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Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke in Tallin, Estonia. (Image via Wikipedia).

A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral

Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry, Lincoln Cathedral.

A visitor wandering the aisles of Lincoln’s fine Gothic cathedral, awed by its vast air ribbed vaulting, intrigued by its curious Medieval carvings – such as the famous Lincoln Imp – and immersed in its impressive Medieval and Wren libraries, would be forgiven for overlooking the tomb of Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln from 1420-1431.

Fleming’s monument forms part of a chantry chapel and is tucked away on the North wall of the cathedral. A cursory glance is all most visitors probably afford it – yet another elaborate memorial to a high churchman. But if you look a little closer, Richard Fleming’s tomb hides a remarkable and macabre secret. In the lower part of the monument, beneath the sculpture of the recumbent bishop in his robes of office, lies a very different image, a shrunken cadaver, ribs protruding, eyes hollow, wrapped in a winding-sheet.  The sculpture offers a visceral reminder of the bodily decay, awaiting high and low alike, after death. Fleming’s tomb is one of the earliest English examples of the Transi or Cadaver Tomb in England. But why would a prominent and influential churchman chose to have himself depicted as food for worms?

Richard Fleming’s transi image. Lincoln Cathedral.

What’s in a name

Kathleen Cohen, in her fascinating book Metamorphosis of a death symbol, explains that the word transi derives from the latin verb transire – trans to cross, ire to go and that this links in with the French word transir, in use from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and which means ‘to die’ or ‘to pass away’ or ‘ to go’. Transi tombs can, using this basis, be interpreted as depicting the transitional body, from life, to death, and onwards to resurrection.

Gisant style tomb of Charles III in the Cathedral of Pamplona.

Transi or as they are more commonly know, cadaver tombs are similar but also distinct from the more familiar Medieval tombs, known as gisants, which depicted the medieval deceased recumbent and dressed clothes befitting their rank and station. In stark contrast, the transi figure presents the viewer with the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sunken eyes, prominent ribs, even covered in toads, snakes and vermin (although this was always more popular on the continent, particularly Germany, rather than in the British Isles).

The cadaverous transi attributed to Thomas Haxby, York Minster.

Cadaver tombs could be double deckers or single – Richard Fleming’s is a fine example of the double-decker with the gisant style representation atop the cadaverous one, while the sadly battered and worn cadaver tomb in York Minster, in the west aisle of the north trancept, is an example of the single-decker, with deceased represented only as a decayed corpse. The York tomb is attributed to Treasurer Thomas Haxby (1418-1425) but according to research by Dr Pamela King, may in fact belong to Treasurer John Neuton, founder of York Cathedral’s Medieval library.[1]

Possibly the most famous cadaver tomb in England belongs to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1414 – 1443, and is a fine example of the double-decker transi tomb. Other examples of cadaver tombs were employed by lay people, men and women alike, and even royalty (particularly in France).

Medieval Death: Plague and punishment

For many years art and architecture historians shied away from examining any deeper meaning in these grisly monuments, seeing at most either a simple didactic Memento Mori function – reminding the living that they too will die, or a psychological reaction to the horrors of the Black Death. The plague that had killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population had peaked in the 1340’s and many felt that its impact was expressed in these monuments and other Morbid medievalisms.  However, the plague argument can be challenged by the fact that there had been regular outbreaks of plague before the Black Death. Perhaps most convincingly, Italy, the origin of the Black Death in Europe, and which suffered huge numbers of deaths, did not evolve a strong cadaver tomb tradition at this time.  So, while the Black Death may have had some influence on the medieval taste for the macabre, it was not necessarily the driving force behind the development of the cadaver style tomb. [2]

Burying the plague victims of Tournai. 14th Century. Public domain image.

In fact, more recent research by Kathleen Cohen in her 1973 work Metamorphosis of a death symbol and in 1987 Dr Pamela King’s PhD thesis Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England have added new dimensions of temporal and spiritual complexity to these remarkable and shocking monuments.   They argue that they can be viewed as both a reaction to changing social and political situation of the fifteenth century a time when church and nation-state were becoming ever more intertwined – and as a part of the broader spirituality of the Medieval past.  They may be viewed then, not as a simple Memento Mori didactic with the viewer, but a reaction to contemporary issues faced by the church as well as a crucial part of the souls journey through purgatory – a dramatic means for soliciting the prayers of the living for the benefit of the dead.

The very early transi of Jean de la Grange. Avignon. Via Wikimedia.

A Morbid Taste for Bones,  The state of the soul after death

Danse Macabre from the Nuremburg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

As mentioned above, while it is true that lay people, both men and women chose the cadaver tomb for their funerary monument, churchmen seemed particularly drawn to this style of memorial and may have been instrumental in its initial dissemination.  Cohen and others have suggested that this may in part be due to the fact that during the 15th century the church underwent a radical change due to the rise of the nation-state.  As more and more powerful men were rewarded for their loyalty to king and country with ecclesiastical preferments, the church became vastly wealthy and inextricably linked to worldly power.  Henry Chichele (1363/4 – 1443) was a prime example of this type of man: a high-flying ecclesiastical lawyer who was rewarded by Henry V for services rendered to the crown with the archbishopric of Canterbury, in 1414.

Henry Chichele Tomb, Canterbury Cathedral. Image by Flambard via Wikimedia.

Chichele, like many of his contemporary churchmen, chose the cadaver tomb.  And make no mistake, these tombs would have been deliberately chosen by their future occupants, not picked for them by relatives after death.  In a ‘double-decker’ the incorruptible office held by the individual is depicted in the gisant style sculpture above – showing the individual in all the pomp and glory of their office. Beneath, the corrupt human form is depicted decaying and gnawed by worms.  But what was the message they were trying to convey?

