Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon

The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon (French: Transi de René de Chalon, also known as the Memorial to the Heart of René de Chalon or The Skeleton) is a late Gothic period funerary monument, known as a transi, in the church of Saint-Étienne at Bar-le-Duc, in northeastern France. It consists of an altarpiece and a limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse which stands upright and extends his left hand outwards. Completed sometime between 1544 and 1557, the majority of its construction is attributed to the French sculptor Ligier Richier. Other elements, including the coat of arms and funeral drapery, were added in the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.

The tomb dates from a period of societal anxiety over death, as plague, war and religious conflicts ravaged Europe.[1] It was commissioned as the resting place of René of Chalon, Prince of Orange, son-in-law of Duke Antoine of Lorraine. René was killed aged 25 at the siege of St. Dizier on 15 July 1544, from a wound sustained the previous day. Richier presents him as an écorché, with his skin and muscles decayed, leaving him reduced to a skeleton. This apparently fulfilled his deathbed wish that his tomb depict his body as it would be three years after his death. His left arm is raised as if gesturing towards heaven. Supposedly, at one time his heart was held in a reliquary placed in the hand of the figure's raised arm. Unusually for contemporaneous objects of this type, his skeleton is standing, making it a "living corpse", an innovation that was to become highly influential. The tomb effigy is positioned above the carved marble and limestone altarpiece.

Designated a Monument historique on 18 June 1898, the tomb was moved for safekeeping to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War, before being 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 and the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

Bar-le-Duc - Eglise Saint-Etienne - Le Transi -191
Ligier Richier, upper section of the Transi de René de Chalon, c. 1545–47
Bar-le-Duc - Église Saint-Étienne - Transi de René de Chalon
Full view with black marble columns and altarpiece

Death of René of Chalon and tomb commission

René of Chalon, Prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre, died on 15 July 1544, aged 25, during the siege of St. Dizier where he fought for Emperor Charles V.[2] René had been mortally wounded in battle the previous day, and died with the Emperor in attendance at his bedside.[3] He died without leaving any direct descendants. 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.[4] The monument apparently fulfills his 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".[5] Cadaver tombs had been built for other members of the family, including his father Henry III of Nassau-Breda, his uncle Philibert of Chalon,[6] his grandmother, and the uncle of his wife.[7] René requested that his tomb present him "not as 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".[8]

René de Châlon (ca 1518-44), by Jan van Scorel
Jan van Scorel, René of Chalon, 1542

René's 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. She is known to have commissioned the piece from Ligier Richier,[4] who was then little known outside his local area of Saint-Mihiel in north-eastern France, but is today considered one of the most important sculptors of the late Gothic period.[2][9] Although the precise dating is uncertain, it is known to have begun after 1544 and was completed before 1557.[10] The tomb has become his most well known and influential work.[10]

Anna of Lorraine (1522-1568), by Jan van Scorel
Jan van Scorel, Portrait of Anna of Lorraine, 1542

In accordance with funeral rites of the time, René's heart, bowels, and bones were separated. His heart and bowels were kept at Bar-le-Duc and placed in the Collegiate Church of St. Maxe, which was demolished during the French Revolution and abandoned in 1782,[10] while the rest were transferred to Breda to be interred with his father and his daughter, who died in early infancy. His widow commissioned Richier to construct a transi to hold some of the remains of her husband. The monument, along with other remains and relics of members of his family, were reinterred at the church of Saint-Étienne in June 1790.[11]

Anna commissioned the tomb as a memento mori,[12] but the level of detail she may have specified is uncertain. It is perhaps Richier's best-known work, remarkable for its original 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.[1] Both works are comparable in form and intent to the 1520s La Mort Saint-Innocent originally from the Holy Innocents' Cemetery in Paris, now in the Musee du Louvre. In that work, a realistically depicted and severely emaciated corpse raises his right hand upwards while holding a shield in his left hand.[1]



Death (Ligier Richier)
Unknown artist, Death, 16th century, 37 x 20 cm (14.6 x 7.9 in). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon[1]
La mort Saint-Innocent Louvre R.F.2625
Unknown artist, La Mort Saint-Innocent, 1520s, 120 x 55 cm (47.2 x 21.7 in). Musée du Louvre[13]

The limestone statue is composed of three blocks of stone making up the figure's head and torso, his left arm, and his legs and pelvis; each of which slots into each other.[14] Both the statue and its frame are supported by an iron stud located at the figure's pelvis.[14]

