Medieval Death Sculptures Were Least Flattering Selfies Ever

Sculptors in England and Wales may have paid doctors for corpse models in order to carve full-body portraits of the wealthy, says scholar.

By Becky Little
Published 2 Nov 2017, 10:39 GMT
A carving of a cadaver memorialises John Fitzalan, a nobleman who died in 1435. It is located at Arundel Castle in Arundel.
Photograph by Christina Welch

Paying an artist to sculpt a dead, emaciated, and nearly naked version of yourself sounds pretty bizarre; but that’s only because it’s out of fashion. According to Christina Welch, some wealthy individuals and families in the Late Middle Ages paid premium prices for carved cadaver selfies.  

Sometimes people commissioned death sculptures of themselves while they were still alive; sometimes families has them made, either before or after a loved one's death.

Welch, a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Winchester, has examined 41 of these sculptures, known as transi, in England and Wales. She spoke to National Geographic about why medieval knights and clerics might have wanted a carving of their future corpse.

What are transis?

Transi is just a French word that means “passed over.” So transi is any form of memorial that pictures the dead. What I’m looking at is a specific form of transi art.

The carved cadaver of an unidentified, wealthy man resides at St. Andrew’s Church in Feniton, United Kingdom.
Photograph by Christina Welch

Whom do they depict?

The transis that I’m looking at were just in England and Wales. All of them [depict] somebody that was wealthy. The ones that are identifiable include senior clerics, knights of the realm, there’s one of a woman, and the rest of them are wealthy merchants.

These sculptures cost, in equivalent terms, about the same as a top of the range luxury sports car. They were extraordinarily expensive to have carved. They weren’t something you could just go and pick up from your local stone merchant.

They come in two main styles. You’ve got an emaciated carved figure who’s naked, laying in a burial shroud, their hand holding their shroud over their genitals for modesty; and you have the kid ones which would include a resurrection effigy. But most of them are just carved cadavers.

Ribs and neck muscles are visible on John Fitzalan’s carved cadaver.
Photograph by Christina Welch

Why were they made?

They’re known as memento mori—so, the idea is that you would pray for the person who you see there, who was suffering in purgatory. If your father or your mother was in purgatory, you could have prayers said for them, and they would get less time or less suffering in purgatory through your actions. At this point in history, being very pious was really important. So if you were wealthy, you would donate alms to poor houses and in response to that they would pray for your soul.

Part of what I’m arguing is that because they’re extremely emaciated—basically, most of them look anorexic—it’s trying to show that they have a spiritual humility that was an internal thing. During this time in history, honestly, the wealthy people ate quite well, and were more likely to die of obesity-related diseases than anorexia.

They're unusually anatomically correct for their day.

The very first one was commissioned in about 1420 to 1425. When we think about that period of time, we generally think, particularly in northern Europe, about a lack of anatomical knowledge.

If you were a sculptor, you wouldn’t have live models like you would today, simply because to be naked in front of somebody else would generally be considered quite shameful. So, the fact that that level of anatomical detail was shown—some of them have got carved veins, there’s muscle detail, bone detail on parts of the foot—for the 1420s, they’re absolutely astonishing.

The carved cadaver of an unidentified man covers himself for modesty at the Church of St. Nicholas in Denston, United Kingdom.
Photograph by Christina Welch

How do you think the sculptors were able to make them so detailed?

I have got a theory, but it is quite contentious. I think they probably paid the doctors to have access to the emaciated dead. And although this sounds really surprising, it’s actually not the only time in history that that’s happened. Ford Madox Brown was commissioned to [illustrate] poetry, and in order to get the anatomical details that he wanted for this particular poem, a friend of his procured a corpse.

Some of the sculptures were carved as if half-alive. It seemed that they were straining against something.

Not all of them are carved that way, but most of them are. They’re carved in tension; they’re in sort of a liminal state, between living and dying, and their mouths are open, their eyes are part open—they do look quite in pain.

Again, this is quite contentious: I’m arguing that in England and Wales, it was understood that when you were in purgatory, while your body was rotting, you would physically feel the pains of purgatory. If you look at the pictures and the writing of purgatory at that time, it’s very visceral language. So I think it was partly reinforcing that purgatory could be a very nasty place, and you better live as good a life as you possibly could.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Becky Little on Twitter.

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