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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Waxing Artistically for History

The Beatles at Madame Tussauds, London.

Wax sculptures have been made since the Middle Ages, although there is some evidence that wax was used for making death masks in ancient Rome.  During the Middle Ages wax figures were made as votive offerings to churches, and wax masks were made of monarchs and important people.  This is when the superstition began of sticking pins in wax figures to cause harm to whoever was represented.

Pouring wax into molds is an ancient practice.  What developed was the modeling
of colored waxes into masks and figures.  Image courtesy of www.dipity.com.

During the Italian Renaissance, wax modeling was used to create medallions and other types of metalwork.  Antonio Abondio, a famous medalist, made wax relief portraits in miniature.  Only thirteen survive.  Moulage, the modeling of human anatomical parts, used wax as its medium (later replaced by latex and rubber), and was first practiced in Florence to teach anatomy at this time.

Kaiserin Anna von Tirol by Antonio Abondio, 1618.

By the end of the 1700s medallion portraits and relief groups became very popular in Europe.  Polychromatic works, of the kind made popular by Abondio, were more prevalent, and many of the artists were women.  John Flaxman did many portraits and figural reliefs that Josiah Wedgwood used in his famous pottery.

The Flaxman Gallery in the octagon building of the main library
at the University College London.

Works made of wax were and are often considered a lower form of art.  But they have become popular in the images of celebrities and other famous people.  This has evolved into wax museums which feature wax figures in lifelike poses.  The more horrific characters of a wax museum are usually in special rooms where they are exhibited in a "chamber of horrors".

Wax heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Carrier,  Hébert, and
Robespierre are in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds
London site.  Image courtesy of flickr.

One of the most famous of these museums is Madame Tussauds, originally in London but now with branches in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Dubai, Blackpool, Manchester, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Amsterdam, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. Madame Tussaud created her first permanent site on Baker Street in London in 1835.  Madame Tussaud was a wax sculptor herself who created her first work, a figure of Voltaire, in 1777.  She also did figures of Ben Franklin and Rousseau.

A figure of Madame Tussaud greets
entrants to the London site.

She learned her trade from a doctor for whom her mother was a housekeeper, and when he died she inherited his collection of wax models.  She made models during the French Revolution of many of the victims of Madame Guillotine, reportedly searching through the corpses to find decapitated heads.  She eventually took to the road, exhibiting her collection throughout Europe.  Once settled into a permanent place on Baker Street, she planned and coined the phrase "chamber of horrors".

Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders, as well as Lady Gaga, Queen
Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow (below)
can be seen at the London Site.

There are a few of her sculptures left, but there was fire damage in 1925 and German bombs in 1941, destroying most of the older figures.  She died in 1850, but her grandson moved the museum to a new building he commissioned on Marylebone Road, which opened in 1884.  Although it was very successful, financial problems and family squabbles led to the sale of the enterprise to a group. Still a major tourist attraction in London the museums are now owned by Merlin Entertainments, and have grown to include royals, sports heroes, stars of all media, and famous murderers.

This figure is in Madame Tussauds London museum.
This statue, unveiled in 1933, has been frequently
vandalized and a 1936 replacement has been carefully
guarded.  In 2008, the Hitler statue in the Berlin
museum was decapitated by a man who later confessed
it was done on a bet.  It has since been repaired.

The premiere wax museum in the U.S. was the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California.  It opened in 1962 and featured models of famous show business personalities.  Stars would attend the unveilings of their wax figures, but attendance dwindled, and the museum closed in 2005.

The Hollywood Wax Museum opened in 1965, and claims to be the only wax museum dedicated to celebrities.  It has 180 wax figures of movie and television stars as well as other characters, such as Nintendo's Mario.  In 1985 another was built in Branson, Missouri.  (A 2007 museum built in Gatlinburg, Tennessee soon closed.)

The Hollywood Wax Museum on Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood.

There are many wax museums all over the world, and more are being erected, especially in the last few years.  An interesting way to record and show the people who have made and are making history, even if it is sometimes gruesome.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. Love this - my kindergarteners save the wax off their little cheeses they bring to lunch so that I can make "lost wax" beads in my kiln. I'm glad to hear that the medium is being revived. Who wouldn't want to be immortalized this way?

  2. How sweet! Melted crayons are fun, too. If you can find a way to keep the wax soft and the kids unburned, there could be some great craft projects!