1902 Encyclopedia > Monumental Effigies

Monumental Effigies

MONUMENTAL EFFIGIES.—In the course of the twelfth century the idea appears, for the first time, to have been carried into effect that the figure of a deceased personage should be represented by effigy upon his monu-mental memorial. These earliest attempts at commemora-tive portraiture were executed in low relief upon coffin-lids of stone or purbeck marble, some portions of the designs for the most part being executed by means of incised lines, cut upon the raised figure. Gradually, with the increased size and the greater architectural dignity of monumental structures, effigies attained to a high rank as works of art, so that before the close of the 13th century, very noble examples of figures of this order are found to have been executed in full relief; and, about the same period, similar figures also began to be engraved, either upon monumental slabs of stone or marble, or upon plates of metal, which were affixed to the surfaces of slabs that were laid in the pavements of churches. Engraven plates of this class, known as " Brasses," continued in favour until the era of the Reformation, and in our own times their use has been revived. It seems probable that the introduction and the prevalence of flat engraven memorials, in place of com-memorative effigies in relief, were due, in the first instance, to the inconvenience and obstruction resulting from increasing numbers of raised stones on the pavement of churches; while the comparatively small cost of engraven plates, their high artistic capabilities, and their durability combined to secure for them the popularity they unques-tionably enjoyed. It will be kept in remembrance that, if considerably less numerous than contemporary incised slabs and engraven brasses, effigies sculptured in relief, and with some exceptions in full relief, continued for centuries to constitute the most important features in more than a few mediaeval monuments. In the 13th century, it must be added, their origin being apparently derived from the en-deavour to combine a monumental effigy with a monumental cross upon the same sepulchral stone, parts only of the h uman figure sometimes were represented, whether in sculpture or by incised lines, as the head or bust, and occasionally also the feet; in some of the early examples of this curious class the cross symbol is not introduced, and after a while half-length figures became common.

Except inveryrare instances, that most important element which may be distinguished as genuine face-portraiture is not to be looked for, in even the finest sculptured effigies, earlier than about the middle of the 15th century. In works of the highest order of art, indeed, the memorials of personages of the most exalted rank, from an early period in their existence effigies may be considered occasionally to have been portraits properly so called ; and yet even in such works as these an approximately correct general resemblance but too frequently appears to have been all that was contemplated or desired. At the same time, from the first, in these monumental effigies we possess con-temporary examples of vestments, costume, armour, weapons, royal and knightly insignia, and other personal appointments and accessories, in all of which accurate fidelity has been certainly observed with scrupulous care and minute exactness. Thus, since the monumental effigies of England are second to none in artistic merit, while they have been preserved in far greater numbers, and generally in better condition than in other countries, we may claim to possess in unbroken continuity an unrivalled series of original personal representations of the successive generations of our predecessors, very many of them being, in the most significant acceptation of that term, veritable contemporaneous portraits.

Till recently esteemed to be simply objects of antiquarian curiosity, and at no distant period either altogether disregarded or too often subjected to injurious indignity, the monumental effigies of England still await the formation of a just estimate of their true character and their consequent worth in their capacity as authorities for face-portraiture. In the original contract for the con-struction of the monument at Warwick to Richard Beauchamp, the fifth earl, who died in the year 1439, it is provided that an effigy of the deceased noble should be executed in gilt bronze, with all possible care, by the most skilful and experienced artists of the time ; and the details of the armour and the ornaments of the figure are specified with minute particularity and precision. It is remarkable, however, that the effigy itself is described only in the general and decidedly indefinite terms— " an image of a man armed." There is no provision that the effigy should even be " an image " of the earl; and much less is there a single word said as to its being such a "counterfeit presentment" of the features and person of the living man, as the contemporaries of Shakespeare had learned to expect in what they would accept as true portraiture. The effigy, almost as perfect as when it left the sculptor's hands, still bears witness, as well to the conscientious care with 'which the conditions of the contract were fulfilled, as to i the eminent ability of the artists employed. So complete ! is the representation of the armour, that this effigy might be considered actually to have been equipped in the earl's own favourite suit of the finest Milan steel. The cast of the figure also evidently was studied from what the earl had been when in life, and the countenance is sufficiently marked and endowed with the unmistakable attributes of personal character. Possibly such a resemblance may have been the highest aim in the image-making of the period, somewhat before the middle of the 15th century. Three-quarters of a century later, a decided step further in advance towards the requirement of fidelity in true portraiture is shewn to have been taken, when, in his will (1510 A.D.), Henry VII. spoke of the effigies of himself and of his late queen, Elizabeth of York, to be executed for their monument, as " an image of our figure and another of hers." The existing effigies in the Beauchamp chapel and in Henry VII.'s chapel, with the passages just quoted from the will of the Tudor king and from the contract made by the executors of the Lancastrian earl, with remarkable significance illustrate the gradual development of the idea of true personal portraiture in monumental effigies, during the course of the 15th and at the com-mencement of the 16th century in England. A glance upwards naturally first rests on the royal effigies still preserved in this country, which commence in Worcester Cathedral with King John. This earliest example of a series of effigies of which the historical value has never yet been duly appreciated is rude as a work of art, and yet there is on it the impress of such individuality as demonstrates that the sculptor did his best to represent the king. Singularly fine as achievements of the art of the sculptor are the effigies of Henry III., Queen Alianore of Castile, and her ill-fated sou Edward II., the two former in Westminster Abbey, the last in Gloucester Cathedral; and of their fidelity also as portraits no doubt can be entertained. In like manner, the effigies of Edward III. and his queen Philippa, and those of their grandson Richard II. and his first consort, Anne of Bohemia (all at Westminster), and of their other grandson, the Lancastrian Henry, whose greater might made his better right to Bichard's throne, with his second consort, Joan of Navarre, at Canterbury— these all speak for themselves that they are true portraits. Next follow the effigies of Henry VII. and Elizabeth of York,—to be succeeded, and the royal series to be completed, by the effigies of Queen Elizabeth and the hapless Mary Stuart, all of them in Westminster Abbey. Very instruc-tive would be a close comparison between the two last-named works and the painted portraits of the rival queens, especially in the case of Mary, whose pictures differ so remarkably from one another.

