Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon

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Ligier Richier, upper section of the Transi de Rene de Chalon, c. 1545-47 Bar-le-Duc - Eglise Saint-Etienne - Le Transi -191.jpg
Ligier Richier, upper section of the Transi de René de Chalon, c. 1545–47
Full view with black marble columns and altarpiece Bar-le-Duc - Eglise Saint-Etienne - Transi de Rene de Chalon.JPG
Full view with black marble columns and altarpiece

The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon (French : Transi de René de Chalon, also known as the Memorial to the Heart of René de Chalon or The Skeleton) is a late Gothic period funerary monument, known as a transi , in the church of Saint-Étienne at Bar-le-Duc, in northeastern France. It consists of an altarpiece and a limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse which stands upright and extends his left hand outwards. Completed sometime between 1544 and 1557, the majority of its construction is attributed to the French sculptor Ligier Richier. Other elements, including the coat of arms and funeral drapery, were added in the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Gothic art Style of Medieval art developed in Northern France

Gothic art was a style of medieval art that developed in Northern France out of Romanesque art in the 12th century AD, led by the concurrent development of Gothic architecture. It spread to all of Western Europe, and much of Southern and Central Europe, never quite effacing more classical styles in Italy. In the late 14th century, the sophisticated court style of International Gothic developed, which continued to evolve until the late 15th century. In many areas, especially Germany, Late Gothic art continued well into the 16th century, before being subsumed into Renaissance art. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. The easily recognizable shifts in architecture from Romanesque to Gothic, and Gothic to Renaissance styles, are typically used to define the periods in art in all media, although in many ways figurative art developed at a different pace.

Funerary art Art associated with a repository for the remains of the dead

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs, tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.


The tomb dates from a period of societal anxiety over death, as plague, war and religious conflicts ravaged Europe. [1] It was commissioned as the resting place of René of Chalon, Prince of Orange, son-in-law of Duke Antoine of Lorraine. René was killed aged 25 at the siege of St. Dizier on 15 July 1544, from a wound sustained the previous day. Richier presents him as an écorché , with his skin and muscles decayed, leaving him reduced to a skeleton. This apparently fulfilled his deathbed wish that his tomb depict his body as it would be three years after his death. His left arm is raised as if gesturing towards heaven. Supposedly, at one time his heart was held in a reliquary placed in the hand of the figure's raised arm. Unusually for contemporaneous objects of this type, his skeleton is standing, making it a "living corpse", an innovation that was to become highly influential. The tomb effigy is positioned above the carved marble and limestone altarpiece.

Plague (disease) contagious and frequently fatal human disease

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Symptoms include fever, weakness and headache. Usually this begins one to seven days after exposure. In the bubonic form there is also swelling of lymph nodes, while in the septicemic form tissues may turn black and die, and in the pneumonic form shortness of breath, cough and chest pain may occur.

Italian Wars Wars in Italy from the 15th to 16th centuries

The Italian Wars, often referred to as the Great Wars of Italy and sometimes as the Habsburg–Valois Wars, were a series of Renaissance conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved most of the Italian states as well as France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, England and the Ottoman Empire.

René of Chalon Prince of Orange

René of Chalon, also known as Renatus of Chalon, was a Prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre.

Designated a Monument historique on 18 June 1898, the tomb was moved for safekeeping to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War, before being returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent extensive restoration between 1998 and 2003. Replicas of the statue are in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc and the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

<i>Monument historique</i> protected French building as a Historical Monument (use « classified Historical Monument » and « inscribed Historical Monument »)

Monument historique is a designation given to some national heritage sites in France. It may also refer to the state procedure in France by which National Heritage protection is extended to a building, a specific part of a building, a collection of buildings, garden, bridge, or other structure, because of their importance to France's architectural and historical cultural heritage. Both public and privately owned structures may be listed in this way, as well as movable objects. As of 2012 there were 44,236 monuments listed.

Panthéon mausoleum in Paris

The Panthéon is a building in the Latin Quarter in Paris, France. It was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve and to house the reliquary châsse containing her relics but, after many changes, now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. It is an early example of neo-classicism, with a façade modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, surmounted by a dome that owes some of its character to Bramante's Tempietto. Located in the 5th arrondissement on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the Panthéon looks out over all of Paris. Designer Jacques-Germain Soufflot had the intention of combining the lightness and brightness of the Gothic cathedral with classical principles, but its role as a mausoleum required the great Gothic windows to be blocked.

