Tomb Art as Political Representation

London's Westminster Abbey. Vienna's Kaisergruft. St. Peter's Basilica. The pyramids of both Egypt and Peru. Displays of skulls under busy intersections of Mexico City. Lenin's refrigerated body at the Kremlin. Cultures remember their fallen heroes in vastly different ways and -- across time, culture and language -- tombs stand as authentic symbols of a society captured at a distinct moment, communicating invaluable insight into its core values, history, cultural themes, self-awareness, political socializations, and group aspirations. Often considered macabre reminders of our mortality, tombs stand witness to a culture's memory and interpretation of its struggles, reflecting dynamic shifts in ideologies and governmental systems, the rise of dynasties and empires, the all too human thirst for power and immortality, the love of wealth conflicting with accepted moral teachings, the influence of revolutions and reformations, and even contemporary fashions, jokes, and personal aesthetics. In fact, a viewer could not help but respond subconsciously to the wealth of symbolism and allegory on many tombs. "In a sense, the very making of a monument was itself a symbolic act, but beyond that a whole range of symbolic and allegorical conventions formed part of monumental designs and iconography from the earliest days."1 This paper seeks to examine techniques and forms of cultural representation in select church monuments and tombs at specific points in time to discern as much as possible about their art, politics and philosophies of the day. Such monuments often hint at shifts from elitism to egalitarianism, as well as a society's respect (or distain) for the arts, humanities, and sciences. One can measure a culture's shift in religious feeling, national identification, and worship of state, isolationism and cross-cultural exchanges through examination of these monuments. "Monuments were able to present a highly selective if not fictional historical narratives for their viewers...monuments are a form of representation which can stop history and freeze an image."2 James Stevens Curl, in A Celebration of Death, notes that "Death, and the disposal of the dead, have been aspects of social life that played an important part in the lives of all peoples who lived under Roman rule or who were under the influence of Rome, and so it has been ever since. The inheritors of Rome, in Europe and the New World, all owe an immense debt to Roman culture for the great legacy of funerary architecture that has been handed down"3 The Etruscan and Roman concept of memorializing in effigy stands as common legacy to each of the three cultures under examination.4 During cultural revolutions and civil unrest objet d'art often fall prey to destruction or defacement. Although image-breaking was associated with the official rejection of Roman Catholicism, monumental sculptures in churches, however, and especially tombs and effigies, seem overall to have escaped this ruinous treatment, or at least suffer less from overly enthusiastic cleansing programs.5 Were it not for the many surviving medieval tomb effigies, contemporary scholars would be much less aware of costume and armorial styles of the Middle Ages. Furthermore, "monumental sculpture has one vast advantage over painting, it is in the round. We can see how our ancestors looked and how they dressed from behind; how they thought of death and resurrection; how they fought and how they were armed."6 In an era of increasing globalization, this examination of the tombs of Elizabeth of England (1603), Maria Theresa of Austria (1780) and Pope Alexander VII (1667) serves as a vehicle for very different societies and cultures to understand each other's art, history, religious socialization, politics and philosophies.