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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Kissing Death Masks and Loving Other False Faces

 Death mask of L'Inconnue de la Seine

Halloween is the season of the false face of amusement -- the mask. A false face may be defined as an object normally worn on the face for disguise, performance, or entertainment. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial purposes. Some ceremonial or decorative masks were not designed to be worn.

Possibly the most bizarre mask that was designed not to be worm is a death mask, a wax or plaster cast made of a person's face following death. 

Death masks have served as mementos of the dead, or even as useful molds for the creation of portraits. In some cultures, death masks are clay artifacts placed on the face of the deceased before burial rites. The best known of these are the masks used by ancient Egyptians as part of the mummification process, such as Tutankhamun's mask.

In the seventeenth century in some European countries, it was common for death masks to be used as part of the effigy of the deceased, displayed at state funerals.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were also used to permanently record the features of corpses for purposes of identification. The facial features of unidentified bodies were sometimes preserved by creating death masks so that relatives of the deceased could recognize them if they were seeking a missing person.This function was later replaced by photography.

Death masks were increasingly used by scientists from the late eighteenth century onwards to record variations in human physiognomy.  Anthropologists used such masks to study physiognomic features in famous persons and notorious criminals. Masks were also used to collect data on racial differences.

 Death mask of Abraham Lincoln

The most intriguing death mask in history, known as L'Inconnue de la Seine ("the unknown woman of the Seine"), recorded the face of an unidentified young woman who, according to one man's story, had been found drowned at the wharf of Quai du Louvre in the Seine River at Paris, France around the late 1880s.

The body was taken to the Paris Morgue, a famous institution during its time, that attracted thousands of visitors every day until it closed in 1907. Here "the allegedly serious business of identifying anonymous corpses [turned] into a spectacle […] – in the French double sense of theater and grand display." The administrators regarded the morgue as a Paris attraction.

(Vanessa R. Schwartz. Spectacular Realities. Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. 1999)

Here is description of the morgue from fiction:

"The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day."

From Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Whether the unknown young woman was publicly exhibited at the morgue is not known. What is known is that the body showed no signs of violence. According to legend, she was a young country girl who committed suicide by throwing herself into the Seine in Paris perhaps because of unrequited love. It is said her true identity was never discovered.

A male pathologist at the Paris Morgue was reportedly so taken by her beauty that he and another molder worked for hours to make a plaster cast of her face. She was considered so beautiful that the worker said, "Her beauty was breathtaking, and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved." Some said the doctor was driven mad by love for her and later threw himself into the Seine to finally meet her in its watery embrace.

The moulder who took the cast of the face was believed to be based at the Lorenzi family model-making firm. Claire Forestier, a member of the Lorenzi family, believed that the model was not dead when the cast was taken. She worked in the family modelling workshop, and said that a dead body from a river would not have such clear features. Forestier estimated the age of the model at no more than 16, given the firmness of the skin.

Other skeptics of the time said the story was pure myth. They believed L'Inconnue de la Seine was made from the living face of a German mask maker's teenage daughter, and the father grew rich selling copies of the mask.

The key to the growing appeal of the death mask was not merely the beauty of the model, but the pleasant smile captured by the cast-maker that seemed so at odds with the reputed tragic circumstances of her death.

Philosopher and French Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus and others compared her enigmatic smile to that of the Mona Lisa, inviting numerous speculations as to what clues the eerily happy expression in her face could offer about her life, her death, and her place in society. 


In the following years, copies of the mask became a fashionable fixture in Parisian Bohemian society. L'Inconnue de la Seine soon decorated the walls of many artists' homes after 1900. The figure spread far and wide: In the United States, the mask also became known as "La Belle Italienne."

The popularity of the figure also became of interest to the history of artistic media, relating to its widespread reproduction. The original cast had been photographed, and new casts were created back from the film negatives. These new casts displayed details that are usually lost in bodies taken from the water, but the apparent preservation of these details in the visage of the cast seemed to only reinforce its authenticity.

The visage of L'Inconnue de la Seine became the inspiration for numerous literary works. From novelists who took the story to dramatic (and perhaps melodramatic) heights, to well-respected writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Vladimir Nabokov who made mention of l’Inconnue in their work, the popularity of the image and the story had an immense effect on French and German culture in the 1920s and ’30s.

Critic A. Alvarez wrote in his book on suicide, The Savage God: "I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her." According to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex, Alvarez reports, "the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo."

(Al Alvarez. The Savage God. A Study of Suicide. 1971) 

A Fact: L'Inconnue de la Seine Is  
"The Most 'Kissed' Face of All Time"

So what does a death mask have to do with science? In the 1950s, pioneering medical researchers Peter Safar and James Elam got together to devise a method for teaching people cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They agreed that a training dummy was the best option, and they collaborated with the Norwegian toymaker Asmund Laerdal to develop the model.

Asmund Laerdal knew the story of the death mask of the unknown young woman whose body had been fished out of the Seine River at Quai du Louvre. He chose to make the face of the CPR dummy female, recognizing that men might be reluctant to kiss a male image, and he decided that the perfect visage for the new doll would be the face of L’Inconnue de la Seine. So, in 1958, her face was used as a model for the first CPR doll, dubbed Resusci Anne (Rescue Annie). 

Thus, the cold lips of the death mask of L’Inconnue de la Seine were reborn to offer a "kiss" of life, survival for anyone in extreme peril. This is one beautiful face that conquered untimely death and remains ready to instruct future generations. What a strange tale of an unidentified Sleeping Beauty.


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