Death of René of Chalon and tomb commission
René of Chalon, Prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre, died on 15 July 1544, aged 25, during the siege of St. Dizier where he fought for Emperor Charles V. René had been mortally wounded in battle the previous day, and died with the Emperor in attendance at his bedside. He died without leaving any direct descendants. Charles wrote soon after to René's wife, Anna of Lorraine (d. 1568), setting out in detail the circumstances of René's last hours and death. The monument apparently fulfills his wish that he be represented above this tomb as an écorché, that is a body without skin, and "as he would be three years after his death". Cadaver tombs had been built for other members of the family, including his father Henry III of Nassau-Breda, his uncle Philibert of Chalon, his grandmother, and the uncle of his wife. René requested that his tomb present him "not as a standard figure but a life-size skeleton with strips of dried skin flapping over a hollow carcass, whose right hand clutches at the empty rib cage while the left hand holds high his heart in a grand gesture".
René's intention has never been definitively attributed, and there is no mention of it in either Charles' letter or René's will. Given this lack of record and that, at only 25 years, René was unlikely to have previously thought closely about his own burial and memorial, it seems most likely that the idea behind the design came from Anna. She is known to have commissioned the piece from Ligier Richier, who was then little known outside his local area of Saint-Mihiel in north-eastern France, but is today considered one of the most important sculptors of the late Gothic period. Although the precise dating is uncertain, it is known to have begun after 1544 and was completed before 1557. The tomb has become his most well known and influential work.
In accordance with funeral rites of the time, René's heart, bowels, and bones were separated. His heart and bowels were kept at Bar-le-Duc and placed in the Collegiate Church of St. Maxe, which was demolished during the French Revolution and abandoned in 1782, while the rest were transferred to Breda to be interred with his father and his daughter, who died in early infancy. His widow commissioned Richier to construct a transi to hold some of the remains of her husband. The monument, along with other remains and relics of members of his family, were reinterred at the church of Saint-Étienne in June 1790.
Anna commissioned the tomb as a memento mori, but the level of detail she may have specified is uncertain. It is perhaps Richier's best-known work, remarkable for its original presentation of a "living corpse", a motif unparalleled in earlier funerary art. He produced one more work in a similar vein, his Death, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Both works are comparable in form and intent to the 1520s La Mort Saint-Innocent originally from the Holy Innocents' Cemetery in Paris, now in the Musee du Louvre. In that work, a realistically depicted and severely emaciated corpse raises his right hand upwards while holding a shield in his left hand.