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July 10, 2023

Death Masks of Famous People

Throughout history, humanity has revered the passing of a person in a myriad ways. Perhaps one of the more intriguing is the preparation and creation of death masks, a final viewing of the deceased.

Death masks are fascinating but slightly terrifying relics from an age before photos. Until cameras rendered them redundant, it was common for notable people to have metal, wax or plaster applied to their face when they had died, creating a “death mask.” These gruesome artifacts exist for some of history’s most famous figures, from soldiers, to artists and even evil dictators.

Death masks first gained notoriety in Egypt, with the most recognizable belonging to King Tut. The Egyptians believed that the death mask, which would be buried with the individual, would allow the person's spirit to find his/her body in the afterlife. In some African tribes, it was believed that death masks could imbue the wearer with the power of the deceased. But in the Middle Ages, they became less of a spiritual commodity and more of a way of preserving the memory of the dead. Death masks were made for a range of famous and notable people and were put on display for many to see. And in a time before photography, this could be as close to the real thing as you might get.

It was considered an honor for famous people to have a death mask before the burial. Wax, plaster, or mud is applied to their faces to create the mask. It was a way for the living to reconnect with the past or to memorialize the dead. There were two types of masks, ‘life mask’ created when the person is alive and the ‘death mask’ and were made after the death. Both serve different purposes. Sculptors and artists use ‘life masks’ to capture the actual impression of the subject, while the ‘death mask’ was created to memorialize the dead.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)

A mask believed to be of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

A mask believed to be of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

John Keats (1795-1821)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

William Blake (1757 – 1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

James Joyce (1882-1941)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Cosima Wagner (1837-1930)

Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492)

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

George Washington (1732-1799)

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)


  1. That is a bust of Dante Alighieri, not a death mask. There is a death mask of Alighieri, but it's in the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze, and what you've posted here most definitely is not it.

  2. Thing is, whether these masks are done in life or death, the fascination of knowing what these historical people actually look like, is really intriguing.

  3. nothing about the french writer CĂ©line ?




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