The life-sized figure represents a putrefied and emaciated, skinless corpse, and is positioned above an altarpiece. Its left arm reaches out, while its other rests on its chest. The hand of the outstretched arm may have once have held his preserved heart and extends in a gesture that may be either pleading or in tribute to a higher being. It is 177 cm (70 in) in height, and made from black marble and limestone.[15] The skeleton is sculpted with forensic and unflinching realism.[2] It is placed on a stylobate which supports two black marble columns with Corinthian capitals.[16] A coat of arms is placed underneath the figure,[15] while the escutcheon is empty. The figure has been described as a "rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass".[17]

His left hand reaches upwards as if pleading to heaven or God.[15] 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".[18] The gesture may represent contrite pleading or supplication, or the ability of the spirit to overcome mortality.[2] The art historian Kathleen Cohen writes that the monument may be an illustration of the "doctrine of corruption as a necessary step toward regeneration".[4]

The hand holding the heart was broken off and stolen by a French soldier in 1793.[18] It was later replaced, but 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.[19][20]

Altarpiece and frame

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 (1.25–1.3 in) in height. None remain today; six are known to have been destroyed in November 1793 during the French Revolution. The escutcheon above the statue is missing its emblem.[15]

The altarpiece is made from black carved marble and limestone and measures 267 x 592 cm (105 x 233 in). Its top-slab is taken from the former tomb of Henry IV, Count of Bar (d. 1344) and Yolande of Flanders (d. 1395). The black slab contains two series of inscriptions which are also later additions. The coat of arms of Bar and Lorraine were added to the front face in 1810 at the request of the then vicar of Saint-Étienne, Claude Rollet.[21] The funeral drapery is also a later addition.[15]

Bar-le-Duc - Église Saint-Étienne - Ossements
Interment of nobles of the Duchy of Bar

The altar holds a glass-covered reliquary for the bones of other royals and nobles of the Duchy of Bar, and includes the remains of Henry IV 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 statue was painted by Varembel Barber in 1790.[14]


Cadaver tombs, in France known as transis, were intended to show the human 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 originally held. At one time, the raised hand is supposed to have contained the prince's actual dried heart.[18]

The effigy is viewed by art historians in two distinct ways. The more literal interpretation is that the tomb is a dedication commissioned by a loving and pious wife. Other scholars, including Bernard Noël and Paulette Choné, read deeper meaning, and invoking a sense of the "spirituality of death",[22] view the work as a comment on both the inevitability and effect of death. These opposing interpretations were juxtaposed in 1922 by the novelist Louis Bertrand when he wrote that the tomb may represent either despair or a romantic ideal of the eternal spirit.[23] A further interpretation is that the work represents a mark of penance or repentance of past sins.[2]


Statue at Tombe de Henry Bataille in Moux
François Pompon, Statue at the Tomb of Henry Bataille in Moux, 1922

A copy of the cadaver for the Palais de Chaillot was produced in 1894. François Pompon made a further copy in 1922 for the tomb of the playwright and poet Henry Bataille at Moux, while another replica is in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc.[24][25] Death, an unattributed 16th-century sculpture realistically depicting a corpse wrapped in a shroud, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon (catalog number 743), is very similar, but much smaller.[26]

The first literary reference to the Transi appears in Louis Des Masures' 1557 Epitaph on the Heart of René de Chalon, Prince of Orange,[27][28] and a photograph of the statue appears on the cover of the 1992 Faber edition of the book.[29] The French poet Louis Aragon evoked the tomb in "Le Crève-cœur", published in 1941.[30] It inspired the titular poem in Thom Gunn's 1992 collection The Man with Night Sweats; elegies written in the aftermath of the deaths of friends from AIDS.[31] The poems includes the lines "My flesh was its own shield:/Where it was gashed, it healed. / Stopped upright where I am / Hugging my body to me / As if to shield it from / The pains that will go through me".[32] Simone de Beauvoir details her first encounter with the tomb in her 1974 autobiography All Said and Done, describing it as a "masterpiece" of a "living man...already mummified".[33]

The tomb was designated as a Monument historique on 18 June 1898.[14]

Provenance and conservation

Le Transi moulage d'après Ligier Richier Musée des monuments français Paris
Replica at the Palais de Chaillot

The tomb was originally placed in the collegiate church of Saint-Maxe in Bar-le-Duc, where it was positioned over a vault which may have held the hearts of René, his father-in-law Antoine, Duke of Lorraine,[34] and other members of his family.[11] It was moved to the church of St Ėtienne in 1782 when the former site was abandoned. It was moved to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War and was returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920.[14]

