Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Carving of Guy of Gaunt: A Modern Day Transi Tomb Sculpture: Guest Post by Sculptor Eleanor Crook

Friend of Morbid Anatomy and future Artist in Residence Eleanor Crook--an amazing sculptor and waxworker--is currently crowdsourcing a project to carve a new wooden "transi," or type of tomb sculpture popular in late Medieval Europe which depicts the rotting body cadaver in the grave below. She is doing this project in tandem with Dr. Christina Welch of Winchester University in England, a researcher and cataloger of historical transi.

Following, in Eleanor's own words, is a brief history of the transi, and a description of her proposed project; to find out more, watch the video above or click here. You can support this very worthy project by clicking here. For a recent post on one of the most famous historical transis--that of René de Chalon--click here.

The Carving of Guy of Gaunt: A Modern Day Medieval Cadaver Tomb and a Transi for Everyone 
Guest Post by Sculptor Eleanor Crook

The most morbid and anatomical tomb statues  ever made were the Transi tombs of late Medieval Europe. (“Transi” in Latin means “I have passed over.”) Wealthy aristocrats and high-ranking churchmen arranged for their grave monuments to show them in death as an emaciated, naked corpse in a funeral shroud, with a skeletal grimace leering in the face of mortality (see image above).

The exact meaning of so graphic an image of death on the monuments of the powerful has been shrouded (sorry) in mystery for five centuries, but is now the subject of a scholarly study by Dr Christina Welch of Winchester University in England. She has visited, photographed and catalogued the Transis and compared them with what is known about late Medieval Catholic beliefs about the Afterlife, and will shortly be publishing her fascinating findings. She has invited me, an anatomical and morbid sculptor (known to some of you in Morbid Anatomy through my workshops and exhibitions over the last few years)  to join in the research by carving a new Transi in wood, a Transi for today and for us all.

The physical presence of the Transis is amazing; they are neither altogether alive nor altogether dead, and their anatomy is surprisingly accurate and lovingly carved, given a society where nakedness was shameful and clothing far from revealing. Their racked ribs heave upwards as though for a last breath; the veins stand out on their harrowed limbs, necks and temples. Their hollow eyes are often partly open, their mouths agape in a final agony. Although they depict specific historical figures, they stand in for any of us with our mortal body, our fear of what comes after, our vulnerable and failing flesh. Speaking as one who has worked in medical museums and dissection rooms, I truly believe they were carved from first hand observation of deceased persons by the sculptors as nothing else explains the astonishing realism – at a time when the sculptures of the living were still rather formalised and generalised. More lifelike than the living?  I would say so.

Some of the Transi tombs are like bunk beds – the idealised person shown laid in state above, the shrivelled corpse lying directly below like a bad conscience, raising questions about the soul, purgatory and the idea of bodily resurrection on the Day of Judgement.

They were often painted in lifelike ( deathlike) colours with blue veins and coloured skin. Some patrons commissioned them while they were still alive: one well known Bishop delivered his sermons from a pulpit right above his own completed Transi, which must have been a sobering experience for his flock and for him too.

British Transis are rare: Originating in late 14th century France, the first monument in England was that of Archbishop Henry Chichele (c.1364-1443), which was constructed around 1425 (almost twenty years before his death) and is in Canterbury Cathedral. The English carved cadaver memorials date from between c1425 to 1558. However, in art history they have not received the attention they deserve, inexplicably passed over despite their powerful appeal. Readers of the Morbid Anatomy Blog will be surprised to hear that many Transis are tucked away , forgotten and dusty in their local churches and cathedrals, their true meaning a mystery to most and their uncompromising gruesomeness  out of step with contemporary church sensibilities, given the British tendency to brush death under the carpet. Christina plans to publish a book on these neglected and little known monuments to mortality, with photographs and a chapter on techniques , and reinstate them as an important contribution to the art of the memorial.

And my Transi wood carving? I have long been fascinated with the matter of the body and how it can support life one moment and then become an inanimate object, a corpse, the next. I have had experience of dissection and autopsy, studied anatomy and drawn skeletons and specimens for years, all leading up to the  point where I can hew a universal image of bodily mortality from real sources and using the accumulated knowledge and fascination I  - and all readers of this blog no doubt - have. I learned wood carving at a traditional school in the Austrian Alps where the Catholic Church still requires wooden painted saints. Bellow is my carving of the head of St. Edmund , an early Christian martyr who lost his head to Vikings (but the head kept calling out to his faithful followers!)

If you would like to be involved in the new Cadaver Tomb, you can , by contributing to our Crowdfunding appeal to pay for the seasoned prepared block of suitable wood and transport of a two – meter high block to my studio and to the exhibitions (I am donating my time and strong right arm for free) -  in return for prints of Christina’s photos of Transis or prints of my drawings of them, depending on contribution. Our appeal is 74% funded at time of writing and I have been overjoyed at the collective excitement at the idea of a new Transi carving, the first in over 500 years: I will be carving it in honour of all of those of us who are bold and proud in facing the mortality of the body and the mystery of the human condition.
Eleanor Crook, Sculptor

To support the carving of Guy the  Gaunt please pledge at

For more information on the Carved Cadaver memorials please visit http://carvedcadavers.wix.com/eccm 

For more information on Eleanor Crook please visit http://www.eleanorcrook.com.

Images, top to bottom:
  1. Archbishop Henry Chichele c.1364-1443, Canterbury Cathedral
  2. Detail of image 1
  3. Transi Tomb of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel, at Arundel Castle chapel
  4. Unidentified Transi, Hemingbrough, UK
  5. Eleanor Crook's carving of St. Edmund
  6. Transi of William Parkhouse, Exeter Cathedral

1 comment:

Roz Cawley said...

Extremely interesting and informative article, Eleanor - I await with anticipation the genesis of Guy the Gaunt and what messages he will hold for us all!