Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon

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Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon
Bar-le-Duc - Eglise Saint-Etienne - Le Transi -191.jpg
Upper section of the Transi de René de Chalon
ArtistLigier Richier
Yearc. 1545-47
Dimensions1 cm (0.39 in)

The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon (French: Transi de René de Chalon, also known as the Monument of René de Chalon, or simply The Skeleton) is a life sized funerary statue or memento mori[1] in the church of Saint-Étienne in Bar-le-Duc, France. The majority of its construction is attributed to the French sculptor Ligier Richier, and was completed between 1545 and 1547. Other elements, including the coat of arms and the funeral drapery are later additions, dating from the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.[2]

It was built to stand over the tomb of René of Chalon, Prince of Orange and the brother-in-law of Duke Antoine of Lorraine. René was killed at the siege of St. Dizier on July 15, 1544, dying aged 25 from a wound sustained the previous day. He is shown as an écorché, with his skin rotted away and his muscles fully decayed and leaving him reduced to a skeleton, apparently fulfilling his deathbed wish that his tomb depicts his body as it would be three years after his death. His left arms is raised, as if gesturing towards heaven. Supposedly, at one time his heart, held in a heart-shaped reliquary, was placed in the hand of this raised arm of the sculpture. Unusually, the skeleton is shown standing, making it a "living corpse". It is positioned above an altarpiece.

The tomb was designated as a Monument historique object on June 18, 1898. It was moved for safekeeping to the Panthéon in Paris during World War 1, before it was returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent extensive restoration between 1998 and 2003. Replicas of the statue are in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc,[3] and the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

Death of René of Chalon and tomb commission[edit]

Jan van Scorel, Portrait of Anna of Lorraine, 1542

René of Chalon, Prince of Orange, died on 15 July 1544, aged 25, during the siege of St. Dizier where he fought for Emperor Charles V. He had been mortally wounded in battle the previous day, and died with the Emperor in attendance at his bedside.[4] Charles wrote soon after to René's wife, Anna of Lorraine (d. 1568), setting out in detail the circumstances of René's last hours and death.[5]

René of Chalon

René died without leaving any direct descendants. The monument fulfills his family's wish that he be represented above this tomb as an écorché, that is a body without skin, and "as he would be three years after his death".[6] Cadaver tombs had been built for other members of the family, including his father Henry III of Nassau-Breda, his uncle Philibert of Chalon[7] grandmother and the uncle of his wife.[8] According to legend, either René or his wife,[9] requested that his tomb represent him "not a standard figure but a life-size skeleton with strips of dried skin flapping over a hollow carcass, whose right hand clutches at the empty rib cage while the left hand holds high his heart in a grand gesture".[10] However, this intention has never been definitively attributed, and there is no mention of it in either Charles' letter or René's will. Given this lack of record, and that at only 25 years, René was unlikely to have previously thought closely about his own burial and memorial, it seems most likely that the idea behind the design came from Anna, who is known to commissioned the piece from Richier.[5]

In accordance with contemporary funeral rites, René's heart, bowels, flesh and bones were separated. His heart and bowels remained at Bar and were placed in the Collegiate Church of St. Maxe, abandoned in 1782,[11] while the rest were transferred to Breda to rest with his father and his daughter, who died in early infancy. His widow commissioned Ligier Richier to construct a transi to hold some of the remains of her husband. The monument, along with the other relics of the Dukes of Bar, was transferred to the church of Saint-Étienne in June 1790.[12]

Ann commissioned the building of the tomb, but it is not known with what level of detail her instructions came with. It is perhaps Richier's best known work, remarkable for its origional presentation of a "living corpse", a motif unparalleled in earlier funerary art. He produced one more work in a similar vein, his Death, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.



The tomb is made up of a limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse, standing above an altarpiece. The corpse stands upright with its left hand reaching out above him, and his other resting on his chest. This hand holds his preserved heart, and is extended in a gesture that may be either pleading or in tribute to a higher being. It is 177 cm in height, and made from black marble and white stone.[2] The figure is composed from three blocks of stone, which consist of his head and torso, his left arm, and his legs and pelvis, each of which slot into each other.[13] The statue is connected to its frame and thus supported by an iron stud located by the figure's pelvis.[13]

Ligier Richier, Death (French:"Écorché"), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. This is the other of Richier's works to show a "living corpse"

The frame consists of black marble octagonal panels set in white stone, between which were twelve small corbel statuettes measuring between 38 and 40 cm in height. Of these six were destroyed in November 1793 during the French Revolution. The escutcheon above him is missing its shield or emblem.[2]

The skeleton is sculpted with forensic and unflinching realism. It stands on a stylobate which supports two black marble columns and a Corinthian capital.[14] A coat of arms is placed underneath the figure,[2] while the escutcheon above him is empty. The emaciated figure has been described as a "rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass".[15] He reaches his left arm hands upwards as if pleading to heaven or God.[2] The gesture may be in reference to the biblical passage from Job 19:26: "And though after my skin, worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God".[16]

