Recent plaster cast of an old man. Recent plaster cast of an old man.

Tot Zover

Death masks: remembrance and propaganda

Ambitious monarchs and ecclesiastical leaders had their portraits spread throughout their empire in the late Middle Ages. It was an advertisement for themselves and legitimized their rule. A cast of their lifeless face showed that their power, the power of the dynasty, was unbroken even after death.

From the seventeenth century onwards, when the bourgeoisie became more powerful and self-assured, death masks of scientists, artists and writers also appeared. This is how they live on, more than through painted portraits, after their death. A well-known example is the death mask of Isaac Newton (1643-1727).


In the eighteenth century, there was a great deal of interest in death masks and they were extensively collected. Enthusiasts tried to gather the largest possible collection of "celebrities" and, especially in countries such as England and France, special galleries were created with masks of famous dead and executed criminals.

Girl from the Seine

A special story is the so-called Girl from the Seine. in the 1880s, the lifeless body of a young woman was found in the Seine. Impressed with the expression on her face - he thought she was smiling - the coroner made a plaster cast. Many molds and many hundreds of prints were made from this print. The death mask spread throughout Europe and l'Inconnu de la Seine became a real hype. She has been mentioned in many poems and films, books have appeared about her and a ballet performance has been written about her. She also acted as a model of Rescue Anne, the doll for CPR exercises.


The Netherlands has only a modest tradition in the field of death masks. The earliest known commission was given for crafting the death mask of poet and historian Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831). Intended for his circle of intimates, it also served as an example for the statue to be made. Bert Sliggers, in the catalog Naar het Corpse (1998) found 27 other death masks that have been preserved in the Netherlands. This meager number contains casts of celebrities such as King Willem II and III, Ary Scheffer, Abraham Kuyper, Willem Elsschot and Carel Willink. Museum Tot Zover has collected various old and modern death masks.


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