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 someone really looked like. This masks were created by covering the person’s face with wax or plaster for about an hour. After it dried it was removed and, voila, one had a mask with the true features of the person. Life masks were made while the person was still alive, while death masks after they had died.

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 and 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 Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died.

One of his doctors made the death mask, and casts taken from it 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 married the French king, and finally tried to wrestle the English crown from her cousin, Elizabeth I.

Mary lost all three thrones. And her unsuccessful attempt to win the English crown led to the execution of this popular historical figure and Scottish heroine.

2. George Washington’s life mask

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

Life mask taken in 1785, aged 53.

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

French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon visited George and made a plaster cast of his face while the patriot was still alive.

Many of the statues of this historical figure are based on this life mask.

George Washington died 14 years later.

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 historical figure, 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. And through his military conquests, Peter made Russia 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 was married off to the future king of France when she was a teenager. Once in the French court, Marie Antoinette was famously a lot more interested in what was going on in her own life (clothes, parties) than what was happening to the French people. She may or may not have said “Let them eat cake” when told that the people were hungry and out of bread.

In any case, her rule and her husband’s did not end well. The French revolutionaries beheaded them.

The same revolutionaries had arrested a woman named Tussaud who was skilled at making wax masks. They freed Tussaud and charged her with making the death masks of those killed by the revolution.

So Madame Tussaud made the death mask of Marie Antoinette. When she later migrated to London, she took the masks with her an opened a museum, the celebrated Madame Tussaud’s.

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.
Death mask of Maximilian Robespierre exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s in London, England.

Died: 1794, aged 36.

Robespierre was another victim of the revolution… although he was one of its most fervent supporters. Way too fervent, actually.

Robespierre is remembered as the man who sent France spiraling into the Reign of Terror, after the fall of the monarchy. He got really good at signing death sentences.

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

Madame Tussaud also made the wax death mask of Maximilien Robespierre.

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 which ended with the dethronement of King Charles I of England. And Oliver was one of the people who singed the king’s death sentence.

Then Oliver became the head of the short-lived republican Commonwealth and introduced many reforms.

Oliver Cromwell died from natural causes. To be sure everyone remembered this English historical figure, six death masks were made directly from his face.

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 that has been turned into 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 composed several pieces well before he was 10 years old. And 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 whether this mask is actually 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 Willy Kau, a sculptor with knowledge of physiognomy, found it in an Austrian antique shop and thought it resembled Mozart. He took it to the authorities to have it authenticated, but the results were inconclusive. Then in the late 1950’s more studies were made, and this time they found initials engraved. 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.
Death mask of Michelangelo Buonarroti made by Daniele de Volterra. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Died: 1564, aged 89.

Michelangelo is the ultra famous 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 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 those masterpieces exist thanks to him.

Lorenzo was a powerful statesman. He was the head of the Florentine Republic, which is now part of Italy.

Soon after Lorenzo died in his villa of Careggi, near Florence, his family had a mask from his face made.

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.
Copy of Martin Luther’s death mask kept at the house he died in 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 out 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 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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