Death Masks: The Real Faces of 11 of Your Favorite Historical Figures

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.

Napoleon Bonaparte does not need much of an introduction. He was a Corsican officer who climbed the ranks during the French Revolution. Napoleon made it to general, then to consul and emperor.

By invading France’s neighbors, he 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, where he died.

One of his doctors made the death mask.

Duplicates of his mask are now displayed in several museums.

2. Mary Queen of Scots’ death mask

Death mask of a historical figure, probably made of white plaster. Mary's face is oval-shaped and harmonious. She is pretty. She has big eyes, a strong, straight nose; fleshy lips; a round, strong chin.
Copy of Mary Stuart’s death mask at Falkland Palace, one of her favorite country houses in Scotland. (Photo: Kim Traynor/CCBYSA3.0)

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, 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.

2. George Washington’s life mask

White plaster life mask of George Washington. He has a symmetric, strong, broad, and simple face. He has a square face. His eyes and nose are medium-sized, his lips are thin, his jaw is square.
The life mask of George Washington, in plaster. Morgan Library & Museum, New York, U.S.

Life mask taken in 1785, aged 53.

George Washington is the patriot that led the American Revolution against Britain. After winning, he became the first U.S. president.

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 other statues of George are based on this life mask.

Read next: Simon Bolivar, this is the real face of the Liberator of South America

3. Peter the Great of Russia’s death mask

Bronze death mask of Peter the Great. It shows the distortion caused by being taken while Peter was lying down and dead. His face is serene, almost smiling. It is roundish, his eyes are medium-sized, his nose is curved to one side, he has fleshy cheeks and slightly fleshy lips. His jaw is roundish.
Peter’s death mask is kept at the Kunstkamera, a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo: Raymond June/CCBYND2.0)

Died: 1725, aged 52.

Peter the Great was a strong ruler who propelled Russia into the modern era.

Through his military conquests, Peter turned Russia into an empire.

More on Russian monarchs: Catherine the Great’s Lovers: These Are the 12 Men She Loved

4. Queen Marie Antoinette’s death mask

Wax death mask of Marie Antoinette. She is young and pretty. Her face is symmetric and probably square-shaped. All of her features are soft. Her eyes are closed, her small nose has a slight curve, her lips are thin, her jaw is soft.
Death mask of Marie Antoinette at Madame Tussaud’s, London, England.

Died: 1793, aged 37.

This Austrian 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 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.

5. Maximilien Robespierre’s death mask

Wax death mask of a historical figure, Maximilien Robespierre. A handsome man in his thirties with a symmetric square face. All his features are medium-sized and well-proportioned: his forehead, eyes, nose, lips, and chin.
The death mask of Maximilian Robespierre exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s in London, England.

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 had enough of his bloody ways and sent him to the guillotine.

Madame Tussaud was charged with making his death mask.

6. Oliver Cromwell’s death mask

Wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's face is roundish, asymmetrical, and has lots of curves. He has a small forehead, his eyebrows curve down, his eyes are medium-sized with rounded eyelids, his nose is curved to one side, he has low, fleshy cheeks; fleshy lips; and a softer-roundish jaw. He has a mustache.
Wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell kept at the British Museum, London, England. (Photo: Afshin Taylor Darian/CCBY2.0)

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.

Oliver participated in the English Civil Wars. The wars ended with the dethronement of King Charles I of England. And Oliver was one of the people who signed the king’s death sentence.

Then Oliver became the head of the short-lived Republican Commonwealth. And he 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.

7. Ludwig van Beethoven’s life mask

Life mask of a historical figure: Beethoven. In white plaster. He has a symmetric, strong, square face with a small, straight, nose. The gesture shows intensity: his eyebrows are slightly frowned, his lips are tightly closed and curved down, his jaw is clenched.
Life mask of Ludwig van Beethoven kept at the Chateau de By, France. (Photo: Renaud Camus/CCBY2.0)

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, after Beethoven died in Vienna.

8. Wolfgang A. Mozart’s death mask

Probably Mozart's death mask. He has a long, thin, serene face. His nose is prominent and curved, his lips are medium-sized.
Death mask kept at Mozart’s old house, which is now a museum. Mozart Haus, Vienna, Austria.

Died: 1791, aged 35.

One of the greatest composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a child prodigy.

The Austrian had composed several pieces well before he was 10 years old. As a child, he toured the European courts with his father, playing 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 of his face.

Count von Stritetz had the death mask taken 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 one 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.

9. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s death mask

Bronze death mask of a historical figure: Michelangelo. Rectangular face of an older, bearded man. His forehead is somewhat flat and medium-sized, his straight eyebrows sit just above his small eyes, he has a broad, flat nose, and thinnish lips.
The death mask of Michelangelo Buonarroti made by Daniele de Volterra. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Died: 1564, aged 89.

Michelangelo is the painter of the Sistine Chapel and the sculptor of the David.

Many -or all- of his works are among the best in Western art.

The Italian master died when he was 89 years old. And one of his sculptor friends, Daniele de Volterra, cast his death mask. He wanted to have a memento of this historical figure.

Later on, Daniele made several busts of Michelangelo based on the mask.

Read also: These are the Most Expensive Paintings in the World, And Their Price is Insane

10. Lorenzo de Medici’s death mask

Plaster death mask of Lorenzo de Medici. He has tough features. His face is rectangular, flat, and broad. He has big wide set eyes, his nose is very flat, broad, and curved to the side, might have been broken; he has thin lips and a square jaw.
Lorenzo’s death mask is kept in the Museo degli Argenti in the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy. (Photo: Wikimedia/CCBYSA4.0)

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 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.

11. Martin Luther’s death mask

Plaster death mask of Marin Luther. A square-roundish face with plump features. He has prominent brow ridge, very deep-set eyes, a bit of a bulbous nose, medium-sized lips, a strong chin, and an overall fleshy face.
A copy of Martin Luther’s death mask. It is exhibited in the house where he died, in Eisenach, Germany. (Photo: Paul T. McCain/CCBYSA2.5)

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.

Read next: These 3 Atheistic Religions Do Not Believe in Gods -And Are Doing Just Fine

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2020-06-15
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