Merkurov had the gruesome task of making death masks
from the deceased.
Not many tourists to Armenia rush to see Gyumri, a
city that was known as the capital of craftsmen but
was destroyed by the monstrous 1988 earthquake. Still,
there might be a good reason to stop by for at least
a couple of hours.
And if "you've got to visit Merkurov's museum"
might not seem the best promotion formula to travelers
because it doesn't tell you anything, then "you
can see the original Lenin's mask only in Gyumri"
is definitely appealing.
The post-mortem masks of 59 Soviet leaders and famous
people lie in the museum of Sergey Merkurov (1881-1952),
a sculptor born in Alexandropol (the old name of Gyumri)
in a family of Greeks.
Among them are those of Russian writers Leo Tolstoy
and Maxim Gorky, Armenian poet Hovanes Tumanyan, Russian
revolutionaries Frunze, Dzerjinski, Ordjonikidze and
the ones of Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya.
Talking about Merkurov's legacy, historian Arshak Manukyan,
who is the Museum's director, says that the sculptor
developed a passion for portrait genre since he was
Merkurov never thought he would dedicate a great part
of his work to post-mortem masks until 1907, when, while
working abroad, he was called to Armenia by the Apostolic
Church authorities to execute a mask of dead Catholicos,
Mkrtch Khrimyan. It was his first work of this kind.
It is known from the sculptor's diary that his first
experience was quite creepy. Natalya Kolesnikova, a
Russian sculptor, researched the works of Merkurov and
wrote an article on how the author managed to execute
the first post-mortem mask. She cited from his diary:
plaster casts included famous faces such as Leo
Tolstoy and Vladimir I. Lenin.
Bishops have locked the doors after me
and I ended up being alone with the deceased",
voices a fragment of Merkurov's memoirs. "I approached
the bed of the patriarch, opened the bed sheet and saw
an old man in a red ripped jersey. Big beard. Hock (hawk?)
nose. Head turned back. It was impossible to make the
mask in this position. I took the body in my arms and
put it on a chair. Terrifying
Then, historian Manukyan recounts that only after pouring
the plaster on the Catholicos head, Merkurov realized
that he forgot to split it with a thread while it was
soft and fresh. So, he took the plaster out and was
going to repeat the procedure until he suddenly saw
that the eyes of Catholicos had opened.
For a couple of moments, Merkurov thought he lost his
legs out of dread but then he figured out that because
of crystallization, the plaster warmed up and under
the mask, the face thawed out too and the eyes opened.
The second post-mortem mask was made in Moscow three
years later. It was the one of Tolstoy. And even if
it was not the first time Merkurov was dealing with
this kind of experience, it was not an easy test.
Again, Merkurov's recordings disclose that he was quite
nervous when executing Tolstoy's mask. And not only
his. It was a high responsibility, as post-mortem masks
are not merely a piece of (macabre) art but first of
all a historical document. Moreover, it was quite often
that Merkurov was executing masks to bodies that belonged
to his friends and their death was a difficult occurrence.
The technique itself is not an easy process. The author
pours plaster on the body's face and puts a thread in
the middle of it so that he takes it out easily when
it dries. When the plaster is solidified, it is taken
out and assembled again. Afterwards, another material
like bronze or plaster is poured inside the mask and
this is how a face in real size of the deceased is resulted.
Well, everything historical is exciting so far. The
only problem with these masks is that they are not really
revealed to the public. At least not yet. Because the
museum was partially destroyed during the earthquake,
it has been in a continuing rebuilding process since
then. But as its director says it will reopen soon as
the Lincy Foundation has financed the reconstruction
Meanwhile, masks are kept in the Museum's storage and,
as an exception; they can be seen by some foreign visitors
before the official opening.