Palais de Chaillot

The Palais de Chaillot is a building at the top of the Chaillot hill in the Trocadéro area in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, France.

Death of René of Chalon and tomb commission

René of Chalon, Prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre, died on 15 July 1544, aged 25, during the siege of St. Dizier where he fought for Emperor Charles V. [2] René had been mortally wounded in battle the previous day, and died with the Emperor in attendance at his bedside. [3] He died without leaving any direct descendants. Charles wrote soon after to René's wife, Anna of Lorraine (d. 1568), setting out in detail the circumstances of René's last hours and death. [4] The monument apparently fulfills his wish that he be represented above this tomb as an écorché, that is a body without skin, and "as he would be three years after his death". [5] Cadaver tombs had been built for other members of the family, including his father Henry III of Nassau-Breda, his uncle Philibert of Chalon, [6] his grandmother, and the uncle of his wife. [7] René requested that his tomb present him "not as a standard figure but a life-size skeleton with strips of dried skin flapping over a hollow carcass, whose right hand clutches at the empty rib cage while the left hand holds high his heart in a grand gesture". [8]

Prince of Orange title originally from the Principality of Orange

Prince of Orange is a title originally associated with the sovereign Principality of Orange, in what is now southern France. Under the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, Frederick William I of Prussia ceded the Principality of Orange to King Louis XIV of France. After William III of England died without children, a dispute arose between Johan Willem Friso and Frederick I of Prussia, which was settled in the Treaty of Partition (1732); consequently, Friso's son, William IV had to share use of the title "Prince of Orange" with Frederick William I of Prussia. The title is traditionally borne by the heir apparent of the Dutch monarch. The title descends via absolute primogeniture since 1983, meaning that its holder can be either Prince or Princess of Orange.

Stadtholder title used in parts of Europe

In the Low Countries, stadtholder was an office of steward, designated a medieval official and then a national leader. The stadtholder was the replacement of the duke or earl of a province during the Burgundian and Habsburg period (1384–1581/1795).

Holland Region and former province on the western coast of the Netherlands

Holland is a region and former province on the western coast of the Netherlands. The name Holland is also frequently used informally to refer to the whole of the country of the Netherlands. This usage is commonly accepted in other countries, and sometimes employed by the Dutch themselves. However, some in the Netherlands, particularly those from regions outside Holland, may find it undesirable or misrepresentative to use the term for the whole country.

Jan van Scorel, Rene of Chalon, 1542 Rene de Chalon (ca 1518-44), by Jan van Scorel.jpg
Jan van Scorel , René of Chalon, 1542

René's intention has never been definitively attributed, and there is no mention of it in either Charles' letter or René's will. Given this lack of record and that, at only 25 years, René was unlikely to have previously thought closely about his own burial and memorial, it seems most likely that the idea behind the design came from Anna. She is known to have commissioned the piece from Ligier Richier, [4] who was then little known outside his local area of Saint-Mihiel in north-eastern France, but is today considered one of the most important sculptors of the late Gothic period. [2] [9] Although the precise dating is uncertain, it is known to have begun after 1544 and was completed before 1557. [10] The tomb has become his most well known and influential work. [10]

Ligier Richier French artist

Ligier Richier was a French sculptor active in Saint-Mihiel in north-eastern France.

Saint-Mihiel Commune in Grand Est, France

Saint-Mihiel is a commune in the Meuse department in Grand Est in north-eastern France.

Jan van Scorel, Portrait of Anna of Lorraine, 1542 Anna of Lorraine (1522-1568), by Jan van Scorel.jpg
Jan van Scorel, Portrait of Anna of Lorraine, 1542

In accordance with funeral rites of the time, René's heart, bowels, and bones were separated. His heart and bowels were kept at Bar-le-Duc and placed in the Collegiate Church of St. Maxe, which was demolished during the French Revolution and abandoned in 1782, [10] while the rest were transferred to Breda to be interred with his father and his daughter, who died in early infancy. His widow commissioned Richier to construct a transi to hold some of the remains of her husband. The monument, along with other remains and relics of members of his family, were reinterred at the church of Saint-Étienne in June 1790. [11]

Bar-le-Duc Prefecture and commune in Grand Est, France

Bar-le-Duc, formerly known as Bar, is a commune in the Meuse département, of which it is the capital. The department is in Grand Est in northeastern France.

