Above is the famous painting by John Millais of drowned Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Her face his soft and almost restful with her “weedy trophies” floating alongside her. But hold on a second and think of what has happened in this painting. She has just drowned, whether by accident or her own doing, we don’t know. But the fact remains that this is a corpse, however, to me, she still looks distinctly alive and human. Drowning is not pretty. But this depiction is.
New York Public Radio’s Radiolab has a podcast that has a similar occurrence. It’s called Death Mask and you can listen to it here . The death mask of a young woman is passed around the aristocracy of France in the 19th century and across Europe, because of the beauty of the face. The story goes that this girl was abandoned by her lover and because of her misery she flung herself in the Seine River. She was taken to the morgue and displayed behind glass so that someone might recognize her and reclaim the body. The man who ran the morgue was so struck by her beauty, he made a plaster cast of it.
The similarity of both of these cases is that these women still look very graceful and beautiful but they have drown. As explained by one of Radiolab’s interviews in the podcast, it is amazing that the women looks so peaceful because when a body has been drown, the skin will swell and the face no longer resembles the way it looked in life. So why make them beautiful? Even the Queen in Hamlet cannot help but give a beautiful description of Ophelia’s death as she drift to her watery grave: “Her clothes spread wide,/And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” and “Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious for/To muddy death.”
Are there any more examples of this kind of phenomenon that you can think of? And why exactly do we do this? Especially it seems to scorned or love sick women? Is it because we cannot bear the harsh reality of their death or that we want to remember some idealized version of the face of death? Does doing this kind of give them back their dignity in a way even though it doesn’t tell the true story?