Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon

Limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse which looks upwards at his outstretched left hand.
Ligier Richier, upper section of the Transi de René de Chalon, c. 1545–47
Full view of the monument, opening from the viewers POV with spiked metal barriers, and rises to the family mass-burial tomb, the altarpiece, and Richier's limestone depiction of the René of Chalon as a decayed living corpse.
Full view with black marble columns and altarpiece

The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon (French: Transi de René de Chalon, also known as the Memorial to the Heart of René de Chalon or The Skeleton) is a late Gothic period funerary monument, known as a transi, in the church of Saint-Étienne at Bar-le-Duc, in northeastern France. It consists of an altarpiece and a limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse which stands upright and extends his left hand outwards. Completed sometime between 1544 and 1557, the majority of its construction is attributed to the French sculptor Ligier Richier. Other elements, including the coat of arms and funeral drapery, were added in the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.

The tomb dates from a period of societal anxiety over death, as plague, war and religious conflicts ravaged Europe.[1] It was commissioned as the resting place of René of Chalon, Prince of Orange, son-in-law of Duke Antoine of Lorraine. René was killed aged 25 at the siege of St. Dizier on 15 July 1544, from a wound sustained the previous day. Richier presents him as an écorché, with his skin and muscles decayed, leaving him reduced to a skeleton. This apparently fulfilled his deathbed wish that his tomb depict his body as it would be three years after his death. His left arm is raised as if gesturing towards heaven. Supposedly, at one time his heart was held in a reliquary placed in the hand of the figure's raised arm. Unusually for contemporaneous objects of this type, his skeleton is standing, making it a "living corpse", an innovation that was to become highly influential. The tomb effigy is positioned above the carved marble and limestone altarpiece.

Designated a Monument historique on 18 June 1898, the tomb was moved for safekeeping to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War, before being returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent extensive restoration between 1998 and 2003. Replicas of the statue are in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc and the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.



The statue is 177 cm (70 in) in height, and made from black marble and limestone.[2] It consists of three limestone blocks which form the skeleton's head and torso, left arm, and legs and pelvis.[3] Both the statue and its frame are supported by an iron stud located at the figure's pelvis.[3] The corpse is life-sized, putrefied and emaciated, and hangs above the church altarpiece. Its left arm reaches out, while its right hand rests on its chest. The outstretched arm may have once have held René's preserved heart, and extended in a gesture that may have been either pleading or tribute to a higher being.

Statue showing Death as a living skeleton. His right arm is missing and he looks upwards, while holding a shield with his right. The shield contains rows of inscriptions.
Unknown artist, Death, 16th century, 37 x 20 cm (14.6 x 7.9 in). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon[1]
An alabaster statue showing Death as a living skeleton. His right arm is draped with a shroud and raised upwards. His skull appears to be looking downwards. His shield is inscribed with a verse in French.
Unknown artist, La Mort Saint-Innocent, 1520s, 120 x 55 cm (47.2 x 21.7 in). Musée du Louvre[4]

The rotting skeleton is depicted in an unflinching realistic manner,[5] and placed on a stylobate supported on two black marble columns with Corinthian capitals.[6] A coat of arms is placed underneath the figure,[2] while the escutcheon is empty. The figure has been described as a "rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass".[7]

His left hand reaches upwards as if pleading to heaven or God.[2] The gesture may be in reference to the biblical passage from Job 19:26: "And though after my skin, worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God".[8] The gesture may represent contrite pleading or supplication, or the ability of the spirit to overcome mortality.[5] The art historian Kathleen Cohen writes that the monument may be an illustration of the "doctrine of corruption as a necessary step toward regeneration".[9]

René's outstretched hand was stolen by a French soldier in 1793.[8] It was later replaced, but shown holding either a clepsydra or hourglass, obvious symbolic objects for a memento mori. However, that placement changed the meaning of the sculpture, from a representation of René to a depiction of the personification of death or as a danse macabre.[10][11]

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