Grave effigies, or gisants, are life-size sculpted figure/s on a tomb, depicting the deceased.
Recumbent effigies of ceramic and stone can be found in the ancient Etruscans and Romans. But these figures were much smaller and depicted the deceased as alive, e.g., sitting at a table, lying on his side and reading.
In the Middle Ages, in the 12th century, horizontal burial effigies appeared, where the deceased lay horizontally as in death, but appeared as in life. The life-size recumbent figure was first found in the tombs of royalty and senior clerics, and then spread to the nobility. These large effigies are made of stone, marble, wood, or cast in bronze or brass. They are used further in the Renaissance, in the early modern era, and even today. Throughout various historical periods, figures have been alternated depicting the deceased lying or alive, according to current fashion.
In the 13th century, effigies were raised on tombs (known as tomb chests or altar tombs) and given decorations such as leaves, heraldry, or architectural details.
By the end of the century, the characters of the bereaved friends and relatives of the deceased were also added.
A special type of effigy in the Middle Ages was the depiction of the deceased in a state of decay, or such a figure lies on a lower level, below the “true” effigy – these tombs were called transi.
The spouses are shown lying side by side. The characters are most often depicted in a state of “eternal repose,” as they lay their hands folded in prayer and await the resurrection. We also find characters holding an object significant to them, in their hands, and their pets under their feet – you can often see characters of dogs and cats. The clothing of the deceased often includes office insignia and heraldic symbols, which indicate social and political status. The picture is often surrounded by text, that describes something significant about the deceased.
They were originally painted, but their color faded over time, just like on the ‘white marble Greek statues’.
Nevertheless, on preserved specimens, whether in color or not, we can learn a lot about fashion and medieval funeral customs.
Effigies are one more piece of the puzzle about life and medieval customs, that I have discovered and shared with You.
I am so fascinated by these efigies, that I am convinced (as most styles return back to fashion after a while), that soon this type of portrait – in the style of medieval effigy will become very popular :-)!
Now I’m off to make my own while there’s still time :-)!