The lost art of the recumbent Christ

These medieval visuals of the lamentation and entombment, in addition to many other visuals commemorating the Passion, innately drew worshippers into a union with the way of the cross.

Beginning in the mid-1300s, startlingly lifelike, carved effigies of the entombed Christ punctuated cathedral chapels throughout the Alsace region of modern-day France. These Holy Graves, as they were called, were simple monuments. Christ lay recumbent in the position of death. Often, the Three Marys (Mary Magdalene, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary Salome) stood behind the Crucified. Additional figures such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus only feature in the later, and more elaborate, Entombment scenes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

These visuals of the lamentation and entombment, in addition to many other visuals commemorating the Passion, innately drew worshippers into a union with the way of the cross. It is the concept of kenosis — a self-emptying of one’s own will in favor of complete conformity to the will of God, suffering and the cross included — that is here on display.

Scholars identify the planned tomb of Strasbourg’s Bishop Berthold II as the launching point for these sepulchral sculptures of Christ. Over the course of the construction, the bishop decided to transform his own tomb into a Holy Grave monument. He died in 1353, just as the spike in these Easter monuments exploded in popularity across the Upper Rhine. It was a population ardent in their Catholic faith. In 14th century Freiburg, for instance, thirty churches served a population of under ten thousand.

Representation of the Holy Sepulcher, 14th c., Saint-Florentius, Niederhaslach, Alsace (Pethrus / CC BY-SA (

These Holy Grave monumentals factored into the perennial Holy Week and Easter liturgies. They also evoked what remained physically so far away: the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. And they poignantly invited the faithful to gaze upon “him whom they have pierced” (Jn. 19:37).

In some cases, the effigy’s side wound served as a receptacle for the consecrated host on Holy Thursday. To symbolize the resurrected Christ, the recumbent Christ figure would be removed sometime before Matins in the darkness of Easter Sunday morning.

14th c. gisant of Christ with cavity for host, Notre-Dame of the Nativity in Saverne, Alsace

Holy Grave monuments also factored in another Easter tradition, the Easter liturgical drama. An early example of the Easter liturgical drama is found in the 10th century Regularis Concordia, an aid for the Rule of St. Benedict, in a sequence called the Visitatio Sepulchri (Visit to the Tomb). The Visitatio Sepulchri developed from the Quem Quaeritis trope that constituted the Easter Introit prayer, here taken from the tenth century manuscript of St. Gall:

Interrogatio. Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?

Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?

Responsio. Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.

Jesus of Nazareth the crucified, o heavenly beings.

Angeli. Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

The Angels: He is not here; he is risen, just as he foretold. Go, announce that he is risen from the sepulchre.

The clerics representing the Three Marys would then expose a linen cloth to the congregation, left in place of the vanished Christ effigy.

Angel points to the burial cloths in image from the Psalter of Frederick II, c. 1235.

This exposition of the cloth from the tomb by the Three Marys here in the Visitatio Sepulchri is echoed later in devotions from the Holy Grave and Entombment monuments to the cult of Veronica’s Veil. The visual element of abandoned burial cloths conveyed without the need for wordy explanations or theological discourse that something remarkable and transformative occurred in the tomb.

Here we see the growth in the popularity of this devotion: For example, Folio 85 in the Codex Egberti, an illuminated Gospel book for Egbert, Bishop of Trier, depicts a bare deposition and entombment scene featuring only Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. As both the liturgical dramas and later grave monuments evolved, the more elaborate the proscenium. Compare Folio 85 from the Codex Egberti, c. 980, with the the Entombment monument at the chapel of Ste. Croix de Jerusalem at the Dijon hospital of St Espirit c. 1500:

Folio 85, Codex Egberti.

Folio 85 reflects the hastiness of Christ’s burial, as it was the day of preparation (cf. Mk. 15:42).

Entombment from the chapel of Ste. Croix de Jerusalem at the Dijon hospital of St Espirit (courtesy Donna L. Sadler)

By the time of large-scale entombments, those elaborate scenes resembled a wake-like vigil — no longer the sense of urgency of an impromptu burial before Passover — conflating multiple moments (Joseph and Nicodemus, the mourning women, the sleeping guards, the angels) into one frame. In these we see the pietà (known as vesperbild in its German origins): the mourning, collapsing Mother of God — a scene while not mentioned in the Gospels, nevertheless a visualization of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that “a sword will pierce your heart also” (Lk. 2:35).