The three quick and three dead. Arundel83-1 British Library Collection.

Medieval art and literature often portrayed the body as intrinsically sinful.  Images of a vain and luxurious life were often counterpoised with images of the consequences of sin suffered after death.  The state of the soul after death was of huge importance to Medieval people.  Images such as the Danse Macabre, Mort Roi (king death) and the three quick and the three dead, emphasised that worldly vanity and glory would not help the soul awaiting judgement.  This preoccupation with the state of the soul after death was because Medieval people believed that upon death, the bulk of them would end up in purgatory for an indeterminate period before they reached their final destination, be it heaven or hell.  One of the prime purposes of most medieval tombs was, therefore, to elicit prayers from the living to speed the deceased person’s passage through purgatory to heaven. Cadaver tombs were no different, many, such as that of Richard Fleming, being associated with their own chantry chapel precisely for this purpose.

It was also an element of Medieval Christian belief that the death provided not only a release from the sins of the mortal body, but also from the original sin of Adam.  It was thought that the life of an individual from cradle to grave was a re-run in microcosm of mankind’s fall from Grace.  And with the fall from Grace came the hope for resurrection.  Pamela King decodes the cadaver tomb imagery thus: the physically corrupt body is an allegory for the soul,  the Transi image therefore provides, to paraphrase Dr King, an accessible figure for a metaphysical state. [3]

Part of this concern for the soul expressed itself in a wish to humiliate or abase the mortal (and sinful) body in order to save the soul. Not only wealthy and powerful churchmen could wish to patch up the disjoint between their worldly success and their Christian faith. John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (1408-1435) chose a cadaver tomb. Arundel was a highly successful and able commander during the latter part of the Hundred Year’s War.  During his short but highly successful military career he accrued many titles and lands for his services.  Although he died of wounds in France, his will stipulated he be buried in the FitzAlan Chapel at Arundel Castle, his tomb is a double-decker cadaver tomb.

Cadavar tomb of the Earl of Arundel. Image by Lampman via Wikimedia.

In an aside provided by Kathleen Cohen, Arundel, despite being praised as the ‘English Achilles’ for his military skill, could also be ruthless and cruel.  En route to fight in France it is said that he rounded up 60 or so women and girls from a convent in Southampton to ‘amuse’ his troops while at sea.  The unfortunate women, having been raped by the soldiers, were then tossed overboard when a storm overtook the troop ships.  It would seem then, at least to modern eyes, that a powerful and wealthy individual choosing a tomb that humbles and humiliates the body as an act of Christian piety in death, could also display a certain degree of hypocrisy.

Overall though, the transi image can be seen not solely as a reminder that the glories of high office may seem to be long-lasting, but sinful mortal bodies will all end up as food for worms, but also that death and decay are an inevitable part of the process that ultimately lead to resurrection of the good Christian soul. [4]

The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory

The fashion for cadaver tombs ran from the fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century (and beyond, John Donne commissioned an extraordinary monument that would seem to have been influenced by this tradition).  However as the religious climate of Europe changed with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, transis too, began to change.  As the new protestant ideology promoted by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others, rejected the idea that good deeds and indulgences from the church would get you into heaven, and promoted the idea that entry to heaven was based on God’s grace alone, the existence of purgatory was questioned. And if there was no purgatory then there was no need for elaborate tombs and chantry chapels designed to elicit prayers from the living for the dead soul.

The Renaissance also brought with it new ideas that contrasted with the Medieval mindset, including the concept of commemorating the deceased and their worldly deeds.  So, while cadaver tombs continued to be built, in particular by royalty, they began to display a kind of pagan sense of glory instead of the Medieval focus on humility and abasement of the body associated with these types of  tombs. One prime  example of this change is the tomb of Henri II and Catherine Medici, at the Basilica St Denis, built between 1560-1573. Catherine, who was alive when the tomb was created, is said to have disliked the first emaciated image created for her and commissioned a second one.  The replacement sculpture is said to have been based on a Venus from the Uffizi in Florence [5] [6] and presents a very different image from the cadaverous worm riddled transis of the previous century.  While the cadaver tomb still undoubtedly pointed to the resurrection of the soul, in this instance at least, royal vanity demanded a pagan aesthetic!

Tomb of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. Mid 16th Century. Image from Basilica St Denis website.


Transi of Rene de Chalons. Image from French Ministry of Culture.

Cadaver tombs developed from a combination of factors – the concern for the state of the sinful soul after death – its need for prayers in order to achieve salvation, the conflict faced (in particular, but not solely) by high churchmen in relation to growing temporal power versus the spiritual asceticism of Christianity. Although it is hard to imagine that a modern viewer of such a tomb would not take away some form of Memento Mori didactic, it would seem that this was not their primary purpose as understood by Medieval people. As Protestantism spread through Europe, and the Renaissance provided a new emphasis on commemorating the dead, the cadaver tomb changed in style and purpose.

Regardless of their ultimate meaning, a modern viewer, coming across one of these macabre monuments is given a thought-provoking and startling insight in to the Medieval mind.

You can find some notable transi tombs in England in York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.

Sources and notes

Uncredited images by Lenora.

Brown, Sarah, The Mystery of Neuton’s Tomb
<https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=10.> [1]

Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, ‘Metamorphosis of a death symbol’ [4] [6]

King, Pamela, 1987, ‘Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England’ [2][3]

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/tomb-of-henri-and-catherine-de-medici.html [5]