Talkin’ Transi Tombs with Caitlin & Elizabeth

Elizabeth Harper, relic hunter and mistress of All the Saints You Should Know, and Caitlin, boring ol’ medievalist mortician, bring you their correspondence on transi tombs.  We hope to one day turn it into a cable access chat show. Geek out with us!

Cadaver Tomb

Tomb at St. Gervais et Protais in Gisor

Elizabeth

I loved that cadaver tomb you posted on Facebook the other day. (Cadaver tomb always sounds redundant to me but whatevs.) It reminds me of this bad boy who’s been lurking in my “things to write about” folder. Thought you might like him.

Caitlin

I guess “cadaver tomb” is kind of redundant, as tomb implies that a dead body is found within.  But I’m going to make the bold declaration that cadaver tombs get a pass on the extra emphasis because they are tombs with actual cadavers on them.  Best of both worlds!  Did you find this beauty on your travels?

Elizabeth

It’s at St. Gervais et Protais in Gisor, France. It’s set into the wall, lurking in the shadows under a window. Kids have scratched their names right below it as if a little lively mischief could take away the pall the sculpture casts over this corner.

What’s crazy about this particular piece is there is no dead body. When I saw it thought it must be a cadaver tomb (which I learned is also called a transi tomb sometimes- as in transitioning from death to eternal life) but after a little research, I found out it’s not. I guess you would classify it more as a memento mori? It’s so similar to the one you posted though and they’re both French. Do you have any more information on yours?

Cadaver Tomb

Tomb of Cardinal Jean de la Grange, c.1325 – 1402.

Caitlin

Today is your lucky day.  Mallory, who sent in the tomb (like you and I, Mallory is a fan of deathstinations) had a ton of info.  It’s the tomb of Cardinal Jean de la Grange, c.1325 – 1402. This is considered an early example of a transi, or cadaver tomb, because his body is really in there. +1 for body. Body or it didn’t happen.

Our Cardinal de la Grange was a Benedictine monk who lived through the Black Death in France, at a time where 50% of people in his town of Avignon died.  This is how the inscription on the tomb translates: “We are a spectacle to the world. Let the great and humble, by our example, see to what state they shall be inexorably reduced, whatever their condition, age or sex. Why then, miserable person, are you puffed with pride? Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return, rotten corpse, morsel and meal for worms.”

I like that he calls us “rotten corpse” at the end there.  It’s good strong death acceptance rhetoric.  Transi tombs are great, but you know what my favorite are? DOUBLE DECKER TRANSI TOMBS.

 

Transitory_tomb_-_1435-40

Transi Tomb, c. 1435-40

Elizabeth

Well now it’s YOUR lucky day! Because Cardinal de la Grange’s tomb USED TO BE A DOUBLE DECKER! I just found that little nugget out while I was searching for more info on my memento mori. According to a conservationist at the Louvre, the tomb used to show the Cardinal in life above the corpse part of the tomb but it was knocked down during the Revolution. The salvageable pieces were split up and the corpse stayed in Avignon. So we’re only seeing half of it. The double decker transi tombs are so awesome—business up top, naked decomposition down below. Truly the mullet of tombs (and I mean that lovingly).

I’ve also got to hand it to the Cardinal’s tomb for having a badass epigraph. My tomb at St. Gervais is a little more tempered. It translates to “Whoever you are, you will be overcome by death. Stay here, take care, and weep. I am what you will be, a heap of ashes. I implore you, pray for me.”

The sculpture is probably from around 1526.The conservationist points out that people weren’t dissecting corpses yet, so the anatomy is always a little impressionistic. Our dead friend in the wall here has too many ribs, for example.

Here’s some of the reading material I dug up on our transi tombs, if you want to peruse. The first link is choice.

Représentation du corpse- le transi by Geneviève Bresc Bauthier (link)

The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 2, edited by Colum Hourihane

John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel 1435

John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel 1435

Caitlin

The mullet of tombs!  Truer words were never spoken.  And yes I will absolutely peruse any and all cadaver tomb information.

I’ll leave you with one of my fave double decker transi tombs, John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (much better than the 13th Earl).  I use this picture in talks all the time, to silence any naysayers on the point that late medieval tombs were the realest and best of all tombs.

So I am, so you shall be!  Look upon me, one in the bloom of life, now a rotten corpse, ravaged by death.  I just made that one up, but it’s pretty to form. We could use more of these now, instead of flat grave markers that try to hide that people are buried and make cemeteries look like parks.  I’ll take my corpses and the reality of death, please.

Can I post this to the Order? I feel like people will love a good transi tomb.  How can they help but capture a deathling’s black heart?

Elizabeth

Yes, definitely post this to the blog!

I’m having so much fun over here learning about transi tombs. No really. The More You Know rainbow-star is shooting out of my house right now. And I’m right there with you. Let’s bring back the transi tomb. They’re beautiful, they’re unflinching, they’re personal and still universal. What more could you ask for in a memorial?  Maybe transi tombs were like Medieval art therapy– a way to come to grips with the fact that you’ll become ashes and dirt without believing you are ashes and dirt.
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  • Mallory

    Brilliant. So much I didn’t know about the tombs or laGrange’s tomb particularly. Wish they would come back in style. I’ve always thought they were a greater reminder of the temporary nature of life rather than the permanence of death.

  • MrsPhysicsGal

    Unfortunately, the link does not seem to be working. I’m going to have to see if my university has a copy of “The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture”. Thanks for posting this!

    • All the Saints

      Oh no! It was quite good and I can’t find another link to it. Damn. The Grove Encyclopedia is available on Google books if you’d like to peruse it from your couch.

  • Thomas Baird

    Yes, this Deathling wanted to read this! I’d love a transi tomb. Wonder where I can find a deal on a fixer-upper masoleum?

  • Laura Tradii

    Hello 🙂 In the course of my studies about Death in the Middle Ages/Renaissance I came across a great book called “Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: Transi tombs in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance” by Kathleen Cohen. It is quite hard to find but it has some excellent illustrations of Transi tombs from all over Europe. A very interesting one is the transi of Louis XII, a “double-decker” tomb in which the corpses of the king and of his wife show the marks of the embalmer’s stitches (you may see them below). The transi as a representation of the decaying body was very popular at that time (just think about the abundance of Danses Macabres across Europe).
    I would absolutely recommend this book 🙂

  • URNS BY ARTISTS

    fascinating! I was unaware of transi tombs— doesn’t seem a redundant term to me, death is transition.