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Musings on Victorian post-mortem photography
January 30, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
I remember being a bit freaked out as a kid when I found a drawer full of photos taken of the deceased at a family funeral decades before. After I ran shrieking from the room, fearing that ghosts were dogging my heels, my father explained that this was just the way things were done back then. I stll had nightmares.
I thought of that experience yesterday when I saw a story online in the Daily Mail about the Victorian practice of taking pictures of the deceased, sometimes alone, sometimes posed with siblings or parents or a spouse. These "memento mori" portraits were often the only photographs ever taken of the dear departed and the only way the family had of remembering what their loved one had looked like.
Some of the accompanying photographs with the article are heartbreaking: parents with tear-streaked faces posing with their recently deceased adult daughter; three little kids posing with their dead baby sister, all of them looking as if they are about to burst into tears; a young mother holding her dead baby in a pose that reminds me of the Pieta.
The Victorians were not alone in this practice. Centuries before, families would often commission a portrait of their dead child that was created from a death mask. One famous portrait by Angelo Bronzino shows young Bia de' Medici, the deceased illegitimate six-year-old daughter of a Medici prince. Only the girl's pale cheeks, her silver gown and the faint light emanating from her head in the portrait like a halo give away that Bia was painted in death, not in life. One art critic has said that the Medicis would have hung the portrait in a private family area as a reminder of the child and as an aid to meditation on the nature of heaven.
Up until the mid 20th century, many families could expect to lose one or more of their children to a fever or an infection or some sort of accident. The deceased was usually laid out for days in the family parlor, the funeral was held at home and sometimes the dead relative was even buried in a family cemetery on the property. But even though they were more familiar with the realities of death than we are in the 21st century, it wasn't any easier for them to lose someone they loved than it is for us. When I looked at the faces in those portraits, I found myself looking at the living relatives, not the deceased. These portraits are eerie and, in their way, quite beautiful.
The Daily Mail article is fascinating both for what it says about how much people have changed and for how much they have not.
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