Adventures in the Kuyper archive: Column 3: Rest in peace, sleeping beauty

This Kuyper year, our curator of the Protestant Heritage collections, Jasmijn Vervloet, would like to take you on an adventure in the Kuyper archive to gain a better understanding of Abraham Kuyper, the founder of VU Amsterdam.

12/14/2020 | 1:27 PM


The mystery of Abraham Kuyper's death masks.

Dodenmasker KuyperOn 8 November 2020, it was exactly 100 years ago that Abraham Kuyper died. The Heritage Collection of VU Amsterdam contains two special objects that remind us of his death: Kuyper's death masks. They show his lifeless face, seemingly asleep, captured for eternity. But who made them and why?

A death mask is a cast, usually of wax or plaster, of the face of a deceased person. Death masks feature in many different cultures. In Europe, from the late Middle Ages, death masks were made of men of renown. Until the advent of photography the masks provided a tangible memento of the deceased. In addition, they could later be used to make a portrait or statue of the deceased. Sometimes a life mask was made when the person was still alive.

‘Residence news’ from 1920
In the Netherlands, death masks have never been especially common. And when Kuyper died in 1920, photography was already well established. Indeed, there is a photo in existence of Kuyper lying on his deathbed. So who made Kuyper's death masks and why? For many years, this remained a mystery... Until 2013, when historian and Kuyper expert Peter Dillingh happened upon a note in the ‘Residence News’ section in the Het Vaderland newspaper of 11 November 1920. It reads: ‘Dr. A. Kuyper. Sources inform us that yesterday afternoon sculptor Toon Dupuis made a death mask of dr. Kuyper’.

Personal tribute
Toon Dupuis, a leading Dutch sculptor of the time, and Abraham Kuyper were no strangers: they moved in similar circles in The Hague. In 1905, Dupuis was commissioned by an admirer of Kuyper to make a marble bust about which there was some controversy at the time. Long story short: Kuyper eventually paid Dupuis himself to finish the bust and then donated it to VU Amsterdam. You can see it at the entrance to the auditorium. Presumably the deathmask was made as a personal tribute by Dupuis to  Kuyper. No paying client is known and the masks were meant as a memento for the family.

3D print for education and presentations
One of the three remaining death masks is currently in Museum Catherijneconvent in Utrecht. The other two are part of the VU Heritage Collection. They show his face in detail and so take us - almost eerily - close to the end of Kuyper's life. A 3D print of the death mask has since been made specially for education and presentations, so Abraham can stay peacefully in the depot.

Would you like to know more about Abraham Kuyper or his death mask?
•    Then check out the online-exposition Bram
•    Read the recent edition on Abraham Kuyper and Death
•    Or listen to this audio clip

Follow the adventures in the Kuyper archive.