Cadaver tomb

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Free-standing cadaver tomb of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (died 1435) Arundel4.JPG
Free-standing cadaver tomb of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (died 1435)

A cadaver tomb or transi (or memento mori tomb , Latin for "reminder of death") is a type of gisant (recumbent effigy tomb) featuring an effigy in the form of a decomposing corpse; it was particularly characteristic of the later Middle Ages. [1]

<i>Memento mori</i> Latin phrase and its meaning

Memento mori is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi and similar Western literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.

Tomb burial place

A tomb is a repository for the remains of the dead. It is generally any structurally enclosed interment space or burial chamber, of varying sizes. Placing a corpse into a tomb can be called immurement, and is a method of final disposition, as an alternative to for example cremation or burial.

Tomb effigy

A tomb effigy, usually a recumbent effigy or in French gisant is a sculpted figure on a tomb monument depicting in effigy the deceased. Such compositions, developed in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, continuing into Renaissance, and early modern times, and still sometimes used. They typically represent the deceased in a state of "eternal repose", lying with hands folded in prayer and awaiting resurrection. A husband and wife may be depicted lying side by side. An important official or leader may be shown holding his attributes of office or dressed in the formal attire of his official status or social class.



16th century; "l'homme a moulons" (cadaver eaten by worms) in Boussu, Belgium Boussu JPG00a.jpg
16th century; "l'homme à moulons" (cadaver eaten by worms) in Boussu, Belgium

A depiction of a rotting cadaver in art (as opposed to a skeleton) is called a transi. However, the term "cadaver tomb" can really be applied to other varieties of monuments, e.g. with skeletons or with the deceased completely wrapped in a shroud. In the "double-decker" tombs, in Erwin Panofsky's phrase, [2] a carved stone bier displays on the top level the recumbent effigy or gisant of a person as they were before death or soon after their death, where they may be life-sized and sometimes represented kneeling in prayer, and as a rotting cadaver on the bottom level, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms and other flesh-eating wildlife. The iconography is regionally distinct: the depiction of vermin on these cadavers is more commonly found on the European mainland, and especially in the German regions. [3] The dissemination of cadaver imagery in the late-medieval Danse Macabre may also have influenced the iconography of cadaver monuments. [4]

Skeleton body part that forms the supporting structure of an organism

The skeleton is the body part that forms the supporting structure of an organism. It can also be seen as the bony frame work of the body which provides support, shape and protection to the soft tissues and delicate organs in animals. There are several different skeletal types: the exoskeleton, which is the stable outer shell of an organism, the endoskeleton, which forms the support structure inside the body, the hydroskeleton, a flexible skeleton supported by fluid pressure, and the cytoskeleton present in the cytoplasm of all cells, including bacteria, and archaea. The term comes from Greek σκελετός (skeletós), meaning 'dried up'.

Erwin Panofsky art historian

Erwin Panofsky was a German-Jewish art historian, whose academic career was pursued mostly in the U.S. after the rise of the Nazi regime.


A bier is a stand on which a corpse, coffin, or casket containing a corpse, is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave.

In Christian funerary art, cadaver tombs were a departure from the usual practice of showing an effigy of the person as they were in life. An early example is the famous effigy on the multi-layered wall-tomb of Cardinal Jean de La Grange (died 1402) in Avignon.

Jean de La Grange Catholic cardinal

Jean de La Grange was a French prelate and politician, active during the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI, and an important member of the papal curia at Avignon, at the time of the Western Schism. He was the brother of Étienne de La Grange, an advisor to the king and president of Parlement.

The term can also be used for a monument that shows only the cadaver without the live person. The sculpture is intended as a didactic example of how transient earthly glory is, since it depicts what all people finally become. Kathleen Cohen's study of five French ecclesiastics who commissioned transi tombs determined that common to all of them was a successful worldliness that seemed almost to demand a shocking display of transient mortality. A classic example is the "Transi de René de Chalons" by Ligier Richier, in the church of Saint Etienne in Bar-le-Duc, France. [5]

Sculpture Branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions

Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving and modelling, in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded or cast.

Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon Life sized funerary statue and memento mori

The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon 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.

Ligier Richier French artist

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

Low part of the recumbent figure of Jean III de Trazegnies and his spouse Isabeau de Werchin (1550) in Trazegnies, Belgium. Trazegnies 050911 (41).JPG
Low part of the recumbent figure of Jean III de Trazegnies and his spouse Isabeau de Werchin (1550) in Trazegnies, Belgium.

