A cadaver tomb or transi (or memento mori tomb, Latin for "reminder of death") is a type of gisant (recumbent effigy tomb) featuring an effigy in the form of a decomposing corpse. The topos was particularly characteristic of the later Middle Ages.
A depiction of a rotting cadaver in art (as opposed to a skeleton) is called a transi. However, the term "cadaver tomb" can really be applied to other varieties of monuments, e.g. with skeletons or with the deceased completely wrapped in a shroud. In the "double-decker" tombs, in Erwin Panofsky's phrase, a carved stone bier displays on the top level the recumbent effigy or gisant of a person as they were before death or soon after their death, where they may be life-sized and sometimes represented kneeling in prayer, and as a rotting cadaver on the bottom level, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms and other flesh-eating wildlife. The iconography is regionally distinct: the depiction of vermin on these cadavers is more commonly found on the European mainland, and especially in the German regions. The dissemination of cadaver imagery in the late-medieval Danse Macabre may also have influenced the iconography of cadaver monuments.
Cadaver tombs were a departure, in monumental architecture, from the usual practice of showing an effigy of the person as they were in life. An early example is the famous effigy on the multi-layered wall-tomb of Cardinal Jean de La Grange (died 1402) in Avignon.
The term can also be used for a monument that shows only the cadaver without the live person. The sculpture is intended as a didactic example of how transient earthly glory is, since it depicts what all people finally become. Kathleen Cohen's study of five French ecclesiastics who commissioned transi tombs determined that common to all of them was a successful worldliness that seemed almost to demand a shocking display of transient mortality. A classic example is the "Transi de René de Chalons" by Ligier Richier, in the church of Saint Etienne in Bar-le-Duc, France.
These cadaver tombs, with their demanding sculptural program, were made only for high-ranking nobles, usually royalty or bishops or abbots, because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for one in a church. Some tombs for royalty were double tombs, for both a king and queen. The French kings Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II were doubly portrayed, in effigy and as naked cadavers, in their double double-decker tombs in the Basilica of Saint-Denis outside Paris. Yet there are also other varieties, such as cadaver imagery on incised slabs and monumental brasses (including the so-called "shroud brasses"), of which many can still be found in England.
The earliest known transi memorial is the very faint indent of a shrouded demi-effigy on the slab commemorating John the Smith (c.1370) at Brightwell Baldwin (Oxfordshire). In the 15th century the sculpted transi effigy can be identified in England. Cadaver monuments can be seen in many English cathedrals and some parish churches. The earliest surviving one, in Lincoln Cathedral, is to Bishop Richard Fleming who founded Lincoln College, Oxford and died in 1431. Canterbury Cathedral houses the well-known cadaver monument to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury (1414–1443). Exeter Cathedral houses the 16th-century tomb of Preceptor Sylke, inscribed with: 'I am what you will be, and I was what you are. Pray for me I beseech you'. Winchester Cathedral also has two cadaver tombs.
The monument traditionally identified as that of John Wakeman remains in Tewkesbury Abbey. Wakeman was abbot of Tewkesbury from 1531 to 1539. When the abbey was dissolved, he retired, and later became 1st Bishop of Gloucester. He may have prepared the tomb for himself, with vermin crawling on his carved skeletal corpse, but never used it. He was buried instead at Forthampton in Gloucestershire.
A post-medieval example is the standing shrouded effigy of the poet John Donne (d. 1631) in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Similar examples from the Early Modern period signify faith in the Resurrection.
Cadaver monuments are found in many Italian churches. Andrea Bregno sculpted a few of them, including those of a Cardinal Alain de Coëtivy in Santa Prassede, Ludovico Cardinal d'Albert at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and Bishop Juan Díaz de Coca at the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a basilican church in Rome, Italy.
Three other monuments are those of Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta (Matthew of Acquasparta) at the Santa Maria in Aracoeli, the tomb of Bishop Gonsalvi (1298) and that of Cardinal Gonsalvo (1299) (both located at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore), all sculpted by Giovanni de Cosma, the youngest of the Cosmati family lineage.
France also has a long history of cadaver tombs, though not as many examples or varieties survive as in England. One of the earliest and anatomically convincing examples is the gaunt cadaver effigy of the medieval physician Guillaume de Harsigny (d. 1393) at Laon. Kathleen Cohen lists many other extant examples. There was a revival in the Renaissance, as testified by the two examples to Louis XII and his wife Anne of Brittany at Saint-Denis, and of Queen Catherine de Medici who likewise had her husband Henry II buried in a cadaver tomb.
Germany and the Netherlands
There are a number of cadaver monuments and tomb slabs to be found in Germany and the Netherlands. An impressive example is the sixteenth-century Van Brederode double-decker monument at Vianen near Utrecht, which depicts Reynoud van Brederode (d. 1556) and his wife Philippote van der Marck (d. 1537) as shrouded figures on the upper level, with below them a single verminous cadaver.
- Cohen, Kathleen (1973). Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (New York) 1964:65.
- Sophie Oosterwijk, "Food for worms - – food for thought. The appearance and interpretation of the “verminous” cadaver in Britain and Europe", Church Monuments, 20 (2005), 40-80, 133-40.
- Sophie Oosterwijk, "“For no man mai fro dethes stroke fle”. Death and Danse Macabre iconography in memorial art", Church Monuments, 23 (2008), 62-87, 166-68.
- The Brightwell Baldwin slab is discussed by Sally Badham in her essay "Monumental brasses and the Black Death - a reappraisal', Antiquaries Journal, 80 (2000), 225-226.
- Pamela King examines the phenomenon of English cadaver tombs in her essay "The cadaver tomb in the late fifteenth century: some indications of a Lancastrian connection", in Dies Illa: Death in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 1983 Manchester Colloquium, Jane H.M. Taylor, ed.
- Jean Wilson, "Go for Baroque: The Bruce Mausoleum at Maulden, Bedfordshire", Church Monuments, 22 (2007), 66-95.
- Scott, Leader (1882). Ghiberti and Donatello with Other Early Italian Sculptors. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. pp. 27–50.
- "Guide to Rome." Online at: http://www.romecity.it/Berninieglialtri.htm.