Death Masks and the Black Plague

Humanity has always had a fascination with death.  From ancient times when they mummified their dead to modern times where they hold elaborate funerals, death has always been a major component in human lives.  One of the most interesting traditions of death started in the 1400s and continues to this day.  Death masks are the plaster casting of a person’s face that is taken after they die.  Much like the Egyptian masks found on mummies, these masks are meant to immortalize the person’s appearance for generations to come.  Originally, these death masks were only made of famous or influential people.  In France, whenever a king died, the court painter was summoned to take a cast of his face even before the mortician was summoned to embalm him.  The mask was then placed on a life size model that was complete with wax hands and real hair from the deceased.  It wasn’t until the revolutions of the peasants, that death masks of commoners started appearing. One of the most famous death masks of these revolutionaries was George Washington, leader of the American colonies and first president of the United States of America.  Countless of these masks, both of kings and commoners, have now been put on display in various museums and historical sights so that the future generations can remember where they came from.

In October 1347, the arrival of 12 ships in Italy changed the course of fate forever.  Abroad these ships were deadly stowaways, rats carrying fleas that had been infected with the black plague.  For the next 12 years, death ran rampant, killing thousands.   One of the classic images from this period is that of the doctors in bird masks.  The mask, with its dark eyes and long slender beak, has been reproduced by many Halloween stores.  Back when it was first made, the mask had one important purpose, to keep the doctor from getting sick.  During the time period when the Black Plague was at its peak, science had yet to prove that disease was caused by germs.  Most people believed that it was either God’s wraith or bad smells in the air.  The doctors’ masks bought into the second explanation.  The long nose, unlike most of the modern day versions, was a long tube stuffed with either perfume or herbs.  It was believed that if the doctors walked around with the herbs in the beak, then it would keep them from getting sick.  Yet despite the fact that this didn’t work, these masks still play and important part in our culture.

~Elyce

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