The face, in life and death,
exposes deep truths of our human condition.
A history channel documentary, titled “Masks of Death”, presents the computer re-created faces of famous people, based on life and death masks. These are remarkable in their apparent authenticity and confirm that faces reveal truths of our physiological and psychological health and fitness—the primary thesis of Faces Tell All, Philip Wolfson’s groundbreaking new techno thriller.
Plaster and wax, reinforced by resins and other plasticizers, have been used since ancient times to make impressions of faces and thereby recreate three-dimensional models, busts and statues—often with the intention of glorifying the subjects and conveying qualities associated with them such as heroism, nobility, strength, sagacity, etc. Many of these were known to have been enhanced by the sculptor/artisan in order to idealize the individual, as will be elaborated on below.
Laser scanning of Abraham Lincoln’s life and death masks—generating digital “map files” of skin texture and facial topography—have enabled the production of highly detailed, full color, 3-D images of him. These are breathtaking in their photorealism, showing discolorations, pores, hairs, blemishes, scars and other imperfections, but also indicating signs of progressive, debilitating illness, possibly, as one investigator has suggested, Marfan’s Syndrome (characterized by abnormally long growth of limbs and weakness of connective tissue, leading to excessive wrinkling and lines on the skin.)
These color, 3-D images derived from two life masks, the first taken in 1860 when Lincoln was running for President, shows a contrast between vigorous and healthy looking facial topography and one taken 5 years later during the Civil War, when occupational stress, grief over the loss of his son Todd to Typhus, and possible underlying disease have apparently wrought a shocking deterioration in his appearance.
It has been theorized, particularly in the case of Lincoln, that the effects of prolonged psychological stress—with the liberation of excess cortisol and inflammation throughout the body—can accelerate the aging process, and with attendant suppression of the protective immune system, also exacerbate a wasting illness.
George Washington was also cited as an example of one whose physical appearance, as captured in portraits and in life and death masks, seemed to vary greatly and was apparently subject to detrimental effects such as aging, stress and disease—in Washington’s case, in particular, the presence or absence of artificial teeth.
It was reported that Washington disliked what has become a well-known portrait of him by Gilbert Stuart. This and other similar works probably painted when Washington was not wearing his dentures, reveals a weak, recessed jaw and a compressed smile line.
However, life and even death masks of Washington, taken when his dentures were present and showing restored contours of his face and jaw, have been used to recreate, in 3-D images, a much different picture of the first president: a generally fuller look to the face, together with a squarish, more “masculine” jaw and the suggestion of a smile.
And, the Washington 3-D image recreation, in full color, not only shows a more florid, healthier complexion than the pastier one of the Gilbert portraits, but also—authentically—pox marks on his cheeks, evidence of a youthful bout of small pox.
(Interestingly, the documentary commentator observed that portraits of recent presidents from Kennedy to Obama seem to have undergone enhancements of one kind or another which convey qualities of power and strength. Faces Tell All illustrates the use of official portraits as tools of public relations and propaganda, citing an example of an ancient Chinese Emperor.)
The authenticity of supposed death masks of Julius Caesar has been questioned because of the loss of one that was reportedly a whole body wax effigy from his funeral and the controversy surrounding the provenance of other masks claimed to be authentic. One, the Turin 139 head (bust) of Caesar, shows him to be gaunt and depleted looking with sagging under chin, albeit with a striking “Roman” nose. One investigator concluded that this likeness of Caesar was not a true one because, although it may have have portrayed some of his features, it did not suggest the charisma associated with such an historic figure.
The Tusculum Caesar bust is now thought most likely to be genuine, because a) it was crafted from a death mask during the era of his lifetime and b) it presents features that were described by his contemporaries as Caesar’s—an “intellectually” prominent forehead, a deeply receded hairline, severely-wrinkled brow, large, black piercing eyes along with, yes, a “Roman” nose—and which resemble those seen in coins struck during that era.
Another reputedly accurate 3-D re-creation based on a death mask is that of William Shakespeare. Laser measurements of that mask compared to portraits, engravings and a funerary bust of him verify its authenticity. The full color recreation reinforces those other graphic mpressions of him as possessing a penetrating gaze suggestive of great intelligence, delivered beneath large, expressive brows.
Also highly controversial are Napoleon’s death masks, one version of which was supposedly verified by his physician and his mother. That version, however, may have been distorted or enhanced because measurements show it to be more in keeping with a man of much larger stature—over 6 feet tall.
Another, more likely authentic, version is the so-called Russi mask of Napolean; its measurements comport with his reported height of between 5’2” and 5’4” and its features more closely resemble those in a portrait thought to be a good likeness by contemporaries. What various portraits and the 3-D recreation all seem to convey is that Napolean possessed Corsican dark looks and eyes—powerful and expressive—and a small mouth whose contours suggested an “imperial” pout.
The Masks of Death documentary concludes with a subject of comparatively recent history: John Dillinger, 1930’s America’s “Public Enemy Number One”. The authenticity of a death mask of Dillinger, taken within a day or so following his killing by federal agents was seriously questioned due to an apparent disparity between pre and post-mortem facial features shown in photographs—and the rumor that a “double” of Dillinger had instead been employed. Soon, however, the relatively modern science of the day was able to establish that the mask was genuine—that the distortion of features was likely caused by trauma when Dillinger, shot in the head, fell face first onto 100 degree hot pavement, and also by natural post-mortem changes that occurred before the taking of a death mask.
Photos of Dillinger, before after death, attracted widespread attention, of course, due to his notoriety as a quasi-folk hero who boldly flouted authority, capturing the public imagination, as have fictional gangsters of recent times, most famously in the Godfather and The Sopranos.
The subjects presented above illustrate how celebrities (famous or infamous) and their faces continue to fascinate the public—either as general types and symbols or for the unique qualities that certain individual’s faces suggest through their structures and expressions. Of course, death masks can only represent static facial topography—not the animated projection screen of personality that is the living human face. Clearly, the contrast of life and death serves to dramatize the inextricable link between personality and appearance.
As to our continuing preoccupation with our own images, (from the preface of Faces Tell All:) The face reflects “all of life’s drama and human nature, so that even a child can read at a glance all that history has recorded in the mind and heart of our species: the primitive fear and rage of the cave dweller, despair and distrust turning to hope and faith as man civilizes through the ages, exultation and bliss as he reaches for the heavens—all expressed in the face.”
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