The Gothic churches of the Middle Ages featured elaborate sculpture work and were sanctioned by the pope; the seventh century Pope Gregory noted that “To adore images is one thing; to teach with their help what should be adored is another. What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant … they read in them what they cannot read in books.” This decree would seem to make sense, given that the majority of the population likely couldn’t read or write even in their vernacular languages, much less the Latin used by the church. Thus sanctioned, imagery was profuse throughout Latin Europe, with one text from about 1000 declaring that “this visible image represents an invisible truth …”
Earlier medieval art in churches and monasteries reflected the notion of death as a passage, with both Byzantine and Roman Catholic Christians believing that the soul separated gradually from the flesh, concluding during the end times during the Last Judgement. Wealthy Christians continued the practice of having marble sarcophagi carved with Christian narratives and emblems of their faith for centuries, a carryover from ancient Roman practices.
Wealthy families often had their own private chapels or sought burial under churches, preferably as close to the altar where the relics of saints were housed. As with many other cultures, the wealthy wished to commemorate both their wealth and their piety through burial with jewelry or emblems representing their rank and station.
As the occupants of these tombs were said to be awaiting the last day, tomb effigies often displayed the deceased in tranquil poses, depicted as they were in life. Kings were depicted with crown and scepter and knights were often shown in full armor. The realistic portraiture of the Romans gradually disappeared as new notions of death and a distrust of the material world began to spread through medieval Christian society. During the high Middle Ages, portraits and depictions of people relied less on accurate portraiture as we would know it, but on attributes and other identifying signs, representing the subsuming of the individual self into broader identities.
By the fourteenth century, more “realistic” portraiture began to emerge, usually in the context of funerary or commemorative monuments to royal figures and often confined to the major cities such as Paris.
Starting in the fourteenth century as plague spread through Europe and loomed large in the cultural imagination/memory, a new trend in tomb effigies began to emerge; that of the cadaver tomb, or the “transi” (from the word for “stiff”). They appear to reflect the new preoccupation with death and its association with punishment and sin that developed during the demographic catastrophe. Like other popular images of death at the time such as the depictions of the danse macabre, the cadaver tombs reflect both the idea of death as a leveler and the newfound urgency to secure salvation in the face of calamity. Among the rich who studied the Last Judgement, this manifested as the preoccupation with a bona mors or good death; for those who felt this was out of their reach, the least they could do was have a sumptuous funeral. To display one’s body in such an advanced state of decay could be seen as a humbling before God or a way to atone for one’s worldly riches and thus gain entry into heaven.
As time continued to pass, cadaver tombs grew more and more elaborate in style and execution, with the pinnacle of this form probably being that of René de Chalon, Prince of Orange. The prince, who died at the age of 25, is depicted not as the warrior who participated in the siege of Saint-Dizier in 1544 but as a rotting corpse, supposedly at the behest of the prince himself or his wife as he lay dying. The corpse’s outstretched left hand used to contain the reliquary housing the prince’s heart, but it was lost during the French Revolution.
By the seventeenth century, both the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation/Catholic Reformation placed less emphasis on elaborate monuments to death, and cadaver tombs grew less popular and eventually disappeared, although they experienced a brief return during the nineteenth century. This should surprise no one, given the Victorian predilection towards the occult and Gothic.
For ordinary people, the realities of death were much less glamorous; many bodies were buried in mass graves which continue to be excavated today, and as the numbers of dead rose, the cemeteries began to overflow.
Some of these bodies and older corpses were eventually moved into ossuaries. Aside from the famous Catacombs of Paris, which began to house the remains of Parisians in the 1700s, there are also hundreds of other examples across throughout Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant countries, owing to a mix of lack of space in existing graveyards and various notions on death and the preparation for death.
One of these ossuaries, the Melník Chapel of Bones, houses the remains of over 15000 people. The crypt beneath the St Peter and Paul’s church was originally intended to be the final resting place for Bavarian queens and princesses, but the arrival of the plague in 1520 meant that there was a sudden demand for burial grounds; bodies in nearby cemeteries were dug up, cleaned, and then left in the crypt until they were sealed off as a health hazard in the 1780s. In the 1910s, the Czech anthropologist Jindrich Matiegka decided to reopen the crypt in order to study the bones…and promptly rearranged them into orderly piles or meaningful symbols.
Covi, Dario A. “Renaissance Quarterly.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 3, 1975, pp. 385–387. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2859829.