Transi Tombs

“The most obvious places to look for memento mori meditations are in funeral art and architecture. Perhaps the most striking to contemporary minds is the transi, or cadaver tomb, a tomb that depicts the decayed corpse of the deceased.” (RJ)
“From the 1440s onwards it was common for the higher clergy, gentry and merchants to erect transi tombs – double level tombs in which they were portrayed in all their earthly finery above and with image of their decomposing corpse in the openwork tomb chest below. Many of these monuments were erected during the lifetime of the individual to serve as a memento mori for them during their remaining years and for those who saw it in the years after.” (Medieval Church Art)
“Cadaver tombs, or transi tombs as they are also known, began to be used in the 14th Century, after the Black Death had swept through Europe, killing at least one third and perhaps as much as one half of the population.  Mortality on a such a vast, shocking scale would have been deeply unsettling to those left behind, and the macabre imagery of the cadaver tomb reflects people’s heightened preoccupation with death at this time.” (Flickering lamps)


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Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance – Kathleen Cohen




Sir John Golafre, Fyfield in Berkshire – one of the earliest transi tombs



Boussu, Belgium



Tomb of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury



Transi tomb of Peter Niderwirt



Carving Guy Of Gaunt





Tomb of René du Chalon – in my opinion one of the most stunning examples of transi tombs.


A transi by Ligier Richier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon. It’s quite similar in style to the transi of René du Chalon.
I think this style is more interesting than the other styles shown previously. However the contrast between the richly clothed person and their decomposing corpse is a compelling way of alluding to the memento mori theme.



There are also different versions of transi tombs.
“Of course, such ornate and ostentatious tombs were only created for the privileged few. The effigies of the rotting corpses of the rich and powerful were incredibly symbolic – not only did they show death as being the great leveller, but they have also been interpreted as being penitential.  By choosing to have themselves depicted in a shocking state of physical decay, individuals were atoning for their worldly riches and power and hoping to gain salvation in the next world.” (Flickering Lamps)
“In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century shroud brasses proliferated, these portrayed the deceased in the attitude of prayer wrapped in their winding sheet.” (Medieval Church Art)



Lenthall brass at Great Haseley in Oxfordshire



Hamsterley brass at Oddington in Oxfordshire
These plaques aren’t as detailed as the sculptures on the tombs, but I really like the etching/engraving style.


There are also some tombs that depict the figures as statues in shrouds, as a reminder of what lies beneath them.




Beresford monument at Fenny Bentley in Derbyshire



Baudelaire Monument, Cimetiere Montparnasse , Paris, France




John Donne, St Paul’s Cathedral


Similar, but not on a tomb is the Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino. The detail is incredible and so lifelike. It was carved out of a single piece of marble.


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