Full view with black marble columns and altarpiece

Transis were intended to show the body's "transition" from life to decomposition. Art historians debate this particular example's meaning, specifically the symbolism of the raised hand and what it might originally have held. At one time, the raised hand is supposed to have contained the prince's actual dried heart, but the heart was broken off and stolen by a soldier in 1793, and with it the heart was lost. The hand was later replaced and shown holding either a clepsydra or hourglass, obvious symbolic objects for a memento mori. However, that placement changed the meaning of the sculpture, from a representation of René to a depiction of the personification of death or as a danse macabre.[17] Some time later this was replaced by less leading, but perhaps dull, current smooth round stone.[18][15] The gesture may represents contrite pleading or supplication, or if the hand did initially hold his heart, represent the ability of the spirit to overcome death.[9] Art historian Kathleen Cohen writes that the monument may be an illustration of the "doctrine of corruption as a necessary step toward regeneration".[5]

Altarpiece and frame[edit]

The altarpiece positioned beneath the sculpture is made from black carved marble and limestone, and measures 105 x 233 inches. Its top-slap is taken from the former tomb of Henry IV, Count of Bar (d. 1344) and Yolande of Flanders (d. 1395). The Coat of arms of Bar and Lorraine were added to the front face in 1810 on request by the then vicar of Saint-Étienne, Claude Rollet. The black-slab contains two old series of inscriptions which are also later additions.[19]

The altar holds a glass covered holding for the bones of the royals of Bar, and includes the remains of Henry IV, Count of Bar and his wife Yolande, Robert, Duke of Bar (d. 1411) and his wife Marie of France (d. 1404), as well as those of their son, Edward III, Duke of Bar (d. 1415). Other possible internees include Frederick I, Duke of Upper Lorraine, Edward I, Count of Bar (d. 1336) and Mary of Burgundy (b. 1298).

The mural on the wall behind the stature was painted by Varembel Barber in 1790.[13]

Provenance and conservation[edit]

Bones of the royals of Bar

The tomb was originally placed in the collegiate church of Saint-Maxe in Bar-le-Duc, where it was positioned over a vault which held the hearts of Antoine de Lorraine, René and other members of his family.[12] It was moved to church of St Ėtienne in 1782 when the former site was abandoned. It was moved to the Panthéon in Paris during World War 1, before it was returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920.[13]

Due to humidity and impact with water, the tomb has suffered damage over the centuries. It was restored in 1969 by Maxime Chiquet d'Allancancelles. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent further restoration between 1998 and 2003. An extensive assessment and historical study commissioned by the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles in 1998 was followed by a health assessment and recommendations in 2001.[13]

The later restoration was conducted over a number of stages, beginning with the dismantling of the statue which was painstakingly cleaned with cotton buds, before the altar was dismantled to clean its back wall. Microcrystalline cellulose wax was used to polish both the back wall and side columns. Restorer Françoise Joseph cleaned the mural, brightening the colours, and during the process discovered decorations at each of its four corners. Because the church's basement is often water-logged in winter, the mural had been damaged by humidity. Repairs to the statue included the removal of wrinkles, splinters, cracks and graffiti, with a lot of the work center'd on areas around the groin, knee and pelvis. The iron fasteners were removed and replaced with stainless steel studs, removing future risk of oxidation.[13]


  1. ^ Gedo (1998), p. 285
  2. ^ a b c d e "Historical monuments". French Ministry of Culture. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  3. ^ Replica of the "Squelette". Musée Barrois. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  4. ^ Rowen (1988), p. 11
  5. ^ a b c Cohen (1973), p. 177
  6. ^ Chastel (1995), 218
  7. ^ Cohen (1968), p. 342
  8. ^ Cohen (1973), pp. 177-78
  9. ^ a b Manca et al (2016), p. 513
  10. ^ Ventura (2010), p. 163
  11. ^ "Ligier Richier (about 1500-1567)". Virtual Museum of Protestantism. Retrieved 12 August 2018
  12. ^ a b Denis, Paul. "Ligier Richier L'Artiste et Son Oeuvre". Nancy and Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1911
  13. ^ a b c d e f Janvier, François. "Restauration du "Squelette" de Ligier Richier À Bar-Le-Duc". The Conservative Journal, September 2014. Retrieved 12 August 2018
  14. ^ Jones (2018), p. 43
  15. ^ a b Morton, Ella. "What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures". Slate, 24 September 2014. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  16. ^ Cohen (1973), 179
  17. ^ Kuyper (2004), 130
  18. ^ Cohen (1973), 178
  19. ^ "Altarpiece". French Ministry of Culture. Retrieved 12 August 2018


  • Chastel, André. French Art: The Renaissance, 1430-1620. Flammarion, 1995. ISBN 978-2-0801-3583-4
  • Cohen, Kathleen. Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0-5200-1844-0
  • Cohen, Kathleen. The Changing Meaning of the Transi Tomb in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Europe. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968
  • Gedo, Mary. Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art, Volume 3. Routledge, 1998
  • Jones, David Annwn. Gothic effigy: A guide to dark visibilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5261-0122-8
  • Kuyper, W. The Triumphant Entry of Renaissance Architecture Into the Netherlands. Alphen aan den Rijn: Canaletto, 2004. ISBN 978-9-0646-9693-0
  • Manca, Joseph; Bade, Patrick; Costello, Sarah; Charles, Victoria. 30 Millennia of Sculpture. New York: Parkstone International, 2016
  • Noël, Bernard; Choné, Paulette. Ligier Richier. Thionville Conseil général de la Meuse, 2000. ISBN 978-2-9126-4520-3
  • Rowen, Herbert. The Princes of Orange: the Stadholders in the Dutch Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0-5213-9653-0
  • Ventura, Varla. Beyond Bizarre: Frightening Facts and Blood-Curdling True Tales. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2010. ASIN: B0042JTAUQ

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