Spinoza’s Death Mask, and Reflections on Working at the RBML 

Guest post by Marianna Najman-Franks, Barnard ’22. Marianna has done incredible work in the last three years participating in various projects to provide important access to the Judaica collections.

Over the past 3 years I’ve been a part of so many incredible projects at the RBML, but by far the most exciting moment I’ve been was assisting in the discovery of Spinoza’s death mask. I was reboxing and cataloguing the Oko Collection, donated by Adolph S. Oko. The boxes included every photo, newspaper clipping, or magazine issue related to the Jewish philosopher Benedict/Barukh Spinoza, and I sifted gently through each piece, deciphering dozens of fonts in German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Small pieces of newspaper confetti occasionally fell onto my desk as I sifted through each clipping, and I would carefully scoop them up and place them back into the boxes, hoping that once the collection was re-housed every crumb would be kept in good condition.

Spinoza “Death Mask,” Adolph Oko Papers (now safely rehoused!)

A box much lighter than the others, nearly falling to pieces with a red cloth hanging out on all sides, caught my attention. Opening it gently, I was met with a face. At the time, admittedly a bit grossed out, I packaged the face back up without much of a second thought. As I would later find out, the discovery of Spinoza’s death mask is not only an unprecedented discovery, but is also the first time that anybody since his death saw his likeness.

Columbia also has a bust of Spinoza, also donated by Oko to the University Library, but it is slightly abstract and doesn’t exactly capture his likeness. The death mask is a momentous finding, and one that I hope scholars interested in Spinoza can come and examine as soon as we can all safely gather inside the RBML.

An LCAAJ map detailing the ingredients that different Ashkenazi Jews put in tsimmes, a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish stew typically made from carrots and dried fruits such as prunes or raisins. It’s fascinating to see how the ingredients traditionally used are divided by north and south!

In short, working alongside Michelle Chesner this past year has allowed me not to go a single day during the pandemic without learning something new. Whether I was working remotely on Footprints, logging Jewish books and their journeys across the globe, or working in person logging maps from the LCAAJ (Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry) archive, each project has brought to light invaluable pieces of Jewish culture, history, and literature that I continue to share with friends and family.

It’s been such an empowering experience to feel that I—and of course my other contemporaries interested in archival work—can have a tangible hand in the preservation of artifacts, narratives, and even dialects that are otherwise lost to our communities, and to the world. I am so excited about the

A photo from a case study on how Jews serve p’tcha, another traditional dish. I thought this drawing of where people serve it hot versus cold versus a combination of the two was fascinating.

possibilities of digitizing archives, and look forward to continuing to digitize records with guidance from Michelle Chesner as I enter my final year at Barnard College. The work has truly been so meaningful and formative to me as a young Jewish person trying to navigate how my own history might fit into the way I think about archives, about preservation and digitization, and more generally preserving histories that without the hard work of those in libraries like RBML would be lost.

During the pandemic, or more recently when being Jewish has felt more imbued with fear than usual, I have been inspired by the fearless publications and research of so many Jews who have made it their mission to log and archive our communities, speech patterns, and writings. I hope to continue this work in one way or another, and above all, carry with me the power of being in a space with a manuscript or a death mask, preserved and treated with care so as to never be forgotten by future generations.

More on the Oko-Gebhardt Spinoza Collection, including the circumstances of its donation, can be found here: https://blogs.cul.columbia.edu/jewishstudiesatcul/2012/04/30/hebrew-mss-cul-the-raphael-jesurun-de-spinoza-autograph/

Addendum: Many have asked what proof we have that this is actually Spinoza’s death mask. Adolph Oko labeled it as such with his collection, and we thus have it noted with that description in our collection files. Of course, scholars are welcome to come and take a look and make their own analyses once the library is able to open again to non-Columbia scholars in the fall.

13 thoughts on “Spinoza’s Death Mask, and Reflections on Working at the RBML 

  1. Please can we have more photographs of the death mask from different angles? It would be good to create an accurate representation of spinoza in illustration, for comparison sake.

  2. I hope one will forgive a historian for asking historian’s questions (occupational bias), but I would like to know whether, besides the presence of this mask in the collection, there is any evidence that this is Spinoza’s face. Is there an inscription, or a note with it? Is there any indication about its provenance? How far in the past can it be traced back? Are there sources attesting that a mask was made after his death (Colerus doesn’t mention it in his biography)? Are there sources attesting that it was in someone’s possession in the 17th, 18th century? Thanks in advance.

  3. In this case, we are relying on the the description and research of Adolph Oko, who was himself a noted Spinoza scholar. That being said, as with all research, scholars are welcome to come and take a look and draw their own conclusions. Unfortunately the library is closed to non-Columbia users due to Covid-19, but we hope to reopen in the fall, pending safety.

  4. Perhaps you might care to investigate whether this death mask could have been that of the Spinoza scholar Carl Gebhardt (1881-1934)? Just a hunch of Nynke Leistra, volunteer guide in the Spinoza House at Rijnsburg, the Netherlands.
    Thank you.

  5. That is, of course, a possibility, however, considering that (from what we can tell) Adolph Oko was the one who considered it Spinoza’s and he knew Gebhardt well (we have their extensive correspondence), it is unlikely. We look forward to inviting experts to study the mask once the library is open to outside visitors.

  6. Hi, very interesting. Has the material of the mask been analysed and dated since the discovery? Is it possible to date it to February 1677?
    And i am wondering if we do have other examples of death masks for philosophers or important thinkers in the 17th c… if not it would be a hapax.
    Many thanks for your answer or thoughts.

  7. We are considering different kinds of analysis that might be both safe for the mask and will also provide us with a better date estimate. Of course, if we do determine anything more conclusively, we will certainly share it!

    Death masks were fairly common in the 17th century, especially for state officials, but there is evidence for them for other individuals as well.

  8. Do you have any recent information concerning the authenticity of the death mask of Spinoza?

  9. Not at present, unfortunately. There are quite high costs involved with doing any kind of advanced analysis, and so we have not been able to do anything yet.

  10. This link may be of interest:

    The Netherlands has only a modest tradition in the field of death masks. The earliest known commission was given for crafting the death mask of poet and historian Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831). Intended for his circle of intimates, it also served as an example for the statue to be made. Bert Sliggers, in the catalog Naar het Corpse (1998) found 27 other death masks that have been preserved in the Netherlands. This meager number contains casts of celebrities such as King Willem II and III, Ary Scheffer, Abraham Kuyper, Willem Elsschot and Carel Willink. Museum Tot Zover has collected various old and modern death masks.

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