Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.08.01 Barker, Stone Fidelity

21.08.01 Barker, Stone Fidelity

Jessica Barker's book provides an insightful overview of a body of tombs from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, tombs which give expression to changing views of marriage by featuring pairs of effigies captured in the timeless act of holding hands. Her introduction clearly delineates the scope of what follows in the four chapters. The chapters are devoted to this genre of double tomb and its significance; royal tombs and how love is mediated through the king's two bodies; gender; and agency in the funerary commissions of women, a view of the handholding gesture as both sign and sacrament; an epilogue on emotion, gender, and the body; and finally, a catalog of the monuments that conform to this definition. Underlying the narrative is the author's desire to situate these tombs within their physical and sociological context, exploring not only spousal rhetoric, but also the way these effigies intersect with the beginnings of portraiture, indeed, with the whole notion of identity. In Barker's excavation of the religious, social, and artistic layers of these tomb monuments, she unearths a growing interest in the body as a signifier of selfhood, as well as the psychological and emotional shifts that accompany the representation of spouses on a corpus of approximately forty-five double tombs found largely in England.

The author's mission is to decipher the language spoken on these double tombs, revealing the reverberations of this gesture as it evolved in step with the social institution of marriage. Barker demonstrates that the new attitudes towards marriage affected both its practice and its visual representation. The first chapter examines the origins of these monuments and suggests that a fundamental shift occurred in the fourteenth century in the relationship of the tomb to the body. The latter in turn engendered a new relationship between the body, the viewer, and time. The orchestration of royal tombs, first by the Plantagenets in Fontevraud and then by Louis IX in St.-Denis, anticipated the coupling of effigies on a single tomb. One effect of this doubling of wedded bodies was to lengthen the duration of marriage vows: what once expired at death now continued in the afterlife. As the interred half of the couple awaited the beloved, the living half could gaze at their own reflection and contemplate their joint past and future reunion beyond the grave. Though it was common for a funerary monument to function as a memento mori, seldom had the imagined dialogue between the living and the dead been imbued with this degree of spousal intimacy.

One of the greatest strengths of Barker's book is that she grounds her ideas in specific (illustrated) tombs. For example, the now destroyed fourteenth-century double tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in St. Paul's Cathedral (fig. 18), exemplifies the complex interrelationship of the living and the dead, as the duke frequently visited the deceased duchess on the tomb, thereby witnessing his own death in gazing at his prophetic alabaster effigy. When John of Gaunt did join Blanche in 1399, his hearse was stationed beside the tomb near the high altar, surrounded by candles, and mourned by relatives, friends, onlookers, and ultimately their son, Henry IV. In other words, the meaning of the funerary monument was enhanced not only by the solemnity of the interment of the body, but also by the performance of ceremonies on the anniversary of that date, interspersed with other church rituals in proximity to the tomb. Though John of Gaunt had two wives after Blanche of Lancaster, the absent presence of the latter seemed to overshadow the living presence of her successors.

The nomadic tomb of King João I and Philippa of Lancaster (fig. 42), erected after both of their deaths, was ultimately situated in João's funerary chapel in the conventual church at Batalha near Lisbon in 1434. The peripatetic journey of this monument was commemorated on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin, which coincided with João's divinely assisted military victories; the anniversary of the final translation of the bodies was accompanied by the distribution of alms, processions, and liturgical rites, all of which fostered a material and temporal distancing of the corpse and the effigy. At the same time, Barker wishes to distance the double tomb from the transi tomb because the latter portrayed death as a process, whereas the double tomb divided death into a sequence of separate events, blurring past, present, and future. For Barker, "the placement of two effigies side by side troubled the boundary between life and death so that the dead were shown to be alive, while the alive were in some important sense already dead" (63). In this distinction, Barker seems to be proposing a distinct metaphysics for experiencing the double tombs; yet both the transi and double tomb invite the viewer to see death as part of a continuum, though admittedly they are parsed in different ways.

During the period in which these double tombs flourished, it was both the sacramental and contractual character of marriage that were foregrounded. No longer did marriage focus on the joining of two good families, rather the significance of matrimony centered on children as a sign of piety, fidelity, and its sacramental basis. As the exchange of marital vows moved to the church interior, the earthly union accrued qualities of the divine union of Christ and the Church. Widows particularly experienced a correspondence between their earthly union with spouses and their bond with Christ. Although some widows vowed to remain perpetual brides of Christ, this did not prevent their commissioning of tombs. Isabella of France was buried in her wedding gown and Jeanne d'Étampes donated three sumptuous gowns worn at her wedding to St.-Denis; the fabric of the gowns was subsequently fashioned into copes for the priests in exchange for their prayers for her soul. These gifts, as well as wax votive figures, tomb effigies, and other images functioned to elevate the status of the deceased bride, connecting her position to that of the Virgin in her mystic marriage to Christ. The conflation that occurred between the wedding and funeral rendered marriage as the source of medieval women's status in both life and the afterlife.

Barker's conviction that a paradigm shift had occurred in the views and practice of marriage during the late medieval era colors her view not only of aristocratic tombs, but also the tombs of members of the mercantile and administrative classes. The presence of children beneath the examples of brass memorials of John Cottusmore and Amice Bruley (c. 1439) (fig. 21) and John Lyndewode and his wife Alice (c. 1419) (fig. 22) are interpreted as evidence of their respective pious unions: eighteen children in the first case, and seven in the second. Children, the embodiment of God's grace, eschewed a purely genealogical role in both the text of the marriage ceremony and in their presence at the feet of their deceased parents. That the offspring in these brass memorials assume a position akin to that of the pleurants found on contemporary French tombs, reminds one of the duty shared by all witnesses at a burial, to solicit divine intercession on behalf of the entombed.

