Abstracts: Panel Session 4
Dr Christina Welch
University of Winchester
Contextualising the fashion for carved cadaver memorials in late-medieval England
This paper explores the context of the 39 extant late-medieval carved cadaver memorials in England (c.1423-1558). These sculptures imaged members of society’s elite (wealthy land-owners, prosperous merchants, and the high clergy), naked and emaciated, laying dead or dying in an open burial shroud with only a strategically placed hand or piece of winding cloth to protect their modesty. Hugely expensive to commission, these unusual pieces of funerary art, display the complex tensions between this-life and after-life concerns at a time when England was Roman Catholic; the sculptures cease temporarily during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553).
By examining contemporary vernacular theology, perceptions of purgatory, and understandings of the body post-mortem, this paper will support current scholarly writing that these sculptures were pedagogical in nature, prompting prayers from the living to comfort the deceased in purgatory. However, it will also argue that the sculptures were essentially didactic, providing a visual reminder to the living that purgatorial suffering was not just spiritual, but also physical during the wet stage of death, before the corpse became fully skeletal.
By fully contextualising the English carved cadaver memorials, this paper will argue that the sculptures are images that (self-)projected the spiritual humility of those with material excess; a necessary quality when ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matt 19:24). Further, noting their potential importance to the study of pre-Vesalian anatomy, and by drawing the concept of iconicity (the emotion elicited from gazing at an image), and the notion of post-mortem sentience (the concept that the dead can in some sense perceive), it will explore the what, why and how of these unusual forms of late-medieval English mortuary art.
Dr Wendy Birch
University College London
This paper explores the anatomical knowledge of the artists who carved cadaver memorials. The British carvings examined for this research present as severely emaciated individuals rather than being in a state of putrefaction as previously reported. Emaciation is one of the most severe forms of malnutrition, characterised by pronounced weight loss due to the loss of protein and subcutaneous fat throughout the body. The most common presenting symptom of emaciation is extreme thinness, often to such an extent that skeletal structures may be easily discernible under the skin giving the affected person a ‘skeletal’ or ‘gaunt’ appearance. At the time these carving were being produced the most common cause of emaciation was famine, particularly amongst the poor. If they did not starve to death, those suffering from malnutrition were highly susceptible to the epidemics of the time including illnesses such as tuberculosis, sweating sickness and dysentery etc. Although clearly emaciated rather than putrefying, the surface anatomy of these carvings is remarkable, made even more so by the fact that at the time of their production, nakedness was considered to be a shameful act therefore making it questionable as to whether life-models would have been used by the artists to create these carvings. One possible theory to explain the degree of anatomical accuracy and representation of the severe state of emaciation is that the artists may have had access to the remains of very recently deceased or dying emaciated individuals. However, some of these carvings do present several peculiar anatomical abnormalities, particularly in the limbs involving the extensor tendons and in the representation of the musculature of the neck. This paper will explore a number of these abnormalities and place them in the context of the history of anatomy, as most pre-date the work of Vesalius (1514-1564) and possibly represent some of the first examples of anatomical knowledge in the UK.
Anatomical Sculpting as observation and research: the making of the Transi Tombs
This paper considers the techniques of manufacture and design which can be identified in the 39 extant late-medieval carved cadaver memorials in England (c.1423-1558). Together they present an unusual set of variations on an iconographic theme, with a broad range of quality, realism, abstraction and expression. They also furnish clues as to their making such as tool marks, the use of materials, scale, surface, colour, texture and the degradations of time and handling.
Eleanor Crook has investigated the techniques and design secrets of the medieval carvings by setting herself the task of carving a new one following the same format. This has laid bare the problems any carver of such a monument would encounter – from logistics - handling the heavy material and choosing tools , creating and scaling up drawings and sketch models – to concepts - conceiving the post mortem or dying body in three dimensions, calculating the effects of pathos, horror, realism and piety as realized in a human body - to research - the question of how much anatomical knowledge is necessary or desirable to convey the required message, the funerary attributes of death mats and shrouds, mitres, sceptres and skull-footstools.
The paper will argue that to produce works of such realism and surprising anatomical truthfulness the sculptor would need access to more than illustrations and skeletons . Access to the living diseased, the dying or deceased, in a hospital or mortuary context; perhaps even to mummified remains would be a prerequisite. The limitations of 2-d representation and pre-Vesalian anatomical illustration and the use of preparatory drawing and 3D sketch models in 15th century figurative sculpture in Northern Europe will be demonstrated and discussed in the practical context of making. It will explore the tools required and also discuss polychromy and the colourists’ attempts to maximize the emotional impact of the sculptures.