Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Death Mask

  Whilst in Jedburgh we visited the Mary Queen of Scots Museum.  A house in which
Mary is believed to have stayed for around 4 weeks when she was seriously ill.

 The house belonged to the Kerr family of nearby Ferniehirst Castle

Mary's bedroom

 The most interesting exhibit in my opinion was this

The death mask of the queen herself.

The thing that struck me most about this was the fact that it depicts a rather beautiful, serene looking woman as opposed the large nosed, dowdy old lady depicted in portraits.
Found here

My morbid curiosity got me to thinking about this rather macabre but fascinating practice

 Extreme close up

Whilst taking this photo I was half expecting this to happen

Usually only royalty or eminent members of society were immortalised in death and the cast was then used as part of the funeral service.  In the days before photography, it was also used to capture the likeness so that subsequent portraits could be made.

A couple of Google searches brought back some notable immortalisations.



Abraham Lincoln
Marie Antoinette

A serene and beautiful John Keats

Alfred Hitchcock, unmistakably

Thank you for sharing that furtive walk down Macabre Lane with me

If this kind of thing fascinates the hell out of you like it does me I would suggest trying here here and here for some further reading.

Lucy x


  1. Hello,

    I have been following your blog for while and being a bit scatty have yet to comment on your lovely posts! Sorry about that I thought I would make amends now.

    I find things like this really facinating although a bit creepy at the same time. Its funny how characters get portrayed throught time and history. I agree with you that Mary Queen of scots does look very pretty. I wonder why she was depicted so unfavourably in other portraits.

    This practice reminds me of the book of death in Victorian times where a family would have portraits taken of just passed relatives. It seems a funny practice now but I suppose to the ever curious victorians it seemed perfectly reasonable!

    P x

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by. The death rites of the Victorians are an endless source of fascination to me. They were obsessed wih death weren't they? xx

  2. I love it, thank you Lucy!You know that you can always count me in when it comes to morbid, creepy and disturbing things!!! You did an interesting research and Mary's death mask is very beautiful and definitely looks like Mombi's collection of heads, maybe the 'Return to Oz'part that impressed me most as a child..even if somedays would come in handy to choose to wear another face!
    Lots of love from a Mombi wannabe xxxxx

    1. I knew you'd appreciate this one Edie! I'm also a Mombi wannabe. That palace and that choice of heads! x

  3. Her death mask looks a bit like Katharine Hepburn - in a good way, I mean. I've got some dim recollection about unflattering depictions (on Elizabeth's orders, to make herself more popular by comparison?) but could be getting that muddled up with how they presented Henry VIII with an "airbrushed" version of one of his future wives.... fat lot of good that history A'level was;)
    Quite fascinated by death customs myself at the moment - our elderly neighbour passed away a week ago; the family are hindu and there have been some amazing rituals; so different to the haste and misery that go with the british way... x

  4. How fascinating, Mary really does look beautiful by modern day standards.
    I'm wondering if that portrait was made to flatter Elizabethan tastes, I think their perception of beauty was quite gaunt and bony faced. Keats does look a handsome and heroic character and Hitchcock, as you so rightly say, is unmistakable.
    Thank you for such a brilliant post. xxx

    1. I was so struck by Keats mask. He's just so beautiful isn't he? Died so tragically young, only 25 x

  5. Oh my goodness, Mombi!!! I MUST find our 'recorded off TV' VHS of it!!! I wanted to ask you- have you read the OZ books?!

    1. You know, I read Ozma of Oz when I was younger but I haven't read the complete collection. (shamefaced) I must put that right! x

  6. Had not seen Mary's death mask before. I suppose negative propaganda has always been around!
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

  7. Yes I find all this fascinating, and I agree, she definitely looks better in 'real death' than she did in her portraits. But then so many beauties of the past are so different from our current perceptions of the female ideal.

    I did a post some time ago about my family's slant on 'Memento Mori' photographs if you're interested.

    Memento Mori

    1. Definitely! I've just read and commented. Fascinating stuff x

  8. That scene from return to Oz always used to freak me out as a child. This is such a fascinating post, I hadn't heard of death masks before! x

  9. why did I look at this whilst at work? I'm going to be googling death masks all day long! Fascinating thank you, Mary has a look of Joan Crawford about her, there's also something very Scottish about her apperance, must be a particular Gaellic look. Those tutor portraits used to enlongate faces too. Have you read about her execution, very sad :(

  10. I'm fascinated by macabre death rituals too! Mary looks so contemporary, doesn't she? I agree with what others have said, portraits tended to be in the style of the day and reflect that, rather than the individual. It's like all those rather blowsy 17th century ladies in huge hats painted with their families in their country parks, they all look identical!
    I've been to Jedburgh, I really liked it. xxx

  11. Hi Lucy, I'd never really heard of death masks until I read something about an exhibition of death masks including William Shakespeare at the University of Edinburgh Anatomy Museum.It was earlier on this year and I don't know if it's a permanent thing but there was supposed to be Isaac Newton and also one of the Bodysnatchers (can't remember if it was Burke or Hare?). I love stuff like this... xx

  12. I have never heard or seen of this practise so i found it interesting to learn into days post. Thanks for sharing i agree that she looked much nicer in death then in the photos. dee xx

  13. Some of those death masks are pretty creepy looking but fascinating. Mary looks quite lovely though.

  14. I agree cool and creepy all in one.....

  15. Wow what a fabulous and yet slightly creepy post! Mary certainly looks better in death than in her paintings, and I vividly remember watching that scene in Return to Oz when I was a Kid and being spooked by it and those wheelie things were wonderfully creepy to if I remember rightly!

    P.S. I have given you a One lovely Blog Award, you can see what its all about over at my blog :)
    I know the these kind of things aren't every ones cuppa tea so I won't be offended if you don't pass it on, I just wanted to let you know how much I love your blog! x


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