Friday 31 October 2014

Record of the Week: the mysterious Death Mask

Today is All Hallows' Evening - or Hallowe'en if you enjoy grammatical contractions. With its roots in Western Christianity, All Hallows' Eve is the vigil before All Saints' Day. All Souls' Day follows on November 2nd, commemorating all the faithful departed.

Essentially, this part of the liturgical year is for remembering the dead. So what could be more appropriate than a death mask?

The 'Unknown Death Mask', a.k.a. the Archives' creepiest artifact.
Artifacts Special Collection, AF.107
Death masks are typically plaster casts of a person's face taken after death. Before the invention of photography, they were often created as mementoes of the deceased, or as a reference for portraiture. Masks of unknown corpses were also made to help with identification.

Our own plaster piece was in desperate need of identification. It was described as 'unknown death mask' in our artifacts catalogue. For the purposes of this blog, we wanted to cast some light on the issue (weak pun intended).

Handling the mask gingerly with cotton gloves, we searched for any identifying marks:

The maker's signature and date of creation: "O.A. Castrucci 1911"
Lo and behold, inscribed in the plaster is "O. A. CASTRUCCI 1911".  Our database did not find any Toronto clergy with this surname.  However, an online search confirmed that Castrucci Co. was a plaster cast studio located on Yonge Street in Toronto.*  This made us pretty confident that the deceased must be an important local figure.

Out of biological necessity, masks are created close to the date of death, so we searched our database to see who had died in 1911. Amazingly, two Archbishops of Toronto - Fergus McEvay and his predecessor, Denis O'Connor, C.S.B. - died within weeks of each other in the middle of that year.

Both of these bishops were robust in life and similar-looking, as evidenced by their portraits below. Both men died after suffering from disease, which would account for the gauntness of the face in the death mask.

Portraits of Archbishops of Toronto, Denis O'Connor C.S.B (left) and Fergus McEvay (right)
Somewhat disturbing are the eyelashes and eyebrow hairs embedded in the plaster.
After very little deliberation, we determined that this is likely the face of Most. Rev. Fergus McEvay, fifth ordinary of Toronto (1908-1911).  His prominent aquiline nose, which is noticeably crooked at the end, was the deciding factor.

Halloween mystery solved!

More on death masks: some of the most famous death masks include those of Dante Alighieri, Mary Queen of Scots, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The Laurence Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks at Princeton University Library contains over a hundred likenesses of English and American literary and political figures.
*Klempan, Brabara. "Early Manufacture of Artists’ Materials in Canada: A History of Canadian Art Laboratory," Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation, 37 (2012): p.50.
Zucchi, John E. Italians in Toronto: Development of a National Identity, 1875-1935 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990), p.148.

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