These cadaver tombs, with their demanding sculptural program, were made only for high-ranking nobles, usually royalty or bishops or abbots, because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for one in a church. Some tombs for royalty were double tombs, for both a king and queen. The French kings Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II were doubly portrayed, in effigy and as naked cadavers, in their double double-decker tombs in the Basilica of Saint-Denis outside Paris. Yet there are also other varieties, such as cadaver imagery on incised slabs and monumental brasses (including the so-called "shroud brasses"), of which many can still be found in England. [6]

Louis XII of France King of France

Louis XII was King of France from 1498 to 1515 and King of Naples from 1501 to 1504. The son of Charles, Duke of Orléans, and Maria of Cleves, he succeeded his cousin Charles VIII, who died without a closer heir in 1498. Louis was the eighth French king from the House of Valois, and the first from the Orléans branch of that dynasty.

Francis I of France King of France

Francis I was King of France from 1515 until his death in 1547. He was the son of Charles, Count of Angoulême, and Louise of Savoy. He succeeded his cousin and father-in-law Louis XII, who died without a son. Francis was the ninth king from the House of Valois, the second from the Valois-Orléans branch, and the first from the Valois-Orléans-Angoulême branch.

Henry II of France 16th-century King of France

Henry II was King of France from 31 March 1547 until his death in 1559. The second son of Francis I, he became Dauphin of France upon the death of his elder brother Francis III, Duke of Brittany, in 1536. Henry was the tenth king from the House of Valois, the third from the Valois-Orléans branch, and the second from the Valois-Orléans-Angoulême branch.



The earliest known transi memorial is the very faint indent of a shrouded demi-effigy on the slab commemorating John the Smith (c.1370) at Brightwell Baldwin (Oxfordshire). [7] In the 15th century the sculpted transi effigy can be identified in England. [8] Cadaver monuments can be seen in many English cathedrals and some parish churches. The earliest surviving one, in Lincoln Cathedral, is to Bishop Richard Fleming who founded Lincoln College, Oxford and died in 1431. Canterbury Cathedral houses the well-known cadaver monument to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury (1414–1443). Exeter Cathedral houses the 16th-century tomb of Preceptor Sylke, inscribed with: 'I am what you will be, and I was what you are. Pray for me I beseech you'. Winchester Cathedral also has two cadaver tombs.

Brightwell Baldwin village and civil parish in South Oxfordshire, England

Brightwell Baldwin is a village and civil parish in Oxfordshire, about 4 12 miles (7 km) northeast of Wallingford. It was historically in the Hundred of Ewelme and is now in the District of South Oxfordshire. The 2011 Census recorded the parish's population as 208.

Cathedral Christian church that is the seat of a bishop

A cathedral is a church that contains the cathedra of a bishop, thus serving as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate. Churches with the function of "cathedral" are usually specific to those Christian denominations with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches. Church buildings embodying the functions of a cathedral first appeared in Italy, Gaul, Spain and North Africa in the 4th century, but cathedrals did not become universal within the Western Catholic Church until the 12th century, by which time they had developed architectural forms, institutional structures and legal identities distinct from parish churches, monastic churches and episcopal residences.

A parish is a territorial entity in many Christian denominations, constituting a division within a diocese. A parish is under the pastoral care and clerical jurisdiction of a parish priest, who might be assisted by one or more curates, and who operates from a parish church. Historically, a parish often covered the same geographical area as a manor. Its association with the parish church remains paramount.

The monument traditionally identified as that of John Wakeman remains in Tewkesbury Abbey. Wakeman was abbot of Tewkesbury from 1531 to 1539. When the abbey was dissolved, he retired, and later became 1st Bishop of Gloucester. He may have prepared the tomb for himself, with vermin crawling on his carved skeletal corpse, but never used it. He was buried instead at Forthampton in Gloucestershire.

A post-medieval example is the standing shrouded effigy of the poet John Donne (d. 1631) in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London. [9] Similar examples from the Early Modern period signify faith in the Resurrection. [10]


Beneath Masaccio's fresco of the Trinity painted in 1425-28 in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is a painted representation of a cadaver tomb. Masaccio trinity.jpg
Beneath Masaccio's fresco of the Trinity painted in 1425-28 in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is a painted representation of a cadaver tomb.

