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The Art of the Tomb

Elizabeth Linscott describes how English churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, abound in memorial effigies to the distinguished dead.

Ruskin once said that having an effigy was ‘being laid dead with dignity’; and during the Middle Ages, from the close of the twelfth century onwards, figures of the deceased, called ‘images’ or ‘counterfeits’, were often placed on their tombs. Some were destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers, others by the Great Fire; but at the last count, fifty-six years ago, two thousand sepulchral statues still remained in English churches and cathedrals.

The interior of a medieval church was brightly painted; and many of these figures show touches of their original colouring. But most of it has long since vanished. What remain are delicate details of sculpture—beautiful sprigs of foliage, the pleats and buttons of a garment, the modelling of a hand, the rivet of a suit of armour and, here and there, a lady’s smile.

Only the rich could afford an effigy; and statues usually represent noblemen and knights, with their families, or important members of the Church. Merchants and their kind do not begin to appear until the end of the medieval period. The earliest images are those of abbots and bishops, one of the first being that of St. Cuthbert, cut on the surface of his wooden coffin in Durham Cathedral Library, about the year 1000, which, like the image of Abbot Crispin, who died in 1117, is engraved rather than modelled.

At the outset, the artists employed were probably the monks themselves; but, as the demand increased, the work was carried on in London and in workshops near convenient quarries—for instance, the quarries of the Isle of Purbeck, on the Dorset coast, which turned out fonts, bases, capitals, and what was called ‘church furniture’, such as marble chairs for archbishops.

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