A traditional method of capturing the physical trace of the human body was through the invention of the death mask. The mask would be created by pouring wax or plaster onto the face of the deceased individual. This process was the only way in which to capture the physical features of an individual before the photographic process was invented.
The most famous example of the death mask is that of Tutankhamun, made from solid gold and inlaid with precious stones. The process of creating the death mask gained momentum in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries where individuals of high status or royalty had masks made which were used as effigies as their bodies lay in state. The earliest known European example is the death mask of Edward III. Interestingly, only British examples have survived from this time period as all casts taken of French royalty within this period were destroyed during the French Revolution.
This technique continued to be used throughout the subsequent centuries, becoming more widespread and increasingly less exclusive to the aristocracy. It was used to capture the physical features of unknown victims of crime, murder or suicide. One of the most compelling examples was created in the 19th Century and known as L’Inconnue de la Seine. This death mask was taken from the body of an unknown female who was found in the River Seine in Paris, a possible victim of suicide. A pathologist at the morgue took a cast from the victim as he was enchanted by her face.
Such was the interest in this story, that the cast was reproduced and the general public bought copies of the original and displayed them in their homes. It became an object d’art and a source of inspiration for both tomes of literature and within the Visual Arts. Boddaert (1993) discusses the writer and philosopher Albert Camus and his reaction to the viewing of L’Inconnue de la Seine. He compared the expression on her face to that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The L’Inconnue de la Seine became endlessly intriguing and fascinating to artists and the public alike. There is little doubt that the comparison to Da Vinci’s masterpiece only helped to propell the myth surrounding the victim and into the bourgeois society of the day. The mysterious and enigmatic quality of the cast served as a source of inspiration for subsquent decades to follow. In 1958 it became the face model for the first aid CPR doll, and is claimed to be the most kissed face in the world.
L'Inconnue de la Seine
The death mask acts as a way of capturing the in-between stages of life. It records the physical features of the human form but taken after death. In this sense, the death mask acts as a link between the two stages of existence, life and death. They have the ability to transcend these states in order to become something more than just a record of the physical features of an individual. They are an absent presence, captured in a specific moment in time. They are tangible through the physical cast and can provide information to the viewer with regards to their expression or the action of their body at time of death. But ironically, the death mask remains inaccessible to the living. We can only make assumptions based on the casts we see, we cannot unlock them completely. They give the viewer a tantalising glimpse into the past life of the individual which only serves to create more questions. Who were they? What did they feel?
The (alleged) Death Mask of Shakespeare
In ancient civilisations, the death mask would be put on display in the home of the family as a reminder of the individual’s life. The capturing of the physical body through the casting process could be argued as acting as a kind of memory which helps to fix the physical trace for eternity. The loss of the individual only succeeds in making the viewer sense the human condition more readily. The fact that these casts are made after death only makes them more poignant, and endlessly fascinating.
Jennifer Richards is a Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. She currently holds a Masters Degree in Contemporary Arts. Her research areas explore a range of visual responses to the themes of transformation, masquerade, temporality and performance. She has recently presented papers at Kingston University’s Reflected Shadows Conference; exhibited work at the University of Sheffield’s Reimagining the Gothic Showcase and is currently working on her paper for the Temporal Discombobulations conference at the University of Surrey in August.