I have been making heavy duty points on the subject of liminality; the idea that the dead are commemorated at the threshold between life and death, and much of the purpose of that visible commemoration was to encourage people to pray for the souls of the departed to give them a boost out of purgatory. Depictions of the dead with enigmatic poses and symbolism coincide with the propagation of the doctrine of purgatory, which, of course, all turned to custard at the Reformation as puritanical minded people thought that folks were trying to cheat on the system. Everything breaks eventually.
There is one type of tomb which takes the representation of liminality to its limit. This one.
I discovered this in a hidden corner of the church at Hemingborough in East Yorkshire, lurking somewhere behind the organ. As you can see, the church cleaners clearly didn't fancy giving him a spruce up. For one horrible minute I thought I'd found somebody that they had forgotten to bury. This is what has been called a cadaver tomb, or a transi tomb. The latter name emphasises the liminal quality of the representation. The effigy of a corpse, liminal not in the sense of hovering between life and death, but between death and decomposition. Sometimes they are represented as a skeleton, but more usually as an emaciated corpse with blank eye sockets, hyperextended neck, sunken abdomen and muscles shrivelled to the bone. Not immediately dead, or in the early bloated phase, but pretty solidly through the process of consumption of the soft tissue, not yet reduced to bones. Sometimes worms and toads and the like have been added for extra emphasis. So much for the old myth that medieval folks didn't know about anatomical features or processes. They are shown usually partly exposed in their winding sheet which is knotted above the head.
The example above might suggest that these effigies are feared and hidden, or represent something shameful, but that is a delicacy of modern sensibilities. These representations appeared in fine and significant tombs of important people.
To give a non-English example just for a change, this is the transi effigy of Cardinal Jean de Lagrange in the museum of the Petit Palais in Avignon, France. It dates from the end of the 14th or early 15th century and was formerly in the church of Saint Martial in Avignon. It seems to have been part of an elegant and conspicuous construction, and the figure has the same characteristics as the English examples, with the winding sheet just preserving his modesty.
This memorial arrangement in Fulbourn church, Cambridgeshire gives every impression of being coherent and reasonably original, unlike some tomb arrangements which appear to be cobbled together out of miscellaneous diverse pieces. That is another thought to hold for later. We are getting a few of these. Nevertheless, this is a proud tomb occupying pride of place in the chancel wall with architectural elements and a handsome openwork tomb chest of wood, in which resides, this.
Why did they do them this way? It has been suggested that the horrors of the Black Death encouraged a morbid attitude, but that doesn't really fit the chronology. Most of these tombs date from the mid 15th century or later when the plague was a distant memory of earlier generations. Note this chap's early 15th century hairdo (and also the oddity that he should be depicted with a fashionable cut even in this state). This was also the period when the depiction of the three living and the three dead was common in wall paintings and manuscript painting. Mottos along the lines of "As you are, I was once, as I am, so you will be" go along with both forms of representation.
These have been seen as a social statement, that the rich and mighty are brought down and levelled in death. I don't think so. There wasn't too much egalitarianism kicking around in the 15th century. They have also been interpreted as a sign of Christian humility, but I think the style and iconography of some of the tombs makes this unlikely. I think it is a reminder of the connection between liminality and purgatory. Death is a process which takes place over time. Purgatory is a process which takes place over time. Keep praying brothers and sisters, because one day you are going to need somebody to pray for you. A couple of quick Hail Marys after the funeral mass won't cut it. This is going to take some time and effort.
Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, died in 1528. His transi effigy in Winchester Cathedral lies under a fine architectural canopy. I hope they all got praying because the days of purgatory were running out.
In Exeter Cathedral the battered and mutilated transi effigy of Preceptor Syke (d.1508) lies on a highly decorative and grand tomb chest set into his highly decorative and grand chantry chapel. The purgatory linkage here is unequivocal. A priest was employed to say masses for the dead man in here, just in case others forgot. It is true that not every chantry chapel was adorned with a stone corpse, but it is part of the vocabulary of the process of death.
The mid 15th century tomb of Archbishop Henry Chichele in Canterbury Cathedral takes the mixture of glamour and decay to its extreme. The whole construction has been recoloured to give it something of its gaudy medieval aesthetic. The canopy is thronged with angels, saints and weepers, not to mention heraldic devices. This is the tomb of a proud and glorious man in his pomp.
This is how the man was depicted on his tomb, twice. As far as representing humility goes, in the world of binary oppositional symbolism, top beats bottom every time. This man has not been brought down by death, he is triumphing over it. He has risen above that decomposing hunk of flesh beneath him. You can just make out a small praying figure by his feet, behind the metal bars, helping him to do it. The triumphant figure is not clothed in ethereal whiteness humbly waiting to meet Jesus, he wears all the elaborate paraphernalia of his religious office. That is not to say he isn't pious or virtuous, but he sure isn't humble.
This type of depiction was not restricted to the clergy. A famous lay example is that of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk (d.1475) in Ewelme, Oxfordshire. The engraving of her beautiful effigy above comes from C.A.Stothard 1817 The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, London. Try to ignore the library stamp. Evidently the engraver chose not to depict the emaciated cadaver beneath but you can see the whole tomb arrangement here. The cadaver is actually not very easy to see, but it is there.
Cadaver tombs were also produced in brass. The above example is from Hildersham in Cambridgeshire and shows a skeleton rather than the partially decomposed corpse, but these were also depicted, complete with worms coming out of the eye sockets. As with other brass memorials, these depictions move down the social scale over time and quite modest little wall plaques were produced for those without the budgets of an archbishop or a duchess. They have the peculiarity noted already for tombs in general, the confusion between horizontality and verticality. Cadaver effigies on little wall brasses appear to be standing up in their shrouds; definitely a liminal state.
In this example from Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, just the chrysoms are shown. Perhaps it is arguable whether these are actually transi tombs as the swaddling clothes are those that would be used on a living baby, but they are meant to signify the particular situation of the infant's death. The convention of depiction of children on brasses was as miniature versions of adults. But that is another thought for another day.
I have an unprovable hypothesis that these tombs may have once been more common, but that their unpalatability to church restorers may have caused them to quietly disappear. This example from Southwark Cathedral in London sits amongst a miscellany of broken bits of masonry. This is all part of the story of what has happened to medieval tombs over the centuries as their meanings have changed. But before we get to that, there is much to consider about what these tombs were really for. That, as I keep saying, is for another day.
While these tombs represent the transitional state between life and the total oblivion of death in the most literal and unsubtle way, I feel that all tomb effigies are, in fact, transi tombs. They all have certain enigmas of representation that place the people represented somewhere between life and death. If you have started reading this series in the middle, you will have to go back to the beginning to find out why.