Cadaver monuments are found in many Italian churches. Andrea Bregno sculpted a few of them, including those of a Cardinal Alain de Coëtivy in Santa Prassede, Ludovico Cardinal d'Albert at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and Bishop Juan Díaz de Coca at the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a basilican church in Rome, Italy. [11]

Three other monuments are those of Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta (Matthew of Acquasparta) at the Santa Maria in Aracoeli, [12] the tomb of Bishop Gonsalvi (1298) and that of Cardinal Gonsalvo (1299) (both located at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore), all sculpted by Giovanni de Cosma, [11] the youngest of the Cosmati family lineage.

Saint Peter's Basilica contains yet another monument, the tomb of Pope Innocent III. [12] It was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano. [11]


Le Transi de Rene de Chalon, Church of St. Etienne, Bar-le-Duc, France. Sculpture by Ligier Richier. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon (Ligier Richier).jpg
Le Transi de René de Chalon , Church of St. Étienne, Bar-le-Duc, France. Sculpture by Ligier Richier.

France has a long history of cadaver tombs, though not as many examples or varieties survive as in England. One of the earliest and anatomically convincing examples is the gaunt cadaver effigy of the medieval physician Guillaume de Harsigny (d. 1393) at Laon. [13] Kathleen Cohen lists many other extant examples. There was a revival in the Renaissance, as testified by the two examples to Louis XII and his wife Anne of Brittany at Saint-Denis, and of Queen Catherine de Medici who likewise had her husband Henry II buried in a cadaver tomb.

Germany and the Netherlands

There are a number of cadaver monuments and tomb slabs to be found in Germany and the Netherlands. An impressive example is the sixteenth-century Van Brederode double-decker monument at Vianen near Utrecht, which depicts Reynoud van Brederode (d. 1556) and his wife Philippote van der Marck (d. 1537) as shrouded figures on the upper level, with below them a single verminous cadaver.


A total of 11 cadaver tombs have been recorded in Ireland, many of which are no longer in situ. The earliest complete record of these monuments was compiled by Helen M. Roe in 1969. [14] One of the better known examples of this tradition, is the monumental limestone slab known as 'The Modest Man', dedicated to Thomas Ronan (d. 1554), and his wife Johanna Tyrry (d. 1569), which currently resides in the Triskel Christchurch, Cork City. This is one of two examples that have been recorded in Cork, with the second residing in St. Multose Church in Kinsale.

A variant on this are Cadaver Stones, which lack the tomb part. Sometimes they are simply the relocated top part of the tomb, as is the case for the stone taken from the tomb of Sir Edmond Goldyng and his wife Elizabeth Fleming, built into the churchyard wall of St. Peter's Church of Ireland, Drogheda in the early part of the 16th century.

Cadaver stone in Drogheda Cadaver stone in St. Peter's churchyard, Drogheda, Ireland.jpg
Cadaver stone in Drogheda

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  1. Cohen, Kathleen (1973). Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (New York) 1964:65.
  3. Sophie Oosterwijk, "Food for worms - – food for thought. The appearance and interpretation of the “verminous” cadaver in Britain and Europe", Church Monuments, 20 (2005), 40-80, 133-40.
  4. Sophie Oosterwijk, "“For no man mai fro dethes stroke fle”. Death and Danse Macabre iconography in memorial art", Church Monuments, 23 (2008), 62-87, 166-68.
  5. Illustration.
  7. The Brightwell Baldwin slab is discussed by Sally Badham in her essay "Monumental brasses and the Black Death - a reappraisal', Antiquaries Journal, 80 (2000), 225-226.
  8. Pamela King examines the phenomenon of English cadaver tombs in her essay "The cadaver tomb in the late fifteenth century: some indications of a Lancastrian connection", in Dies Illa: Death in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 1983 Manchester Colloquium, Jane H.M. Taylor, ed.
  10. Jean Wilson, "Go for Baroque: The Bruce Mausoleum at Maulden, Bedfordshire", Church Monuments, 22 (2007), 66-95.
  11. 1 2 3 Scott, Leader (1882). Ghiberti and Donatello with Other Early Italian Sculptors. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. pp. 27–50.
  12. 1 2 "Guide to Rome." Online at:
  14. Roe, Helen M. (1969). "Cadaver Effigial Monuments in Ireland". The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 99: 1–19. JSTOR   25509699.