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Anna commissioned the tomb as a memento mori, [12] but the level of detail she may have specified is uncertain. It is perhaps Richier's best-known work, remarkable for its original presentation of a "living corpse", a motif unparalleled in earlier funerary art. He produced one more work in a similar vein, his Death, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. [1] Both works are comparable in form and intent to the 1520s La Mort Saint-Innocent originally from the Holy Innocents' Cemetery in Paris, now in the Musee du Louvre. In that work, a realistically depicted and severely emaciated corpse raises his right hand upwards while holding a shield in his left hand. [1]



Death (Ligier Richier).jpg
Unknown artist, Death, 16th century, 37 x 20 cm (14.6 x 7.9 in). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon [1]
La mort Saint-Innocent Louvre R.F.2625.jpg
Unknown artist, La Mort Saint-Innocent, 1520s, 120 x 55 cm (47.2 x 21.7 in). Musée du Louvre [13]

The limestone statue is composed of three blocks of stone making up the figure's head and torso, his left arm, and his legs and pelvis; each of which slots into each other. [14] Both the statue and its frame are supported by an iron stud located at the figure's pelvis. [14]

The life-sized figure represents a putrefied and emaciated, skinless corpse, and is positioned above an altarpiece. Its left arm reaches out, while its other rests on its chest. The hand of the outstretched arm may have once have held his preserved heart and extends in a gesture that may be either pleading or in tribute to a higher being. It is 177  cm (70  in) in height, and made from black marble and limestone. [15] The skeleton is sculpted with forensic and unflinching realism. [2] It is placed on a stylobate which supports two black marble columns with Corinthian capitals. [16] A coat of arms is placed underneath the figure, [15] while the escutcheon is empty. The figure has been described as a "rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass". [17]

His left hand reaches upwards as if pleading to heaven or God. [15] The gesture may be in reference to the biblical passage from Job 19:26: "And though after my skin, worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God". [18] The gesture may represent contrite pleading or supplication, or the ability of the spirit to overcome mortality. [2] The art historian Kathleen Cohen writes that the monument may be an illustration of the "doctrine of corruption as a necessary step toward regeneration". [4]

The hand holding the heart was broken off and stolen by a French soldier in 1793. [18] It was later replaced, but shown holding either a clepsydra or hourglass, obvious symbolic objects for a memento mori. However, that placement changed the meaning of the sculpture, from a representation of René to a depiction of the personification of death or as a danse macabre. [19] [20]

Altarpiece and frame

The frame consists of black marble octagonal panels set in white stone, between which were twelve small corbel statuettes measuring between 38 and 40 cm (1.25–1.3 in) in height. None remain today; six are known to have been destroyed in November 1793 during the French Revolution. The escutcheon above the statue is missing its emblem. [15]

The altarpiece is made from black carved marble and limestone and measures 267 x 592 cm (105 x 233 in). Its top-slab is taken from the former tomb of Henry IV, Count of Bar (d. 1344) and Yolande of Flanders (d. 1395). The black slab contains two series of inscriptions which are also later additions. The coat of arms of Bar and Lorraine were added to the front face in 1810 at the request of the then vicar of Saint-Étienne, Claude Rollet. [21] The funeral drapery is also a later addition. [15]

Interment of nobles of the Duchy of Bar Bar-le-Duc - Eglise Saint-Etienne - Ossements.JPG
Interment of nobles of the Duchy of Bar

The altar holds a glass-covered reliquary for the bones of other royals and nobles of the Duchy of Bar, and includes the remains of Henry IV and his wife Yolande, Robert, Duke of Bar (d. 1411) and his wife Marie of France (d. 1404), as well as those of their son, Edward III, Duke of Bar (d. 1415). Other possible internees include Frederick I, Duke of Upper Lorraine, Edward I, Count of Bar (d. 1336) and Mary of Burgundy (b. 1298). The mural on the wall behind the statue was painted by Varembel Barber in 1790. [14]


Cadaver tombs, in France known as transis, were intended to show the human body's "transition" from life to decomposition. Art historians debate this particular example's meaning, specifically the symbolism of the raised hand and what it originally held. At one time, the raised hand is supposed to have contained the prince's actual dried heart. [18]

