Transi statues and cadaver tombs, memento mori of Renaissance Europe

The "Transi": A Rotting-Corpse Sculpture For Your Memento Mori Needs

The "Transi": A Rotting-Corpse Sculpture For Your Memento Mori Needs

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Sept. 24 2014 10:39 AM

What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures

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The Transi of René du Chalon by Ligier Richier, sculpted circa 1550.

Photo: H. Zell/Creative Commons

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Ordinarily, the statues of heroes who die in battle are sculpted in grand style, depicting the valorous fighter with a fierce stance, formidable muscles, and a determined expression. Not so in the case of René de Chalon, the 25-year-old French prince who perished during the siege of Saint-Dizier in 1544.

When it came time to memorialize the prince in stone, Renaissance sculptor Ligier Richier carved a rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass. The exposed skull looks toward a raised left hand—originally, this hand held the prince’s actual dried heart. It is believed to have gone missing sometime around the French revolution, after which it was replaced by a smooth stone.

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The Transi of Rene de Chalon at the Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc.

Photos: MOSSOT/Creative Commons

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The statue, on display at Saint-Étienne church in the French city of Bar-le-Duc, is known as a "transi." Popular in western Europe during the Renaissance, the art form depicts a deceased person during the transition between life and death—the corporeal husk of a departed soul. It's a particularly impactful memento mori.

From the late 14th century onward, some tombs were also adorned with recumbent transi sculptures. In contrast to the usual serene depictions of eternally sleeping saints, these "cadaver tombs' showed the effects of death in stark detail. The effigy of French doctor Guillaume de Harsigny is emaciated and noseless, while Belgian sculptor Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms") shows a decaying body riddled with the wriggling creatures.

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Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms").

Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/Creative Commons

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The transi on the tomb of Guillaume de Harcigny.

Photo: Vassil/Creative Commons

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A transi by Ligier Richier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Photos: Rama/Creative Commons

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.