Gisant, or recumbent effigies, are tomb sculptures depicting the deceased at or near their moment of death.
The earliest known version of this type of funerary art comes from the Etruscans, working smaller than the more (relatively) modern Catholic examples I am focusing on. They also typically depicted the deceased at a feast, rather than at the cusp of or immediately after their demise. Typical European gisant show the subject in this ‘eternal repose,’ although variations such as the transi, or cadaver tomb, used during the Renaissance, depict a person’s corpse instead, naked with embalming scars or already decomposed.
This transi is of the former type, skin half-peeled away and posture yearning; this particular sculpture too artful and untrue to the reality of decomposition to be unsettling.
This is one of the latter designation, very common for Medieval transi: an earnestly rendered corpse left to rot. It is a very literal way to convey time and mortality through art. What really gets me is that it is intended to be reverent rather than morbid: this is the image of themselves these people wanted immortalized ever after.
It is an interesting thing to think about: the reasoning behind having your image captured and displayed in death, rather than in life, as is the modern custom. The subjects are definitely made prettier and aestheticized, but the message they’re leaving behind is still the fact of their mortality, rather than their worldly presence and achievements. A lot of it has to do with the religious associations of the gisant: ideally, they’ll be housed in a place of worship, and an image of piety in death lends itself to the suggestion of ascension to heaven. Still, a literally stone-carved monument to having died is a fascinating thing, especially since, in a perfect world, these would all be publically displayed.
A non-transi gisant, this is the tomb of Cardinal Richeleiu, a French clergyman, nobleman, statesman, and villain of The Three Musketeers novels (no, really,) literally held in the arms of piety as he passes.
To have your gisant kept in a church or abbey, especially a notable one, is a very high honor, and the end goal for the construction of a tomb like this. Westminster Abbey, where I had my first exposure to these sculptures, is full of them, tucked lovingly into every niche and against every wall.
Beyond their individual significance, this grouping of them interests me as well. Its an instance of the multiple that could not be premeditated by the sculptors: who knew where in a church a certain tomb was going to be placed, or what would be put near it in the years to come? While beautifully upkept, they are somewhat hodge-podge in this way, monuments to pious death shoved like sardines into a chapel. Though not strictly intended, I think that they function as a much more effective memento mori, crammed into churches as they are: sculptures carved hundreds of years apart, all God-fearing individuals, all frantic to immortalize that to the world, all equally dead, tucked against walls and behind each other.