Memorial images

While most people vanished into the silence of the countryside, historians are grateful that some took pains to be remembered. Remembrance is easiest when burials took place indoors.

Priests were buried inside the church, in its crypt. Their bones helped to sanctify the building, and of course churches bought bones and other relics of saints to add to the crypt. Eventually, to relic containers in the main meeting room (fittingly called the sanctuary, since so many holy bones sanctified it).

But these burials didn’t memorialize the person. Memory was solely the province of royalty (whom I’ll cover separately) until late in the Middle Ages. Stone effigies that preserved the appearance of the deceased were extremely expensive. We still have most of these statues, although in France, some were destroyed in the Revolution. We think that the stone was originally painted to look life-like, but of course today the effigies are plain stone. They are usually lying down, sometimes with legs crossed, usually with hands folded; some knights have swords, and Crusaders wore crosses. After the Black Death, stone monuments sometimes portrayed the dead as actually dead, in a gross way.

Brass became relatively affordable in the later Middle Ages. The upper middle classes and lower aristocracy, who could not dream of paying for carved effigies, could afford to get etched drawings of themselves on flat brass plates. The art wasn’t especially good; the people tend to look much the same. But the artists did capture the general look, the clothing, and things like hair length. Memorial brasses often showed a married couple, perhaps made during their lifetimes, perhaps made on the occasion of one’s death while the other still lived. Many of them show symbolic children, even infant outlines for babies who died. Some show pets sitting at their masters’ feet. They always include the names of the deceased, so for the first time since, perhaps, the walls of Egyptian temples, historians can match names and faces.

The brass plaques could be placed into the floor tiles or stones of the church. They could also be placed over indoor tombs in memorial chapels at the sides of the building.

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