Famous Death Masks Ludwig Van Beethoven

About the history of the plastar death mask made of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827), German composer

"My day's work is done; if a physician can still be of use in my case, 'his name shall be called wonderful.'" With those English words from Handel's Messiah, the long-deaf composer resigned himself to death. Cirrhosis of the liver had resulted in jaundice and a dropsical condition. At Schwarzspanierstrasse 15 in Vienna, attended by his longtime friend Stephan von Breuning, the composer steadily declined. Snow had fallen on the dark day of Mar. 26, 1827, and at 5:15 P.M. an unseasonable bolt of lightning exploded like a bomb over the city. Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his right arm high with first clenched as if in salute, and fell back dead.

Dr. Johann Wagner performed an autopsy the next day, with special attention to the organs of hearing. He cut through and removed the temporal bones, depriving the face of its lower support and creating the deep hollows seen in the mask. "But in any event," wrote Ernst Benkard, "the master's appearance had changed greatly."

The dying Beethoven was "more like a skeleton than a living man."

Joseph Dannhauser, a young artist, took the mask on Mar. 28, two days after the composer's death and one day before his funeral. Dannhauser later became a principal painter of the Viennese bourgeois genre. "Such casts of great men are often permitted," wrote Bruening beforehand, "and if we forbade it, our refusal might afterwards be regarded as an encroachment upon the rights of the public. "Contrasted with Beethoven's life mask of 1812, the facial change is indeed startling.

Several casts were made from the original mold. The one shown is contained in the Hutton Collection at Princeton University. Its indistinct surface probably indicates it as a later replica from the original mold.

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