Before her discussion of the symbols and society that formed the milieu of these double tombs, Barker discusses "Queer Tombs." Her objective is to reveal the pervasiveness of the new ideals of marriage that were even appropriated by couples of the same sex. Using the rhetoric of marriage as the unifying feature between two men and two women, Barker highlights the charged meaning of the heraldic shields of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville, c. 1391 (fig. 25) and the disparity in age and size of the two women, Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge, found on the brass memorial c. 1480, (fig. 26), to posit the probable relationship of the deceased pairs. Although her arguments are compelling, one wonders if the paucity of examples warrants the subheading "Queer Tombs"?

In chapter 2, which deals with royal tombs and love's rhetorical power, Barker engages the ideology of the king's two bodies, a model that gains another dimension in the interment of royal hearts, viscera, and corpses. What distinguishes the tombs in St.-Denis and Westminster is that they convey the sacred and eternal nature of the monarchy, rather than the virtues of the individual ruler (98). Barker traces a shift from the linear and dynastic purity of the Carolingian and Capetian tombs to the commemoration of marital ties found in the tombs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In a nuanced examination of Ernst Kantorowicz's concept of the nature of the king, Barker considers the royal double tombs as a reflection of the royal body in which the body politic and natural body are mixed to forge royal power "whereby the emotional texture of the relationship between the king and queen becomes a means to persuade their subjects of their superhuman authority" (109).

Using the monument of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia c. 1395-99 (fig. 34) in the chapel of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, Barker demonstrates how the tomb serves as a material echo of the successive sacraments of Anne's wedding, coronation, burial, and hoped for resurrection. In her discussion of this tomb, and that of João I and Philippa of Lancaster (fig. 42), Barker delineates the iconography of their respective tomb programs, underscoring Anne of Bohemia's special devotion to and emulation of St. Anne and Philippa's indefatigable devotion to her spouse; her motto "y me plet" is repeated no less than six times on the monument. In both examples, the royal couples are portrayed as exemplars for the members of their respective kingdoms: typologies are used to glorify Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, whereas the royal epitome of marital affection defines the relationship of João I and Philippa. In short, spousal love becomes part of the definition of monarchical identity and power (152).

Barker's treatment of gender, agency, and the much-married woman in chapter 3 is particularly persuasive because we learn this segment of the population had appropriated the symbolism employed by their male counterparts to sponsor their own impressive tomb monuments. Whereas a man's identity was fixed during his life, a woman's identity shifted with marriage and re-marriage. Identity for women was therefore cumulative, sometimes leaning towards their natal family, and other times towards one of their successive spouses. The woman's tomb then could reflect this multivalent identity in visual, textual, figural, and heraldic ways. One need only consider the tomb of Margaret Holland (d. 1439) (fig. 55), who is represented between her two royal spouses, to see the reach of a powerful widow. Her physical position on the tomb would seem to announce her allegiance. But upon closer inspection, her natal family is mirrored in Margaret's book of hours and the heraldic patterns in the chapel, the glass, vault bosses, and surrounding tombs. Margaret's position in the middle makes her the fulcrum of these two familial strains; indeed, it is in death that Margaret's true power is actualized; her tomb commission dictates the garb of both spouses, their placement on the plinth, as well as the wider dynastic implications conveyed by the hind and greyhound beneath their feet.

The significance of the gesture of handholding is scrutinized in chapter 4 to situate this sign in contemporary theology, literature, and art. In tracing the sacramental and political layers of the performance of joined hands, Barker finds its appearance and behavior on tombs analogous to that of an attribute, that is, standing for the fidelity shared by the couple. In this way, the pairs of effigies who have joined their right hands visually enact the sacrament of marriage. Indeed, for Barker, the gesture on tombs both performs and reinforces that vow. Perhaps more tangible is the fascinating discussion of the production, patronage, and networks for the dissemination of the tomb designs, which includes detailed instructions for the execution of the joined hands, the geographic proximity of a cluster of similar tombs, and the agency of certain families, such as Margaret Stanley who joined hands with each of her husbands on two separate tombs, presumably in the spirit of serial fidelity. The power of the joined effigies did not cease when they were united with their owners; the tombs were plumbed for legal evidence to secure money and lands. Bound together both in life and death, the spousal contract was an important facet of the material memorial.

In contextualizing the double tomb within a church, as seen at Batalha, and establishing the contingent nature of the gesture of joined hands, Barker co-opts the priest and congregation as witnesses to the perpetual reenactment of the marriage of João I and Philippa. The lengthy epitaph below the effigies of the latter, the masses to be sung daily by the friars, and images of the gesture culled from other media, all support Barker's suggestion that enjoined hands were shorthand for marital vows; indeed, at Batalha the gesture signaled the validity of the marriage of the tomb's occupants. The archetype of the sacred coupling of Bride and Bridegroom furnished the guiding metaphor for all marriages. The bodies of the spouses were the canvas upon which this union between the Church and Christ was represented. Though spouses may have resumed their married life beneath their alabaster effigies, they were also preoccupied with judgment, their consignment to Purgatory, and their readiness for the Last Judgment. After witnessing the reenactment of their sacred marital vows, one hopes that their post-mortem wedding guests would not forget to pray for the couple's salvation.

Stone Fidelity is a beautiful exploration of a group of late medieval tombs; the richness of this work includes Barker's treatment of late Gothic expressive sculpture, textual sources, comparisons with illuminated manuscripts and other objects that employ this evocative gesture of joined hands. Clasped hands trace the changing landscape of late medieval marriage vows and their promulgation in tomb monuments; it is only fitting that the translucent, flesh-like character of alabaster was the medium chosen to convey this message.