Due to humidity and contact 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. In 1993 both the retable and the tomb were classified as historic monuments, and underwent restoration.[14] An extensive assessment and historical study commissioned by the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles in 1998 was followed by a condition assessment and recommendations in 2001.[14]

The 2003 restoration was conducted in 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. The 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; much of the work centered on areas around the groin, knee and pelvis. The iron fasteners were removed and replaced with stainless steel studs, removing the future risk of oxidation.[14]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d "The Death" (in French). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Retrieved 20 January 2019
  2. ^ a b c d e Manca et al (2016), p. 513
  3. ^ Rowen (1988), p. 11
  4. ^ a b c Cohen (1973), p. 177
  5. ^ Chastel (1995), p. 218
  6. ^ Cohen (1968), p. 342
  7. ^ Cohen (1973), pp. 177–78
  8. ^ Thuillier (2003), p. 216
  9. ^ Noël; Choné (2000), p. 7
  10. ^ a b c "Ligier Richier (about 1500–1567)". Virtual Museum of Protestantism. Retrieved 12 August 2018
  11. ^ a b Denis (1911), p. 126
  12. ^ Gedo (1998), p. 285
  13. ^ "La Mort Saint-Innocent". Musée du Louvre. Retrieved 2 February 2019
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Janvier, François. "Restauration du "Squelette" de Ligier Richier À Bar-Le-Duc" (in French). The Conservator, September 2014. Retrieved 12 August 2018
  15. ^ a b c d e "Historical monuments" (in French). French Ministry of Culture. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  16. ^ Jones (2018), p. 43
  17. ^ Morton, Ella. "What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures". Slate, 24 September 2014. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  18. ^ a b c Cohen (1973), p. 179
  19. ^ Kuyper (2004), p. 130
  20. ^ Cohen (1973), p. 178
  21. ^ "Altarpiece". French Ministry of Culture. Retrieved 12 August 2018
  22. ^ Noël; Choné (2000), p. 43
  23. ^ Noël; Choné (2000), p. 41
  24. ^ Selected works at the Musée barrois (in French). Musée Barrois. Retrieved 9 December 2017
  25. ^ Toussaint, Jean-Marc. "Compilation-architecturale" (in French). L'Est Républicain, 2016. Retrieved 27 January 2019
  26. ^ Quarré (1946), p. 27
  27. ^ Noël; Choné (2000), p. 141
  28. ^ Bulletin archéologique du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques. Impr. nationale, 1938. p. 578
  29. ^ Hoffman (2000), p. 32
  30. ^ Beaujeu (1993), p. 164
  31. ^ Noël; Choné (2000), p. 126
  32. ^ Gillis (2009), pp. 156–82
  33. ^ Chirat (2018), p. 37
  34. ^ Ariane van Suchtelen; Quentin Buvelot (2003). Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/98-1543: Portraitist of the Renaissance. Mauritius: Royal Cabinet of Paintings. p. 144.


  • Beaujeu, Claude-Marie. Lalexandrin dans "Le Crève-Coeur dAragon: étude de rythme (in French). Paris: Presses de lUniversité de Paris-Sorbonne, 1993. ISBN 978-2-8405-0012-4
  • Chastel, André. French Art: The Renaissance, 1430–1620. Paris: Flammarion, 1995. ISBN 978-2-0801-3583-4
  • Chirat, Didier. Les petites histoires de l'Histoire de France (in French). Paris: Larousse, 2018. ASIN B07KXTRW97
  • 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
  • Denis, Paul. "Ligier Richier L'Artiste et Son Oeuvre". Nancy and Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1911
  • Gedo, Mary. Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art, Volume 3. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 978-0-8816-3078-7
  • Gillis, Colin. "Rethinking Sexuality in Thom Gunn's 'The Man with Night Sweats'". Contemporary Literature, volume 50, No. 1, 2009. pp. 156–82 JSTOR 20616416
  • Hoffman, Tyler. "Representing AIDS: Thom Gunn and the Modalities of Verse". South Atlantic Review, volume 65, no. 2, 2000, pp. 13–39 JSTOR 3201810
  • Jones, David Annwn. Gothic effigy: A Guide to Dark Visibilities. Manchester: Manchester 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. ASIN B0769QD14W
  • Noël, Bernard; Choné, Paulette. Ligier Richier. Thionville Conseil général de la Meuse, 2000. ISBN 978-2-9126-4520-3
  • Quarré, Pierre. "Sculptures acquired by the Dijon Museum from 1940 to 1946". Bulletin des Musées de France, November 1946
  • Rowen, Herbert. The Princes of Orange: the Stadholders in the Dutch Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0-5213-9653-0
  • Thuillier, Jacques. History of Art. Paris: Flammarion, 2003. ISBN 978-2-0801-0875-3

