Podcast 9: Death Masks

We’re back from a hiatus this week with Emily Knight, DPhil student in Art History, who came to talk to us about the morbidly fascinating world of posthumous portraiture, particularly death masks, from 1760-1832. Emily tells us about how death masks were made, why they were made, what they were used for, and why they prove to be so intriguing.


Of particular interest is the death mask of Sir Walter Scott, which was both commemorative and honourific, almost a secular relic. The one below is cast in bronze and is placed on a bronze cushion. Frustratingly for phrenologists, who wished to ascertain an individual’s personality through the lumps and bumps on his or her skull, Scott’s death mask bears a giant scar across his head from when his brain was taken out after his death.


The Death Mask of Sir Walter Scott

Part of the interest in phrenology was to determine what made someone a genius or a criminal, so these casts could help (pseudo-)scientists to assess facial features to come to their conclusions.