There is a fashion for all things human, a style that comes, stays for a little while, and goes away, while another comes to replace it.
The 15th century marks the beginning of a new fashion in funerary art, the art of dying, not quite the art of how to die, but what to look like after you’ve died. There’s a fashion for the living, another for the dead.
The new funerary style consisted of carved effigies of elite men and women, but especially women, lying in perpetual peace, dressed in elite attire, and holding an open book laying on their chest, as though reading from it. The book is almost always a sacred volume, a Psalter or a book of prayer, a symbol of piety and devotion. This representation was carved in stone and placed on top of the sarcophagus. Countless examples survive across Europe.
It is easy to understand the scene, even without much religious literacy. The person wishes to be remembered in death, before men and before God, as the sum of exemplary living, a commitment to a life without sin and under grace. Reading the word of God present in the book would contribute to the person’a salvation and to his or her memory as a role model, encouraging the audiences to imitate their performance. Performative art, timeless fashion, etc. These ideas may be multiplied and glossed on ad infinitum, but there is something else at play here. The book itself.
The word of God contained in the book is eternal, but aren’t all words eternal? Isn’t the written word, that fragile meaning couched in something humbler than a drawing, a leap into the future, a defiance raised against time, a promise made before others, the readers, the witnesses, those whose responsibility, though unsought for, is to copy that word, giving it new life?
The word lives in eternity mode, its vocation is to connect and extend, its power none, its weakness radical. The open book laying on the woman’s chest, the words carved out of a block of limestone or marble, is there to call us to itself, to invite us to forget about the present for an instant, and to plunge into the unknown. That’s something every reader will recognise as a familiar experience.