As the 15th century advanced, the rank of the personage represented and the character of the art that distinguishes any effigy will go far to determine its portrait qualities. Still later, when more exact face-portraiture had become a recognized element, sculptors must be supposed to have aimed at the production of such similitude as their art would enable them to give to their works ; and accordingly, when we compare effigies with painted portraits of the same personages, we find that they corroborate one another. The prevalence of portraiture in the effigies of the 16th and 17th centuries, when their art generally underwent a palpable decline, by no means raises all works of this class, or indeed the majority of them, to the dignity of true portraits; on the contrary, in these effigies, as in those of earlier periods, it is the character of the art in each parti-cular example that will go far to determine its merit, value, and authority as a portrait. In judging of these latter effigies, however, they must be estimated by the standard of art of their own era ; and, as a general rule, the effigies that are the best as works of art in their own class are the best also and the most faithful in their portraiture. The earlier effigies, evidently produced in the great majority of instances without any express aim at exact portraiture, as we now employ that expression, have nevertheless strong claims upon our veneration. Often their sculpture is very noble; and even when they are rudest as works of art, there rarely fails to be a rough grandeur about them, as exhibited in the fine bold figure of Fair Rosamond's son, Earl William of the Long Sword, which reposes in such dignified serenity in his own cathedral at Salisbury. These effigies may not bring us closely face to face with the more remote generations of our ancestors, but they do place before us true images of what the men and women of those generations were.

Observant students of monumental effigies assuredly will not fail to appreciate the singular felicity with which the mediaeval sculptors adjusted their compositions to the recumbent position in which their " images " necessarily had to be placed. Equally worthy of regard is the manner in which not a few monumental effigies, and particularly those of comparatively early date, are found to have assumed an aspect neither living nor lifeless, and yet im-pressively life-like. The sound judgment also, and the good taste of those early sculptors, were signally exempli-fied in their excluding, almost without an exception, the more extravagant fashions in the costume of their era from their monumental sculpture, and introducing only the simpler but not less characteristic styles of dress and appointments. In all representations of monumental effigies, it must be kept in remembrance that they represent recumbent figures, and that the accessories of the effigies themselves have been adjusted to that position. With rare exceptions, when they appear resting on one side, these effigies lie on their backs, and as a general rule (except in the case of episcopal figures represented in the act of benediction, or of princes and warriors who sometimes hold a sceptre or a sword) their hands are uplifted and conjoined as in supplication. The crossed-legged attitude of numer-ous armed effigies of the era of mail-armour has been sup-posed to imply the personages so represented to have been crusaders or Knights of the Temple ; but in either case the supposition is unfounded, and inconsistent with unquestion-able facts. Much beautiful feeling is conveyed by figures of ministering angels being introduced as in the act of sup-porting and smoothing the pillows or cushions that are placed, in very many instances to give support to the heads of the recumbent effigies. The animals at the feet of these effigies, which frequently have an heraldic significance, enabled the sculptors, with equal propriety and effectiveness, to overcome one of the special difficulties inseparable from the recumbent position. In conclusion, it remains only to remark upon the masterly treatment of outline composition which so honourably distinguishes the earlier examples of the engraven effigies in monumental brasses. (c. B.)


It is well-known tliat the costume of effigies, almost as a rule, represented what was actually worn by the remains of the person com-memorated, when prepared for interment and when lying in state ; and, in like manner, the aspect of the lifeless countenance, even if not designedly reproduced by mediaeval "image " makers, may long have exercised a powerful influence upon their ideas of consistent monumental.oortraiture-

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