Casting Famous Death Masks Introduction

About the art of facial casting or death masks, an ancient tradition for preservation.



The practice of casting facial features in plaster or some other quick-setting substance originated in antiquity. It is a primitive, yet most accurate, from of photography without a camera, the "film" being the negative and positive images frozen in plaster mold and cast. Far from idealized portraits, such casts reveal--almost too honestly, at times--what noted persons really looked like.

The main purpose of the death mask from the Middle Ages until the 19th century was to serve as a model for sculptors in creating statues and busts of the deceased person. Not until the 1800s did such masks become valued for themselves as last likenesses. The taking of life masks was also a later practice.

"The face," wrote Ernst Benkard, "is symbolic and perpetuates the final impression of a human spirit. . . who had made his mark on all men's minds." Thus death masks may show us the "mystery between two phases of existence, one of which we believe that we have knowledge, whilst the other we recognize only as we believe."

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