Virtual Museum of Death Mask

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Виртуальный музей посмертной маски

Copyright © 2006-2009 One Street Museum
Designed by Anton Kozyr

THE METHAPHYSICS OF DEATH MASK A death mask, as such, is known as a part of traditions of virtually all countries and nations. As far back as in the time of the ancient Egypt, it was believed that there was an invisible connection between the kingdoms of Heaven and Earth. That is why the most important process of the funeral ceremony was the mummification of a body which, after prayers and consecration, was put into a sarcophagus enameled and decorated with gold and gems. A special element of the rite was a death mask, put on the face of the deceased. This mask was believed to strengthen the spirit of the mummy and guard the soul from evil spirits in its way to the afterworld. The most well known death mask is the mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (the eighteenth dynasty). Made of gold and gems, the mask truthfully conveys the features of the ancient kingdom ruler. From the time of the Middle Kingdom, the ancient Egyptians covered the faces of the dead with the conventionalized masks with generalized features. These masks served to help the spirits of the dead to find the bodies upon their return, and were made of linen covered with plaster, then painted. The faces of deceased kings of Cambodia and Siam were covered with gold masks. The Incas covered the faces of the deceased royalty with the masks made of gold and nephritis. Natives of some African tribes believed that a mask of an ancestor imparted the magic power of the deceased to the descendant. The magic ceremony of creating the clay masks on the skulls was common in the south of today's Ukraine. At times these masks were placed along the dead bones in the catacomb tombs - an attempt to make the dead alive. The ancient Greeks for making death masks used wax, which even then was attributed with the magic power. In November of 1876, the famous archeologist Henrich Schliemann discovered in Mycenae six graves being fully confident that those belonged to the kings and ancient Greek heroes Agamemnon, Cassandra, Evrimdon, and their associates. To his surprise, the skulls were covered by the gold death masks never mentioned by Homer. DEATH MASK IN THE WORLD HISTORY In the Middle Ages, a shift took place from the precious masks to the masks made out of the wax and plaster casts. The masks were not being put into graves any more. Instead, as true rarity, they were kept in the libraries, museums, and universities. The death masks were taken not only of the deceased royalty and nobility (Henry VIII, B.Sforza), but also of the eminent persons - poets, philosophers, and dramaturges, such as Dante, Bruneleski, Torquato Tasso, Shakespeare, and Pascal. The death masks were then used for making marble sculpture portraits and busts or printed gravures of the deceased. The first example in history of a large collection of the death masks and their consequent transformation into wax figures is the story of the famous madam Tussauds. In Britain the tradition of death masks began in the 15th century. At first, the masks served for making full size wood figures, which were placed upon the coffins during burial ceremonials. Only later were the masks used for making sculpture portraits (O. Cromwell, J.Swift, and Sir Isaac Newton). Evidently, it was from Britain that the death mask tradition has been brought to America. Now, many American universities possess remarkable collections of death masks. The death masks and hand casts have been taken of almost all American presidents, eminent scientists, and Hollywood stars. The most famous and scandalous cast was the death mask of the bank robber John Dillinger, who died on July 22, 1934. But, certainly, there is no other nation as respectful towards the mystery of death as Germans. The death masks have been taken virtually of all notable German personalities. The tradition of death mask was still in place when Hitler came to power. During that period the death masks were taken of Paul von Hindenburg - German Field Marshal and President of Germany from 1925-1934, Reinhardt Heydrich - a protector of Bohemia and Moravia killed in Prague in 1942, and Erwin Rommel, renowned for his African desert victories during World War II and the plot against Hitler. The tradition of a death mask is common for other countries as well: Austria (J.Haydn, L.van Beethoven, F.Schubert, G.Mahler, Italy (composers, opera singers, and filmmakers), Spain (A.Gaudi), Finland (K.Mannerheim), Poland (G.Senkevich, J.Pilsudski), Turkey (Ataturk), and Argentina (E.Peron). TRADITIONS OF DEATH MASK IN UKRAINE AND RUSSIA In Russia, the death mask tradition dates back to the times of Peter I. His death mask taken by K.B.Rastrelli as well as death masks of Alexander I, Nikolay I, and Alexander II are well known. From the middle of the 19th century this tradition spread country-wide. The masks were being taken of all prominent writers and poets, painters and actors, statesmen and philosophers. The eminent sculptor Sergey Merkurov (1881-1952) is rightfully considered to be a reformer of the death mask art. He was the author of more than hundred death masks of public and politician figures, scientists, and artists. Matvey Manizer (1891-1966) took Merkurov's place. On March 5, 1953 Manizer received an important state order to make a mask and hand cast of the deceased Stalin. He performed the work brilliantly. After his death the right to take death masks from the "high and mighties" passed on to Iulian Rukavishnkov (1922-2000). He took death masks of L.Brezhnev, Y.Andropov, and K.Chernenko. The origin of this tradition in Ukraine dates back to the ancient times when the unknown painters of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra were creating three-dimensional portraits of saints. Their main purpose was to keep the image of the holy people for the descendants. One of the first real Ukrainian death masks known is the mask of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko taken by Peter Clodt von Jurgensburg in Petersburg. Western Ukraine, which has always been closer to Europe culturally, adopted this tradition at once. The death masks were taken of many famous people there. In the territory of Ukraine which was then a part of the Russian Empire, on the other hand, the death masks have been taken only rarely. The most famous masks are of the prominent dramaturge, writer and public figure M.Staritsky, the great pianist and composer N.Lysenko and the cast of a hand of the outstanding writer and human rights activist V.Korolenko. During the Soviet period, the death masks were taken of one of the founders of Ukrainian theater N.Sadovsky, academician D. Zabolotny, actors Maria Zankovetskaya and Panas Saksagansky. Thank to this, we now have the opportunity to know what many of Ukrainian historical figures actually looked like. SERGEY MERKUROV The prominent sculptor Sergey Merkurov was born in Alexandropol, Armenia in 1881. After finishing a Tiflis school, he entered the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, but was soon beaten by policemen while participating in a political demonstration, as a result of which Merkurov contracted tuberculosis. Then he had to move to Yalta, where a climate was more suitable for his health. Later on, Merkurov continued his studies abroad. He studied at the Munich Academy of Art in Germany and traveled throughout Europe. Having returned from Europe in 1907, Merkurov made busts of Catholicos Khrimyan and anarchist P.Kropotkin, memorials of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Merkurov was interested in spiritualistic and mystic doctrines, which were popular in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. His cousin G.Gurdzhiev was a very famous philosopher-mystic and Merkurov became a member of the occult society. Possibly, this can explain his interest in death masks. Merkurov made death masks of Lev Tolstoy, Lenin, F.Dzerzhinsky, J.Sverdlov, V.Kuybyshev etc. He was the author of more than hundred death masks of public and politician figures, scientists, and artists. After 1917, Merkurov created monuments of all revolutionary leaders. In 1924 Merkurov took the Lenin's death mask. From that moment the image of Lenin became the main subject in Merkurov's art. He created the sculpture of Lenin for the World's Fair, held in New-York in 1937. Later this monument was erected in Kiev. In the 1920s Merkurov set up monuments of Karl Marx and Timiryazev. He created monuments of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol in the 1930s. In 1945-1949 Merkurov headed the Pushkin Museum of the Fine Arts in Moscow. Sergey Merkurov died in 1952 and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery.