I have to admit that I am fascinated by cadaver tombs and it was in December 2018 that I had the opportunity to examine one more closely. Tastes change and people can find them a little disturbing. This example, in St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds was once brightly painted as medieval churches were during this period. We are so used to seeing plain churches that it is hard to imagine the bright colours in which they were originally painted. Traces can still be found in some churches and there is some on this example. Cadaver tombs are intriguing as you never know where you’re going to find one and this one was a complete surprise.
This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds. These medieval tombs were an extremely visual way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.
It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having admired its magnificent hammerbeam roof with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies, that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.
I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.
Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb. This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’. This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death. Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:
‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’
This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’. This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the body of the deceased as they were when alive wearing their robes and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse. This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.
Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s. St Paul’s cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne. Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe, particularly in Italy, as well as France. Germany and the Netherlands.
But who was John Benet?
According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors. He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade. This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life. Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….
John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted. It originally lay in his own private chapel. This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling which was restored in 1968. You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling. Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration. The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:
’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services. It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved. The letter ‘S’ which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’
So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.
There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’ Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.
The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.
Now there’s an interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen so far and may have been created in the nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops. This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving.
Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read. In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’. Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:
‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘
A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a ‘Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated had obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory. Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see. I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.
The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.
Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern
This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal. The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’
It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate. But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck. So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see. I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
References and further reading:
St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.
Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973