Medieval Studies Tomb Sculpture
Shirin Fozi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0286


Among the many genres of medieval sculpture that are still extant, tombs have long received particularly close attention because of their direct association with the bodies of specific historical individuals, which are very often (though not exclusively) those of the most prestigious members of medieval society. The most ubiquitous format in much of Europe was the effigy, which usually appeared as a recumbent figure set on a slab that also sometimes functioned as the lid of a tomb chest. The first known examples of the effigy date to the years around 1100 and seem to emerge in Germany; the format was quickly adopted in France, England, and elsewhere before becoming a dominant fixture of Gothic churches across Europe in the 13th through 15th centuries. Elaborate tombs with decorative programs were comparatively scarce in the earlier Middle Ages, with the important exception of the richly carved sarcophagi found in the Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries, which appropriated a popular late antique format and replaced its Bacchic image cycles with new Christian iconographies. This tradition seems to have faded with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the rise of new kingdoms across Europe, many of which produced little monumental sculpture (or at least, little that survives) before the 12th century. Thus, the emphasis placed in this article on the effigy and the period 1100–1500 reflects not only scholarly interest but also the patterns of production that can be observed elsewhere in the chronology of medieval European architecture and sculpture. While much of the formative scholarship on medieval tomb sculpture had been primarily driven either by biographical interests in the individuals they commemorated or by a teleological interest in tracing the stylistic evolution of forms from late medieval reliefs to free-standing Renaissance statues, more recent studies have turned to the political, theological, and social meanings of these powerful monuments. This discourse has largely centered on two entwined themes: first, the use of tomb sculpture to promote and ensure salvation for the dead, and, second, its role in shaping the ideals and ambitions of the living. Though these broad trends are shared across the field, the idiosyncratic nature of the material and the apparently bespoke nature of most monuments has led to a field defined by case studies, with relatively few attempts to synthesize pictures of the greater whole that move beyond highly localized geographic limits.

General Overviews

Most surveys of medieval tomb sculpture gravitate toward the period c. 1100–1500 and center attention on French, German and, to a lesser extent, English monuments. This partly reflects the rise in production of such monuments in this period but is also linked to a long historiographic emphasis on the full-figure effigy, a format that first emerged in the north and has long been linked to personal piety and individual salvation. The most comprehensive studies of the effigy specifically are Bauch 1976 and Körner 1997. Panofsky 1964 has long been considered a traditional point of departure for the study of tomb sculpture more generally, with the well-known caveats that the text was originally prepared as a lecture series and thus offers a bird’s-eye view and a synthesis of the state of the field at that time rather than a foray into new research. Binski 1996 is a volume similarly developed through lectures and remains especially appealing for undergraduates, notably also addressing sepulchral imagery from other media beyond sculpture. Iconographic studies, such as Jacob 1954, have more recently been subsumed into a focus on the cultural and ritual aspects of medieval death, inspired in large part by Ariès 1981 and further explored in Dectot 2006. Another touchstone has been the topic of memoria, developed by historians such as Karl Schmid and Otto Gerhard Oexle to address medieval memorial culture, applied to tomb sculptures at a relatively early date in Wischermann 1980.

  • Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

    A study in the tradition of the histoire des mentalités, drawing on historical, literary, and visual sources to sketch an evocative reconstruction of premodern experiences of death, especially medieval and early modern France. The original French edition (L’Homme devant la mort, [Paris: Seuil, 1977]) and a follow-up focused on visual evidence (Images de l’homme devant la mort [Paris: Seuil, 1983]) remain indispensable, but Weaver’s translation is widely influential in its own right.

  • Bauch, Kurt. Das mittelalterliche Grabbild: Figürliche Grabmäler des 11. bis 15. Jahrhunderts in Europa. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1976.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110855395

    The first book to attempt a truly comprehensive approach to the tomb effigy and related formats of medieval funerary sculpture, organized chronologically but also including thematic chapters that focus on specific regions and figural types. Wide-ranging and richly illustrated, this remains a key resource despite being somewhat out of date.

  • Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. London: British Museum, 1996.

    This lively, richly illustrated, wide-ranging introductory text introduces the major social and theological themes associated with medieval death and burial, including a wide variety of tomb sculptures in an art-historical survey of images related to the dead or dying body, with a general focus on the Gothic period c. 1200–1500.

  • Dectot, Xavier. Pierres tombales médiévales: Sculptures de l’au-delà. Paris: Rempart, 2006.

    A wide-ranging discussion of tomb sculpture across the full span of the Middle Ages with an emphasis on memorial and specifically liturgical functions. Particular attention is paid to effigies produced in France and the Iberian Peninsula in the 12th and 13th centuries.

  • Jacob, Henriette S. Idealism and Realism: A Study of Sepulchral Symbolism. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1954.

    A study of tomb sculptures from the early Middle Ages through the 18th century with a focus on specific symbolic elements found on a wide variety of monuments, including effigies, sarcophagi, and narrative motifs like the rising soul.

  • Körner, Hans. Grabmonumente des Mittelalters. Darmstadt: Primus, 1997.

    Explores the figural tomb effigy with a chronological and thematic arc that recalls the earlier Panofsky 1964 and Bauch 1976 but offers an updated view in light of the new directions taken by historians in the 1980s and 1990s, situating the sculptures in their social, theological, and political contexts.

  • Panofsky, Erwin. Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964.

    A widely influential text, now considered a venerable if somewhat dated classic, narrating the chronological development of funerary monuments against the (now largely discarded, but still relevant as a pervasive trope of older scholarship) canon of Western art history.

  • Wischermann, Heinfried. Grabmal, Grabdenkmal und Memoria im Mittelalter. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Berichte und Forschungen zur Kunstgeschichte, 1980.

    Published dissertation with a focus on the relationship between tomb sculpture and medieval memoria, a term encompassing the ritual and social dimensions of memorial practices that were developed in early medieval Europe, particularly in the context of Benedictine monasticism.

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