Again, we also find emerging at this same time depictions of Veronica and her veil on which is shown the face of Christ gazing back at the viewer. Here, only about a hundred miles from Strasbourg and the locus of the Holy Grave monuments, we discover examples of the icon strategically placed in relation to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. At the church of St. Urban, for instance, in Schwabisch Hall, Veronica with her cloth and flanked by two angels appears in an ambry above the grille to the tabernacle (or “sacrament house”).

Veronica and her veil above the door of the sacrament house, St. Urban church, Schwabisch Hall.

Jacopo Grimaldi was a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica as it neared completion of its massive reconstruction in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Grimaldi left drawings of the interior of Old St. Peter’s, valuable preservation of the beloved basilica, including a rendition of the Pope Celestine III-commissioned ciborium that housed the Veronica icon.

Grimaldi also detailed that when the Veronica was exhibited in a rare ostension, it was accompanied by a baldachin. Embroidered on this miniature baldachin was an image of Christ lying horizontally, hands clasped over the other in the death position. Regrettably, neither the baldachin nor the ciborium survives. The John VII Chapel was destroyed in 1606 during the building of new St. Peter’s.

Grimaldi’s illustration of supine Christ on miniature baldachin for Roman Veronica.

A similar tradition of venerating the dead Christ emerged in Spain, with works called Crist yacente (the lying Christ), marked perhaps most notably by the early seventeenth century work, The Dead Christ of El Pardo in Madrid by Gregorio Fernández. In general, these depictions of the Crucified were quite visceral in the inclusion of blood and twisted nature of Christ’s limbs wrought by hours on a cross.

However, similar effigies of Christ appeared earlier than these, as contemporaries of the Alsace sepulchers, in the then-Kingdom of Aragon, in Catalonia. At the service of Peter IV of Aragon, two artists of note flourished in the mid-fourteenth century, Aloi de Montbrai and Jaume Cascalls. Their Gothic workshop is credited with executing reclining Christs. While Cascalls today is best remembered for his “Head of Christ,” Montbrai was especially noted for his command of depicting accurate anatomy on alabaster.

Corpus Christi Chapel, Church of San Félix (Gerona). Gothic sculpture in Catalonia (1350).

Often these sculptures served a dual purpose: memorializing Christ while serving as a funereal setting for a tomb, similarly to the Alsacian tombs for bishops. We see an alabaster-chromed, Christ-like sarcophagus crafted by Aloi de Montbrai at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Daniel of Girona for a tomb with the remains of a martyr, Daniel. Though lacking the dynamism of later Entombments, these Catalonian sepulchers also prompted contemplation of He who gave His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).

The suffering of the medieval populace and the religious reawakening it spawned was duly reflected in these images of the suffering Christ. In the Holy Sepulcher monument in the Alsacian church of Saint-Dominique in Vieux-Thann, the Christ effigy was one that took on startling human characteristics. The recumbent Christ’s gaunt figure reveals his ribcage and popping veins along both arms. Here we return to the idea of kenosis; Christ, dead at last, is placed in a cave, just as he was born in a cave. Here in death, the effects of his Passion brutally evident, one sees how he emptied his whole self — kenosis.

In the final analysis, these images did not exist for art’s sake, but for the benefit of the faithful, that they see not only the Body of Christ, the ultimate relic, but a mirror of themselves, those who endured so much physical suffering with little hope of escaping their hard life. Their only escape, one we might see seek out today, was to unite their sorrows with He who subsumed the sins of the world.

Face of Christ, Holy Sepulcher at Maigrauge abbey, c. 1330.

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About James Day 12 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.

1 Comment

  1. Devotion to the image of Christ in the tomb is still very common in Portuguese Catholic churches (at least in the neighbourhoods in which I grew up). They even have a separate room/chapel to venerate Christ in his death and suffering.

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