 1564, aged 89.
The Italian master died when he was 89 years old. And one of his sculptor friends, Daniele de Volterra, cast his death mask because he wanted to have a memento of this historical figure.
Later on, Daniele made several busts of Michelangelo based on the mask.
11. Lorenzo de Medici’s death mask
Died: 1492, aged 43.
Lorenzo de Medici was one of the greatest maecenas of the Italian Renaissance. That is, he supported the arts and protected artists.
He commissioned many of the works of say, Botticelli and Michelangelo. So, many of the masterpieces created by the duo exist thanks to Lorenzo.
Lorenzo was also a powerful statesman. He was the head of the city of Florence, which at the time was an independent region.
Lorenzo died in his villa in Carreggi, near Florence. Soon after, his family asked for a stucco mask to be made from his face.
12. Martin Luther’s death mask
Died: 1546, aged 62.
Martin Luther had a huge impact on the religion and culture of the West.
Martin started as a Catholic priest, but he fell out with the Church. Eventually, he helped establish a new religion -or a new branch of Christianity: Protestantism.
The German theologian died from natural causes at 62. Soon after his death, his relatives called an artist called Furtenagel. They asked him to make the death mask of this historical figure.