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This is said to be a cast of the death mask of St Alfonso de Juquara Mato. Death masks have been made in cultures throughout the world and across recorded time.
One of the earliest known is of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutenkhamen. More recently death masks were taken of Henry VII, Peter the Great, Dante, Bruneleski and Shakespeare.
The episode depicted here is described by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda aurea (1275). When the leg of Pope Felix became cancerous, the martyrs Cosmas and Damian cut it off and replaced it with that of an Ethiopian buried on the same day.
An angel instructs them that, on the day of the resurrection, they must orchestrate a swap. When the sick man awoke “he saw nothing in the leg”, believing “that he was not himself, but another”. In Spanish iconography, the mutilated Ethiopian often appears in the scene, alive and in agonising pain.
Selected from over three hundred examples of tattooed human skins collected by Henry Wellcome, these specimens are most likely to be French in origin and date from 1850-1920.
The tattoos were brought in Paris June 1929 by Petet Jonston-Saint, one of Wellcome’s purchasing agents. The seller was osteologist and anatomist, La Vallete, who obtained some of his collection of specimens through his work at Parisian military establishments and prisons. The crude designs in this selection are mainly of nude female figures, which were often worn by prostitutes as markers of their trade, but were also popular amongst seamen, soldiers and prisoners as reminders of women left behind, or as general sexual fantasies.