Cadaver tombs: funerary art and architecture

Transi de Rene de Chalon, Ligier Richier, 1547
Transi de Rene de Chalon, Ligier Richier (1547). Church of Saint-Étienne, Bar-le-Duc

According to late medieval theology, man from his beginning is ‘a foule thing, litel and pore, … a stynkynge slime, and after that a sake ful of donge, and at laste mete for wormes’ (Quoted in Owst, 1926: 341). For modern historians of religion, such as Eamon Duffy, such rhetoric found its visual equivalents in the rise to popularity, particularly among ecclesiastics, of so called transi or cadaver tombs. These tombs “portrayed the deceased as a decaying corpse, the skin stretched tight of grinning teeth, starting bones, and empty eye-sockets, the stomach bursting open to reveal a seething horror of worms and unclean creatures” (Duffy, 1993: 306). This might all be true, but cadaver tombs also make this inevitable and somewhat theatrically imagined decay strangely beautiful. Part vanitas part memorial, Ligier Richer’s tomb for Prince of Orange René de Chalons (above), who died in battle in 1544 at age 25, provides a wierd mixture of religious devotion, Counter-Reformation bombast, and architectural memorialisation. This French example, at Church of Saint-Étienne, Bar-le-Duc, has a little more swagger than the tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442) at Fyfield in Oxfordshire (below). The split level tomb was a traditional aberation of the recumbent effigy, giving a marvellous before and after (after-before, after-after?). It’s a bit like Grand Designs, in reverse, for the human body.

Tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442), Fyfield, Oxfordshire
Tomb of Sir John Golafre (d.1442), Fyfield, Oxfordshire

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