The effigy is viewed by art historians in two distinct ways. The more literal interpretation is that the tomb is a dedication commissioned by a loving and pious wife. Other scholars, including Bernard Noël and Paulette Choné, read deeper meaning, and invoking a sense of the "spirituality of death", [22] view the work as a comment on both the inevitability and effect of death. These opposing interpretations were juxtaposed in 1922 by the novelist Louis Bertrand when he wrote that the tomb may represent either despair or a romantic ideal of the eternal spirit. [23] A further interpretation is that the work represents a mark of penance or repentance of past sins. [2]


Francois Pompon, Statue at the Tomb of Henry Bataille in Moux, 1922 Statue at Tombe de Henry Bataille in Moux.jpg
François Pompon, Statue at the Tomb of Henry Bataille in Moux, 1922

A copy of the cadaver for the Palais de Chaillot was produced in 1894. François Pompon made a further copy in 1922 for the tomb of the playwright and poet Henry Bataille at Moux, while another replica is in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc. [24] [25] Death, an unattributed 16th-century sculpture realistically depicting a corpse wrapped in a shroud, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon (catalog number 743), is very similar, but much smaller. [26]

The first literary reference to the Transi appears in Louis Des Masures' 1557 Epitaph on the Heart of René de Chalon, Prince of Orange, [27] [28] and a photograph of the statue appears on the cover of the 1992 Faber edition of the book. [29] The French poet Louis Aragon evoked the tomb in "Le Crève-cœur", published in 1941. [30] It inspired the titular poem in Thom Gunn's 1992 collection The Man with Night Sweats; elegies written in the aftermath of the deaths of friends from AIDS. [31] The poems includes the lines "My flesh was its own shield:/Where it was gashed, it healed. / Stopped upright where I am / Hugging my body to me / As if to shield it from / The pains that will go through me". [32] Simone de Beauvoir details her first encounter with the tomb in her 1974 autobiography All Said and Done, describing it as a "masterpiece" of a "living man...already mummified". [33]

The tomb was designated as a Monument historique on 18 June 1898. [14]

Provenance and conservation

Replica at the Palais de Chaillot Le Transi moulage d'apres Ligier Richier Musee des monuments francais Paris.jpg
Replica at the Palais de Chaillot

The tomb was originally placed in the collegiate church of Saint-Maxe in Bar-le-Duc, where it was positioned over a vault which may have held the hearts of René, his father-in-law Antoine, Duke of Lorraine, [34] and other members of his family. [11] It was moved to the church of St Ėtienne in 1782 when the former site was abandoned. It was moved to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War and was returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920. [14]

Due to humidity and contact with water, the tomb has suffered damage over the centuries. It was restored in 1969 by Maxime Chiquet d'Allancancelles. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent further restoration between 1998 and 2003. In 1993 both the retable and the tomb were classified as historic monuments, and underwent restoration. [14] An extensive assessment and historical study commissioned by the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles in 1998 was followed by a condition assessment and recommendations in 2001. [14]

The 2003 restoration was conducted in stages, beginning with the dismantling of the statue which was painstakingly cleaned with cotton buds, before the altar was dismantled to clean its back wall. Microcrystalline cellulose wax was used to polish both the back wall and side columns. The restorer Françoise Joseph cleaned the mural, brightening the colours, and during the process discovered decorations at each of its four corners. Because the church's basement is often water-logged in winter, the mural had been damaged by humidity. Repairs to the statue included the removal of wrinkles, splinters, cracks, and graffiti; much of the work centered on areas around the groin, knee and pelvis. The iron fasteners were removed and replaced with stainless steel studs, removing the future risk of oxidation. [14]

See also

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  3. Rowen (1988), p. 11
  4. 1 2 3 Cohen (1973), p. 177
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  17. Morton, Ella. "What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures". Slate , 24 September 2014. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  18. 1 2 3 Cohen (1973), p. 179
  19. Kuyper (2004), p. 130
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  21. "Altarpiece". French Ministry of Culture. Retrieved 12 August 2018
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  23. Noël; Choné (2000), p. 41
  24. Selected works at the Musée barrois (in French). Musée Barrois. Retrieved 9 December 2017
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  34. Ariane van Suchtelen; Quentin Buvelot (2003). Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/98-1543: Portraitist of the Renaissance. Mauritius: Royal Cabinet of Paintings. p. 144.


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Coordinates: 48°45′56″N5°9′56″E / 48.76556°N 5.16556°E / 48.76556; 5.16556