Vienna / The Vienna Funeral Museum is marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven with an exhibition displaying the death masks of some of the great classical music composers in history.
The collection includes the funeral masks of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert.
Although death masks have been used since ancient Egypt, they experienced their golden era in the late 18th and 19th centuries when casting a plaster mask of the famous was very common.
The masks, made out of wax or other materials, were not only the deceased’s last portraits but took on the identity of covetable relics.
In some cases, artists sculpted several masks of the same person.
Beethoven had two: one was moulded years before his death while the second one was made when he died.
The difference between both pieces is significant.
“We have the living mask of Beethoven, made three to five years before he died, and we have his death mask, made several hours after he died,” Communication manager at the museum Sarah Hierhacker told EFE.
“If you watch them you can see that his face was suffering from his illness, but also the technique makes it look peaceful.”
The sculpting technique used was different for people who were still alive and those who had already died.
The latter aimed at preserving the person’s image before death, erasing any traces of Rigour Mortis and restoring a serene expression devoid of any sign of agony.
With Mozart’s mask, experts are uncertain whether the mould was made when he was alive or dead as his portrait, despite seemingly alive, shows some signs of illness, according to Hierhacker.
Schubert only allowed artists to complete one mask in his life.
At that time many rejected funeral masks owing to the superstition that capturing someone’s face shortly after death could also trap the person’s soul.
The show offers visitors a journey through Beethoven’s life and also focuses on some of the musicians who inspired him.
Among the objects displayed there are some fascinating ones, such as an invitation to Beethoven’s funeral.
The exhibit tells the story of Haydn’s skull, stolen after his death in 1809 and displayed for years at the Musikverein music palace in Vienna.
Beethoven suffered early deafness along with other health problems, aggravated in his last years by his alcoholism.
It is believed the cause of his death was liver failure related to the medication he took to treat pneumonia.
Beethoven and Schubert’s graves are located at the Vienna Central Cemetery, the second largest in Europe and the most popular in the Austrian capital.
After his death in 1827, Beethoven’s body was buried in the Währing cemetery but local authorities exhumed and reburied it in the Central Cemetery in 1888.
The cemetery covers an area of 2.5 square kilometres and hosts more than three million graves in a city with only 1.7 million inhabitants.
It offers Catholic burials but also evangelical, orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, as well as for atheists or agnostics.
Despite Mozart’s remains being buried elsewhere, a sculpture in his honour was placed in the cemetery.
He was buried in 1791 in an unmarked grave that, almost a century later, has not been identified. (February 24, 2020, EFE/PracticaEspañol)
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