Hauntingly Handsome: The Mask of an Emperor


After visiting a museum, have you ever thought about what you remembered the most? What made the biggest impression on your senses and emotions? During my last trip to St Petersburg, Russia, I visited numerous art museums and galleries to try and better understand Russian culture through its art history. Here is a small "vignette" of what I experienced at one of the the city's foremost museums. Housing an art collection of over 400,000 pieces covering the entire history of Russian fine art, St Petersburg's State Russian Museum is a must do activity for art lovers. The museum is housed, primarily, in the Mikhailovsky Palace, a Russian masterpiece of Neoclassical architecture and interior design. Organized chronologically, this visitor-friendly layout facilitates the understanding of  Russian art evolution. Starting with Byzantine period Russian Orthodox church icons, to Western European influenced paintings and ending with tweithenth century avant garde works, one leaves with a complete overview of what classical Russian art is all about.

Before the reign of Peter the Great, the depiction of the "human face" in artworks was only allowed in Russian icon painting. To bring Russia out of it's backward, barbaric ways and integrate it into the civilized, European world was one of Peter's main goals. He commissioned Italian architects and artists to transform St Petersburg into a modern, cultured city. During this time the subjects of Russian paintings became more diverse with portraiture being most in "vogue."

According to Wikipedia, "Masks of deceased persons are a part of traditions in many countries." One of the most famous and earliest masks was that of Tutankhamun, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. His mask was made of gold and gems with the purpose of protecting him from evil spirits during his journey to the afterworld. The Romans' funerary masks were made of wax and were not interred with the deceased. They served as the basis for many stone sculptures. During the 18th century, known as the period of Enlightenment, death masks were made for royalty, nobility and imminent persons such as poets, philosophers and composers. They were used, also, in funeral ceremonies and later, kept on display in libraries, museums or universities.

Russia's mask tradition dates back to Peter the Great. Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian architect, artist and sculptor created the first life and death masks of Peter and thus, started this tradition in Russia. Rastelli transformed the simple death mask into an art form. Lenin, Trotsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Ana Pavlova, Brezhnev and Boris Yelsin have all had masks created for cultural posterity.

Peter the Great was a remarkably, tall and handsome man who possessed a "heroic spirit." He was said to have had "indestructible energy," an "iron will," and a "fearless gaze." In addition, he loved masked balls, parties and dressing well. A life or death mask is said to "capture the essence" of the person. I have seen several statues and paintings of this Emperor but none of them caught my attention or made a lasting impression of the "man" as did his life mask. His face was strong, refined and intelligent, nothing like the unattractive, haughty European rulers I had seen in other museums.

Art is intended to illicit emotion from the viewer. Seeing a "life mask" for the first time left a memorable impression on me. To think something as "morbid" as this could be moving was a surprise. I never thought a "hauntingly handsome" life mask of an Emperor could elicit such a powerful, positive emotion from me. His "greatness" shown through his mask.

You never know what will move you. Travel the world and experience different cultures by visiting their museums!!