A death mask is a plaster or wax mould made of a human face shortly after death (around 30 minutes after the execution). The intention was to capture the likeness of the individual and maintain their facial expression and features before these became distorted in death. They differ from their counterparts the life masks which were made to preserve the likeness of an individual while alive. Death masks were often replicated and sold to various institutions and private buyers.
Death masks were created for a variety of reasons. Organisations like museums and scientific institutes collected these masks to support the study of phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the conformation of a skull in an effort to understand the mental faculties and traits of an individual. This was undertaken in a period in which it was argued that the shape of a head could provide detailed knowledge into personality. In addition, death masks were also created to aid effigy making, as tools for sculpture and as objects of veneration. Death masks were often placed on display as objects of curiosity.
Edward “Ned” Kelly was convicted of murder on the 29th of October 1880 and executed by hanging on the 11th of November that same year. In the 1800s it was common practice for authorities to make a death mask of an executed criminal. In Kelly’s case, there were multiple copies made of his death mask, one of which is in the collection of the Burke Museum. Copies of the official death Mask (attributed to Maximilian Kreitmayer) have been made by artists including Max Meldrum (1875-1955). It depicts the head, neck and partial right shoulder of Ned Kelly.
Whilst generally considered to be a ‘pseudoscience’ today, phrenology and the study of the reception and use of artefacts like Ned Kelly’s death mask, can provide valuable insight into a past era’s views of personality and the human body. This mask presents a unique three-dimensional depiction of Ned Kelly shortly after his execution which is unlike any other depiction of him. It can provide vital information as to the use of death masks in Victoria and their popularity in the 1800s. These masks were mostly done of criminals and used for exhibition purposes alongside phrenological study. Phrenologist AS Hamilton used Kreitmayer’s replication of the mask (displayed in Kreitmayer’s Bourke Street waxworks the day after Kelly’s death) to report a detailed phrenological analysis on Ned Kelly and concluded from his research that the deceased had an “enormous self-esteem”.
Portraits of living people represent the way they themselves and/or the artists wished themselves to be remembered. The death mask contrasts this and therefore, creates a likeness of a person in their entirety and not just an ideal representation. Therefore, the study of such artefacts and their history of use and disuse can provide interesting information valuable to understanding the past.
Colour rectangular photograph printed on gloss photographic paper.
Inscriptions & markings