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Death Masks

In pictures: Famous death masks

A series of deaths masks for commemorating the powerful and famous, from monarchs to musicians.

DEATH MASKS of the rich and famous in bygone centuries were traditionally made by creating a mould over a person’s face after their death and using that mould to make plaster or wax masks.

These masks were sometimes then embellished by painting features, or adding hair, and the British Museum says that the masks were often used by artists as models for posthumous portraits.

Some masks were treated as collectors’ items for display or were passed down through families for generations, such as that of Mary Queen of Scots (included in the gallery below), which was held by the Duke of Hamilton’s family in Scotland for 250 years.

Earlier this week, a bonze cast of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin which was made from the original plaster death mask was sold along with casts of his two hands for £3,600 at auction.

In pictures: Famous death masks
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  • James Joyce (1882-1941)

    Jean Durkan from Tullamore looks at the death mask of celebrated Irish author James Joyce at the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)
  • John Keats (1795-1821)

    One of the original copies of the death mask of British poet John Keats taken in Rome a few days after his death in 1821, is photographed in a glass case in his bedroom at Keats House, in London. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Images)
  • John Dillinger (1903-1934)

    Medical students make a death mask of slain outlaw John Dillinger in Chicago in July 1934. (AP Photo/PA File)
  • Mary Queen of Scots (1541-1587)

    This wax mask was made after Mary's execution (ordered by her cousin Elizabeth I, Tudor Queen of England) in 1587. Extra features like the eyelashes and hair were added later. (Danny Lawson/PA Archive)
  • Josef Stalin (1879-1953)

    The bronze death mask and casts of the former dictator's hands which sold for €4,300 at auction this week. (Image via Mullock's Specialist Auctioneers)
  • Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)

    Lenin's death mask and moulds of his hands encased in glass at Moscow's Lenin Museum in 1992. (AP Photo/Yuri Romanov/PA Images)
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

    Former French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask on display in Havana, Cuba, last year. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano/PA Images)
  • Tutankhamun (1336 BC-1327 BC)

    The treasures of the young pharaoh including this elaborate burial mask were discovered the preserved tomb in 1922. (Dave Thompson/PA Archive)
  • King Henry VII of England (1457-1509)

    The death mask of Henry VII, Tudor King of England, at Westminster Abbey, London. Henry Tudor seized the throne after his invasion of England and defeat of the Yorkist King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His victory and subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York effectively ended the Wars of the Roses. He died in 1509. (PA Archive)
  • Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

    This death mask was made after Cromwell's body was embalmed in 1658, according to the British Museum. After initially being buried at Westminster Abbey, Cromwell's body was removed after the Restoration and his head was displayed on a pole. (Image: micronova on Flickr)
  • Ned Kelly (1855-1880)

    The Irish-Australian outlaw was hanged in 1880. His hair and thick beard were shaved off before this death mask was made. (Image: paddynapper on Flickr)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

    The composer Beethoven passed away in 1827 after long-term lead poisoning had ruined his health. (Image: ed_and_don on Flickr)

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