Monuments of Catholic Hope

As they placidly repose, the light of Divine Revelation falls upon them under the tutelage of the Church, turning them into authentic testaments of faith in the triumph of Our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death.

The true Church smiles serenely in the face of death as no other religion does, confronting the end of life on earth with the hope of imperishable glory.

A faithful artistic expression of this Catholic spirit are the medieval gisants. Sepulchres sculpted in marble with meticulous care, they are an invitation to uplift the spirit; everything about them speaks of recollection, humility and peace.

Though the stone effigies are icy cold, they radiate something of the religious fervour of the persons represented. Although they are no longer with us, it is as though the piety they once practised endures over time; they continue to pray and their faith to catechize.

But what is the purpose of a tomb if not to house the remains of those who once lived? Well, the medieval people made these burial vaults into monuments of Catholic hope. They could make the words of St. Paulinus of Nola their own: “For me, the only art is faith; and Christ, my poetry.”1 In that period of history, art was catechesis!

Emperors and kings, princes and princesses, bishops and knights, all lie with their corresponding insignia and their hands in prayer. Curiously, the notes of sadness and melancholy that accompany death are absent; the images are forgetful of the evils of life and the cruel agony undergone, as if unconcerned with the superfluous. From these moments of suffering, the medieval soul retains only seriousness and composure, as the inalienable fruits of pain accepted with joy.

In short, these countenances seem to be telling us that what matters in this life is to die well.

The gisants also speak of hope, reminding us of an important aspect of our definitive destiny: the final resurrection, when souls will regain their bodies. In fact, for those who leave this world in friendship with God, that is, in a state of grace, death is not the end, but the transit to life without end.

“Gisants” of kings and queens of France

What other lesson does the medieval gisant offer us?

The custom of building mortuary monuments goes back a long way. Just think of the sarcophagi of ancient Egypt. These people believed in the regeneration of human life after death, which is why they developed an elaborate process for preserving corpses in precious coffins.

Both these ancient tombs and the gisants of the middle ages serve as a postscript to an era. In fact, the way a given civilization considers death demonstrates its way of living. Naturally, the difference between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a medieval gisant is tremendous.

The funerary monuments of the Egyptians deserve attention and study. However, despite the mummies’ age-old immobility, there is something perennially uncomfortable about them. They are “wrapped up” in unknowns that have never been clarified. From the sepulchral silence in which they lie, their sarcophagi do not fail to express one last word for history, with a certain restlessness, as if to acknowledge: “Immortality, we have not found it. Where is it?”

“Gisant” of Robert II, Count of Artois – Basilica of Saint-Denis, France

The medieval gisants, on the other hand, rest placidly. The light of Divine Revelation falls upon them, under the tutelage of the Church. Their post scriptum is defined: an authentic testament of faith in the triumph of Our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death.

The dead buried within them rest in Christ: they sleep in peace until rising with their bodies to eternal glory. 



1 ST. PAULINUS OF NOLA. Poema XX: PL 61, 552.



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