External links

Coordinates: 48°45′56″N 5°9′56″E / 48.76556°N 5.16556°E


Bar-le-Duc (French pronunciation: ​[baʁ lə dyk]), formerly known as Bar, is a commune in the Meuse département, of which it is the capital. The department is in Grand Est in northeastern France.

The lower, more modern and busier part of the town extends along a narrow valley, shut in by wooded or vine-clad hills, and is traversed throughout its length by the Ornain, which is crossed by several bridges. It is limited towards the north-east by the Marne–Rhine Canal, on the south-west by a small arm of the Ornain, called the Canal des Usines, on the left bank of which the upper town (Ville Haute) is situated.The highly rarefied Bar-le-duc jelly, also known as Lorraine jelly, is a spreadable preparation of white currant or red currant fruit preserves, hailing from this town. First referenced in the historical record in 1344, it is also colloquially referred to as "Bar caviar".

French sculpture

French sculpture has been an original and influential component of world art since the Middle Ages. The first known French sculptures date to the Upper Paleolithic age. French sculpture originally copied ancient Roman models, then found its own original form in the decoration of Gothic architecture. French sculptors produced important works of Baroque sculpture for the decoration of the Palace of Versailles. In the 19th century, the sculptors Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas created a more personal and non-realistic style, which led the way to modernism in the 2Oth century, and the sculpture of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp.

Funerary art

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs ("empty tombs"), tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

The deposit of objects with an apparent aesthetic intention is found in almost all cultures—Hindu culture, which has little, is a notable exception. Many of the best-known artistic creations of past cultures—from the Egyptian pyramids and the Tutankhamun treasure, to the Terracotta Army surrounding the tomb of the Qin Emperor, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Taj Mahal—are tombs or objects found in and around them. In most instances, specialized funeral art was produced for the powerful and wealthy, although the burials of ordinary people might include simple monuments and grave goods, usually from their possessions.

An important factor in the development of traditions of funerary art is the division between what was intended to be visible to visitors or the public after completion of the funeral ceremonies. The treasure of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, though exceptionally lavish, was never intended to be seen again after it was deposited, while the exterior of the pyramids was a permanent and highly effective demonstration of the power of their creators. A similar division can be seen in grand East Asian tombs. In other cultures, nearly all the art connected with the burial, except for limited grave goods, was intended for later viewing by the public or at least those admitted by the custodians. In these cultures, traditions such as the sculpted sarcophagus and tomb monument of the Greek and Roman empires, and later the Christian world, have flourished. The mausoleum intended for visiting was the grandest type of tomb in the classical world, and later common in Islamic culture.

Memento mori

Memento mori (Latin: "remember (that) you will die") is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") and similar Western literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.In art, memento mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality. In the European Christian art context, "the expression [...] developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife".

René of Chalon

René of Chalon (5 February 1519 – 15 July 1544), also known as Renatus of Chalon, was a Prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre.

Sculptures by Ligier Richier

Ligier Richier was a 16th-century religious sculptor working in Lorraine, France and known in particular for his depictions of scenes from the "Passion of Christ". The various episodes of the Passion, between the arrest and the crucifixion of Christ, as recounted in the Gospels (Matthew 27, Luke 22, Mark 15, John 19), were increasingly subject to representation in the Arts towards the end of the Middle Ages, in tandem with the growing popularity of the staging of theatrical mystery plays.

Little is known of Ligier Richier's personal life as a consequence of the scarcity of records available. Thus attribution of works to him faces the same constraints and often relies on the scholarship of people such as Paul Denis, particularly his thesis "l’artiste et son œuvre" published in Paris and Nancy in 1911. A good example of the scarcity of information available is the extent to which researchers have relied on the writing of the Troyes pilgrim Chatourop, recorded through the writings of dom Calmet, for information on the works at Notre Dame in Bar-le-Duc and Saint Pierre in Saint Mihiel. Paul Denis rejects the idea that Richier travelled to Italy and had contact with Michelangelo.

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