Is this Spinoza's death mask?
The (alleged) Spinoza death mask was an exciting pandemic find in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Are we closer to a solution to this mystery?
In July 2021, reports of a sensational discovery rippled through the philosophical community on Twitter/X and in news outlets such as Daily Nous. A death mask of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), the Sephardic/Dutch philosopher was found in a box. But since then we've heard little about this find.
Recently, I watched the Israeli documentary Spinoza: six reasons for the excommunication of the philosopher, where the death mask is briefly featured. In the documentary, we follow Spinoza scholar Yitzhak Melamed to various parts of the world to investigate the enduring question of the herem (Spinoza's expulsion from the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam).
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It is a beautiful film which brought to light some aspects of Spinoza's family history and broader cultural context. There is a brief scene where Melamed holds the alleged death mask. He declares that the mask really looks like the philosopher, noting the physical similarity (especially of the nose). I put below some stills from the documentary in different angles (apologies—but at least it is not Kant's…) so you can have a look for yourself.
Since we don't yet have a detailed analysis of this find (mainly due to the cost that the library would incur), we can at present only guess. As I'll argue in more detail below, my guess is at present we have insufficient evidence to believe this is genuinely a death mask of Spinoza. That being said, there might be crucial information that can still be uncovered that may tip the scale of evidence. I welcome additional insights!
The circumstances of the find
This mask was part of the collection by the late Adolph S. Oko, a librarian who had a fascination for Spinoza and who had collected a large amount of memorabilia, ranging from books to newspaper clippings and framed images. As is detailed in this blogpost, a Columbia student, Marianna Najman-Franks, was reboxing the Oko collection that is housed at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, when she saw the mask. It did not come with a label.
However, thanks to the librarian Michelle Margolis, I learned that the object is mentioned in a letter dated November 8, 1971 confirming receipt of this collection by the librarian at the time to Ms Annette Oko. It is there simply called “the death mask” (broader context, it is mentioned as follows: "The eleven framed pictures of Spinoza and Spinoza scholars, as well as the death mask”).
The fact that the mask was put in a box themed around the likeness of the philosopher leads to the reasonable assumption that the owner of this object (Oko) at least believed this was, or could be, Spinoza's death mask.
Unfortunately we have no clear trace of how this mask may have ended up in Oko's collection. We know Oko was a very committed collector of spinozana, with many 17th- and 18th-century manuscripts and books in his collection. But it's unclear what the particular path is of this mask to his collection.
No reports of a death mask at the time
To the best of my knowledge, there is no report of a death mask in contemporary sources, although we have detailed knowledge of Spinoza's death and the circumstances surrounding it. The reason we have this is that Spinoza soon after his death gained a stark reputation for being an atheist and a corruptor of the faith across Europe. The Theological Political Treatise, published anonymously in 1670 but widely known to be written by him, put the veracity of scripture in doubt. The Ethics published in 1678 in an edited volume of posthumous works (Opera Posthuma) presented a system that equated God to nature.
Because of his infamy, many stories began to circulate that Spinoza had experienced a last-minute change of heart. In this alleged deathbed conversion, the renegade atheist Jew would have embraced God in his final moments after a long battle with a pulmonary disease. So much was made of this that an early biographer, Johannes Colerus, decided to interview his landlord, the painter Van Der Spijk and learn the facts.
Colerus was not a fan of Spinoza's work, so it is not a hagiographical account (unlike another early biography, by Lucas). It is very detailed in its description of the last few days, and the account is corroborated by other facts we have such as inventories of Spinoza's possessions. Indeed, biographers such as Steven Nadler, use this account as the main basis to recount Spinoza's final moments, but there is no mention of a death mask. Here is the account, translated from Dutch into a slightly antiquated English.
The omission is not conclusive, but still striking. Death masks were important and revered objects. They were used as memorabilia and also to draw portraits from or make busts of, especially valuable if there was no likeness drawn of the deceased during their lifetime. You can learn more about this fascinating, albeit macabre practice, here:
The video above features Isaac Newton's death mask (1727) when the custom was already well established. Sculptors used them to make busts. For example, we know Newton's was owned by the renowned sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, and we can clearly trace its history from there. On the other hand, the history of other death masks such as Kant's can be a little more troubled/difficult to trace.
Physical resemblance is not conclusive (not until further investigation)
There is a bit of physical resemblance of the death mask and portraits of Spinoza.
But do we know what he looked like? In the seventeenth century, not everyone had a portrait, like we do now. For example, there is no reliably attested picture of one of Spinoza's English contemporaries, Robert Hooke. You needed to sit for it. Either you had money (which Spinoza didn't have) or you had friends with money (which he did have). As Eric Schliesser notes, it's doubtful Spinoza would have sat for a portrait given his many comments on eschewing fame and fortune in his letters. He emphasizes this several times in his letters (A fun example is in a letter to Jacob Ostens dated 1671, where he writes “[A]theists are accustomed to seek honors and riches immoderately. But I have always scorned those things. Everyone who knows me knows that.”)
So in line with holding up this ideal, sitting for a portrait would've been odd. What imagery do we have? The most iconic portrait is the so-called Wolfenbüttel portrait, held in the Herzog (Duke) August Library.
It was not made during his lifetime. Neither was probably the best portrait we have, namely the engraving on the Opera Posthuma, published in 1678 (but dated 1677), edited by a group of Spinoza's friends. Although it is also posthumous, at least his friends knew what he looked like.
As Cynthia Freeland notes in a recent paper on portraits, portraiture is a distinctive artistic genre with specific aims. Some portraits succeed better than others, and physical resemble (likeness) is just one aspect.
In addition to likeness, portraits also do the following: they testify to a sense of “presence” (that the person depicted was indeed a person who lived once), they convey their psychological traits, and finally, they capture—to a greater or lesser extent— someone's “essence” or “air”. This is something undefinable of capturing what a person is like even if the picture does not super-closely resemble the sitter.
I feel that Fayum portraits in particular are great at conveying all these three hard to quantify things, probably why they are so enduringly popular and striking. We don't know what the sitters looked like, but you can't but think that these people have a very distinctive presence which reverbs through the centuries.
The Wolfenbüttel image, I believe, is so enduring because it too succeeds in some of these elusive aims of a good portrait: you do see a calm, friendly philosopher gazing back at you. The likeness doesn't matter that much in the overall appreciation of the painting.
In contrast to paintings, death masks can only really succeed in the likeness aspect, and even so, someone could be so badly affected (psychologically and physiologically) by a final illness that they don't really look like themselves anymore at the moment they die.
This brief philosophical digression into portraits brings me to the following observations: We judge a portrait not through likeness alone but also through difficult to quantify other factors such as testimony to presence, air (essence), and psychology. Moreover, given the effects of illness, aging, etc., even a genuine death mask doesn't guarantee likeness. Death masks were often used as the beginning or help of conveying a likeness by skilled sculptors. They were not likenesses in and of themselves.
Because of this, I conclude (perhaps pessimistically) that you cannot establish the identity of the death mask based on physical resemblance alone. It won't be conclusive. You need other material evidence to link the mask to the philosopher. For similar reasons, I agree with Schliesser that we cannot establish the young portrait by Barend Graat (1666) recently identified as Spinoza as being authentically him (this is a different discussion). But of course, this is all provisional, based on very limited evidence. The death mask has not been subject to investigation yet, and this may yet surprise us.
I thank Michelle Margolis, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, Columbia University, for valuable pointers and help in writing this piece.
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