The Body at the Funeral: Imagery and Commemoration at Notre-Dame, Paris, about 1304-18

By Stanford, Charlotte A. | The Art Bulletin, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Body at the Funeral: Imagery and Commemoration at Notre-Dame, Paris, about 1304-18


Stanford, Charlotte A., The Art Bulletin


Necrologies and obituary books were vital to the liturgical life of medieval religious communities. Since at least the ninth century, these lists recorded the names of deceased members of the community and honorary others, such as relatives and donors.1 Though names were preserved in written form, individuals were primarily remembered through oral recitation, as their names were read aloud on the anniversary of their death; thus, by emphasizing their absence, the dead were recalled through the celebration of Mass.

This process of recollection formed a literal regathering of what remained of the individual, fragmented in memory, in text, and, occasionally, in image. The assembling of these fragments was performed in a liturgical setting that, by the early fourteenth century, extended beyond the vocalized realm2 to include the newly popular practices of celebrating anniversary masses, soliciting prayers on behalf of the deceased, and even visiting actual tomb sites during commemorative ceremonies. Commemoration had become multisensory, relying on seeing and acting as well as reading and reciting.

In most instances, the realm of the visual in such commemoration was limited to that of the temporal, performed liturgy. For the privileged few, permanent imagery was available in the loci of grave markers,3 monumental sculpture, or chantry chapels. In very rare instances, imagery could be further extended to manuscript illumination in the obituary itself. Although as a rule, necrological manuscripts remain among the more austere books of the medieval period,4 scribes occasionally included coats of arms or, rarely, portraits to honor those who were especially prominent or those who were venerated church donors. The Grand Obituaire (Grand Obituary) of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris5 contains eight such portraits, among them, most singularly, funerary depictions of two of the cathedral community's most illustrious deceased: Simon Matifas de Bucy, bishop of Paris (d. 1304; Fig. 1), and Michel du Bee, cardinal priest (d. 1318; Fig. 2).

Bishop Simon's portrait, with its high quality, has been noted for its significance in the development of early-four-teenth-century Parisian illumination as a whole.6 However, the funerary nature of this episcopal miniature and the copied version made for the cardinal Michel du Bee has, so far, elicited little scholarly comment. The lack of discussion is doubly surprising: not only are the illuminations unique,7 but they also provide rare visual access to the anniversary celebrations of the medieval "cult of death" in the early fourteenth century.8 The two images depict bodies on biersindividuals on display-rather than the more common palldraped and anonymous coffins frequently seen in contemporary and later funeral scenes (Fig. 3) .9 The analysis of these two illuminations and their commemorative technique, taking into account both liturgical and architectural setting, therefore affords a valuable glimpse into the ceremonial of medieval commemoration, which leads us to resituate the importance of the body and images of the body in this practice.

Text and Image in the Grand Obituary of Notre-Dame

The Grand Obituary was not the first, nor the last, book to commemorate the dead at the cathedral of Paris. This particular volume was created in about 1240.10 Most of its entries are the work of one hand, which kept additional entries up to approximately 1270. Some of the deaths, copied from earlier sources, predate their entry into this book by a century or more. However, since few entries are dated, the differentiation between the recently deceased and the distantly dead would have been virtually erased in the reader's eye.11 Later additions to the obituary are more prominent, since they are recorded in a variety of scripts spanning the decades to the early sixteenth century.12

The commemorative text itself was bound, quite literally, with the cathedral liturgy. …

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