Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England

By Scholten, Frits | The Art Bulletin, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England


Scholten, Frits, The Art Bulletin


NIGEL LLEWELLYN Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 471 pp., 233 b/w ills. $140.00

Given the large number of surviving sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tombs in England, the English must have been extremely virtuous, for the erection of tombs for the dead was considered a virtuous act. Some five thousand tombs were constructed between 1530 and 1660, the period covered by Nigel Llewellyn's Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England; about four thousand are still extant. This explosion was in part caused by the Reformation: the abolition of sacred images left a gap in the art market that soon came to be occupied by funerary monuments. When compared with the number of tombs built in other countries, the figure is even more astonishing, even taking into account the relevant size of the country. In the wealthy southern Netherlands, where many of the tomb sculptors who implicitly play such a prominent role in Llewellyn's study originated, only about six hundred and fifty tombs are documented from the period between 1575 and 1725, whereas in the Dutch Republic a meager hundred monuments were erected in the seventeenth century. ' The vast quantity of English tombs offers excellent material for art historians, but surprisingly, not more than a handful of scholars has pursued the subject since the publication of Katharine Esdaile's English Church Monuments, 1510 to 1840 in 1946. Only during the last two or three decades has British funeral art attracted the attention of scholars like Nicholas Penny, Adam White, David Bindman and Malcolm Baker, John Lord, and others, partly stimulated by the activities of the Church Monuments Society. With the exception of Bindman and Baker's, most of these studies have focused on traditional art historical matters, but there is a growing interest in the wider issues of tombs, their makers, and their "users." Llewellyn's book is an eloquent and monumental example of this new, more contextual approach, combining social, economic, and religious interests as well as anthropological interests. This contextual method has resulted in a sumptuous book, full of detailed information and lavishly illustrated in black-and-white.

The opening chapter, which deals with historiography, can be read as a manifesto for Llewellyn's cultural-historical approach. Beginning with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century antiquarians who studied tombs from heraldic and genealogical points of view, he concludes that funeral monuments are products of a series of complex processes, and that their study therefore should not be limited to the research techniques of the old-fashioned art historian. Indeed, Llewellyn is scarcely interested in traditional art history. For him a funeral monument is not so much an artistic product or aesthetic object per se as a "ritual item" (p. 36), an instrument to express emotions of sorrow (p. 49), a bridge between the world of the living and the dead representing the continuity of a dynasty (pp. 43, 53), and a gauge of social positions of individuals or economic stakes (p. 7). Thus, he argues that the art historian should assume the mantle of the anthropologist (pp. 25, 35) or social historian, seeking out patterns of patronage, examining the business of making and erecting tombs, and scrutinizing the religious or social circumstances of the deceased. Above all, he is concerned to set the monuments firmly within the visual culture of their time. The abundance of tombs and the rich supply of contemporary sources like traveler's journals, wills, account books, and sermons has provided Llewellyn with an excellent starting point for his culturally pluriform method of research. This approach is not without risks, however. Under the pressure of too many layers of meanings and explanations, even these seemingly indestructible monuments can collapse. Moreover, Llewellyn's almost complete abnegation of issues of style, iconography, authorship, or artistic quality results in a rather restricted view of the monuments as mere historical objects, as products of an industry. …

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