Currently reading : SB5 Archive (2010): Les Gisants
Images views of the piece: Sylphides-Clostridium
Conception Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud
Etymologically, the French verb ‘gésir’ comes from the Latin ‘jacere’ which means laying. Actually, this word doesn’t really have an accurate translation in English and most times the verb laying is used. However, there is a subtle semantic difference between these two verbs. Really, laying defines a condition frozen in the moment, a body laying down on the ground, but doesn’t give any information about what lead to the fall. Gésir defines a decline, a slow glide from life to death; more precisely, it originally defined an agony due to a lethal wound or a disease. In French, this verb can only be conjugated in the present tense, and rarely in the past tense. It has an inescapable end but no future.
From ‘gésir’ derives the word ‘gisant’ that refers to the recumbent statues decorating nobles’ graves and wall-niche tombs since the 11th century. Thus, the gisant is only a budding dead, still alive but already prisoner of a death-dealing present.
Usually, as an effigy, recumbent statues embodied the corpses under them. Portraying these still alive in a pious gesture, most often with prayer-joined hands. Blessed, they are waiting for a calm death to come, freed from fear or apprehension. Naturally, such statues are only the privilege modern landed gentry. However, beyond aristocracy, this tradition reveals something more widely shared by the whole society.
In fact, through the Early and High Middle Ages, the popular categories don’t promote an anxious representation of death. Due to the high and precocious mortality, death is fully integrated and accepted as a part of the life cycle and everyday life itself. Later, the fantasy of medical progress will modify it and make death a due date that can be postponed, but for now, death is a settlement in full as well as an abolition of social classes.
To reflect common sense, medieval art will convey this idea and hinge on memento moris (‘remember, you must die’). From the 13th century, through figures such as The Three Living and The Three Dead (where three cadavers warn three nobles of their forthcoming putrefaction) the mighty are reminded of their mortality and invited to humility. At first shyly widespread, these metaphoric paintings will grow on the whole Western Europe.
Spiritually, the 14th century will mark the end of innocence. Especially in France where the Hundred Years’ War against England and a disastrous plague epidemic, known as Black Death, cast a macabre veil on the country. Finally, the big schism, a rupture with Rome that establishes a dissident Pope in Avignon, completes the insult made to God. Cynicism grows with despair. Human losses were so terrible that, unable to deal with the growing demands of last rites, the Catholic Church helped to the publication in vernacular languages of Ars Moriendi an illustrated guide to the best way to die and assisting the dying. The chivalrous ideal is mocked and the naive idea of death as a reunion with the creator is marred by an anxiety of judgment and punishment.
All the antic representations are radically upset as this era initiates horror mortis, the disgust of death and especially of rotting. Death will no more be perceived as an elevation or an eternal rest. It will now be the place of all throes and torments. More, it will also lead to the realization that death should not be regarded as an individual fact but as collective and universal phenomena. In a way, death dissolve differences, as will observe Bruegel the Elder when he will paint ‘The Triumph of Death’ in 1562.
This fundamental idea had a decisive impact on the Medieval Art and initiated a turning point in the definition of morbidity. This conception of a death that homogenizes will grow on and to meet that, new artistic conceptions will be set. One of the most fulfilled representations will be the danses macabre, the Dances of Death. First observed in 1424 and following the tradition of Mysteries, this dance depicts skeletons united with living beings in a farandole that leads from the cradle to the grave. Working as an allegory on the fragility of life and the futility of vanity, dances of death occupied a central position in 15th century art.
Somehow, the gisant reflected a personal achievement individually linked to the body it was portraying, which finally seemed irrelevant regarding the reversal of the traditional system of values.
Progressively, a whole new kind of effigies appeared, mostly through eastern France and western Germany. As if to answer accordingly to the new standards, these statues were the very realistic representation of a decomposing body. Materializing finitude, the body here is dry, corrupted, emaciated; its hands are no more joined to pray but only to hide long-past disappeared genitals. The naive elements which were surrounding the body and were echoing beatitude are finally ignored and flesh-eating vermin replaces cherubs.
These effigies are called ‘transis’, which comes from Latin verb ‘transire’, literally “to go through” and were a common practice until the 17th century. Transis are the ones who went through, in the more precise Christian Latin sense, the ones who went from life to death. Again, English seems not to have a dedicated translation for this word but the usual meaning is the same…to be paralyzed. It could describe the feeling of cold (transi de froid) or, surprisingly, describe the way a person loves another (amoureux transi); it is commonly used to define this impression of immobility.
Contrary to the gisant, which is stuck in the present as the frozen image that it portrays, the transi not only has but is the future. It is not an evocative image of the past, but an apocalyptic prediction that the worse is to come. A petrified reminder of where we all come from. Where the gisant was blessed, the transi is damned. Metaphor of man, the first was modeled after God when the second one is nothing but a man’s mirror image. Maybe both unveil life after death... but the transi only unveils the one that spreads from carrion.