Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2014
Suzanne Glover Lindsay Funerary Arts and Tomb Cult: Living with the Dead in France, 1750–1870 Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 44 b/w ills. $104.95 (9781409422617)

In Funerary Arts and Tomb Cult: Living with the Dead in France, 1750–1870, Suzanne Glover Lindsay takes an interdisciplinary approach to the examination of modern funerary sculpture in France—how it functioned historically, culturally, and aesthetically. The book places new emphasis on the dynamic that existed between tomb cult and the funerary arts, highlighting contemporary French attitudes toward death and burial as a result of Enlightenment thought and the Revolution of 1789. To frame this discussion, Lindsay focuses on a specific type of funerary sculpture—the recumbent effigy depicting the deceased in death—from its consideration and dismissal in France around 1750, to its most celebrated adaptation in the nineteenth-century with the tomb of Godefroy Cavaignac (1845–47). It is the modernization of this macabre historical funerary type, coupled with an investigation into the close relationship that existed between funerary cult and current events, which makes this famous tomb the centerpiece of Lindsay’s much-needed study.

Modeled by François Rude (1784–1855), one of the most accomplished sculptors of the nineteenth century, with his student Ernest Christophe (1827–1892), the Cavaignac effigy calls on the viewer to marvel at its realism in an extraordinarily intimate way and to ponder the finality of death and the ritual surrounding it, all the while questioning one’s own existence and mortality. This bronze effigy, located toward the entrance of Montmartre cemetery in Paris, is brutal in its directness. The representation of a shrouded corpse is literally on display for all to see, the gaunt nude figure giving form to the sculpted drapery that partially envelops Cavaignac’s dead body. As Lindsay discusses in the book’s introduction and takes as the focus of chapter 6, the Cavaignac effigy tomb can and must be understood in relation to burials in nineteenth-century France—that modern political radicalism and an authentic ritual life were not antitheses. Rather, through the complex social life of the Cavaignac tomb, the Christian democratic views of this liberal reformer and bourgeois activist were made manifest.

This pervasive emphasis on physicality—an interest in the chronological examination of select funerary forms (namely, the recumbent effigy or gisant) and funerary ritual cult—lies at the heart of Lindsay’s study. Chapter 1 traces the reformation of the funerary cult in France beginning in the mid-eighteenth century when existing cemeteries were closed and remains were transferred to new sites beyond the city walls. The effect was wide reaching, as Catholic parish churches and their adjacent cemeteries were dismantled. Grand funerary monuments and lavish ceremonies were discouraged, and instead emphasis was placed on the humility of death and hope for the afterlife. In the shadow of the guillotine, the corpse took center stage during the Revolution and what little remained of traditional funerary rites was abolished; church burials vanished, religious burial rites were suppressed, and the urban dead were deposited in open trenches. Yet with the Revolution came a new public role for famous corpses—they became examples of lived morality and virtue in action. Historical figures were publically exhumed (most notably the royal tombs at Saint-Denis) with the intent of controlling France’s collective memory. Lindsay compares the exhumation of Henri IV at Saint-Denis with that of Napoleon I on the island of Saint Helena, and does so by referencing primary documents and period imagery. Despite differences of intent and political climate, both exhumations triggered similar responses among the public. The Enlightenment demand for sensory proof resulted in a close scrutiny of the corpses’ remarkably well-preserved conditions. The public, Lindsay explains, saw the high degree of preservation of these great leaders—including Turenne, Henri IV, and Napoleon—as indicative of their importance in shaping France during their lifetimes. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Napoleon’s modern burial policy, which mandated the creation of new public cemeteries and reflected the newly restored French virtue surrounding death and burial. Under Napoleon I, the funeral procession resurfaced as one of the most salient forms of political demonstration. This inextricable relationship between government and tomb cult persisted throughout the nineteenth century, solidifying the political relevancy of funerary ritual as a vital component of modern life.

Chapter 2 establishes a critical foundation for the body-centered funerary language that Lindsay argues emerged from modern social, cultural, and political forces. Focusing on the late Ancien Régime through 1793, this chapter interweaves debates concerning the ideal language for modern tombs with prevailing attitudes toward death and the dead. To this end, Lindsay investigates how death was used, the body managed, and the various funerary forms employed in the first three Revolutionary state burials at the Panthéon: that of Mirabeau, Voltaire, and Lepelletier.

In the chapters that remain, Lindsay considers the reputation and rethinking of specific effigy types—their formal qualities, how the monuments were received in situ, and the political significance of the tombs in post-Thermidor France. Chapter 3 focuses on the first of these case studies, David d’Angers’s Général Bonchamps (1816–25), the first known nineteenth-century gisant in France. Lindsay provides a rich discussion on the monument’s reception at the Salon of 1824 (it was first exhibited as an independent figure) as well as the Bonchamps’s permanent installation in the Église Saint-Pierre (Saint-Florent-le-Vieil), all the while highlighting its complicated political role.

Chapter 4 examines the funerary projects undertaken by Louis-Philippe I through his exile in 1848. These family effigy tombs (the majority of which are located at the Orléans Chapel at Dreux) were commissioned by the king during his reign and are considered among the most celebrated examples of neo-Gothicism in nineteenth-century French monumental sculpture. Lindsay’s chronological study of each tomb and its political resonance reveals the extent to which Louis-Philippe relied upon the effigy type to evoke his family’s ancient lineage despite the official rapprochement that existed between the Orléans and Bourbons. Furthermore, the gisants reflected modern ideas on Catholic death and communitas—creating an active ritual space for family and the public to visit, pray, and be consoled.

The repatriation of Napoleon’s remains in 1840 and the national funerary monument that followed take center stage in chapter 5. The comparison of Napoleon’s retour des cendres (return of the ashes) with that of Voltaire discussed in chapter 2 is particularly engaging, specifically the non-religious character of the funeral processions and the sense of unity and emotion they both inspired. Lindsay’s investigation into Napoleon’s tomb project dovetails with her examination of the Cavaignac effigy in chapter 6, that is, in revealing the potency of ritual cult surrounding eminent modern dead in Second Empire France. The book concludes with the Cavaignac chapter by investigating the aesthetics and implications of this radical new form of corpse effigy—one that is decidedly modern yet rooted in tradition.

Funerary Arts and Tomb Cult is superbly researched and clearly articulated, providing a synthesis of perspectives concerning funerary arts, tomb cult, and the mentalities that shaped them in France. Moreover, the importance of the body as it relates to funerary arts and tomb cult is brought to the forefront for the first time through Lindsay’s thematic investigation of the recumbent effigy. Important and thought-provoking, the book is a very welcomed addition to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art-historical studies.

Heidi E. Kraus
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Hope College