Funerary art

A large sculpture of six life-sized black-cloaked men, their faces obscured by their hoods, carrying a slab upon which lies the supine effigy of a knight, with hands folded together in prayer. His head rests on a pillow, and his feet on a small reclining lion.
Tomb of Philippe Pot with life sized hooded pleurants. Philippe was governor of Burgundy under Louis XI
Korean tomb mound of King Sejong the Great, d. 1450

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs ("empty tombs"), tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

The deposit of objects with an apparent aesthetic intention is found in almost all cultures—Hindu culture, which has little, is a notable exception. Many of the best-known artistic creations of past cultures—from the Egyptian pyramids and the Tutankhamun treasure, to the Terracotta Army surrounding the tomb of the Qin Emperor, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Taj Mahal—are tombs or objects found in and around them. In most instances, specialized funeral art was produced for the powerful and wealthy, although the burials of ordinary people might include simple monuments and grave goods, usually from their possessions.

An important factor in the development of traditions of funerary art is the division between what was intended to be visible to visitors or the public after completion of the funeral ceremonies.[1] The treasure of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, though exceptionally lavish, was never intended to be seen again after it was deposited, while the exterior of the pyramids was a permanent and highly effective demonstration of the power of their creators. A similar division can be seen in grand East Asian tombs. In other cultures, nearly all the art connected with the burial, except for limited grave goods, was intended for later viewing by the public or at least those admitted by the custodians. In these cultures, traditions such as the sculpted sarcophagus and tomb monument of the Greek and Roman empires, and later the Christian world, have flourished. The mausoleum intended for visiting was the grandest type of tomb in the classical world, and later common in Islamic culture.

Common terms

Tomb is a general term for any repository for human remains, while grave goods are other objects which have been placed within the tomb.[2] Such objects may include the personal possessions of the deceased, objects specially created for the burial, or miniature versions of things believed to be needed in an afterlife. Knowledge of many non-literate cultures is drawn largely from these sources.

A tumulus, mound, kurgan, or long barrow covered important burials in many cultures, and the body may be placed in a sarcophagus, usually of stone, or a coffin, usually of wood. A mausoleum is a building erected mainly as a tomb, taking its name from the Mausoleum of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Stele is a term for erect stones that are often what are now called gravestones. Ship burials are mostly found in coastal Europe, while chariot burials are found widely across Eurasia. Catacombs, of which the most famous examples are those in Rome and Alexandria, are underground cemeteries connected by tunnelled passages. A large group of burials with traces remaining above ground can be called a necropolis; if there are no such visible structures, it is a grave field. A cenotaph is a memorial without a burial.[3]

The word "funerary" strictly means "of or pertaining to a funeral or burial",[4] but there is a long tradition in English of applying it not only to the practices and artefacts directly associated with funeral rites, but also to a wider range of more permanent memorials to the dead. Particularly influential in this regard was John Weever's Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), the first full-length book to be dedicated to the subject of tomb memorials and epitaphs. More recently, some scholars have challenged the usage: Phillip Lindley, for example, makes a point of referring to "tomb monuments", saying "I have avoided using the term 'funeral monuments' because funeral effigies were, in the Middle Ages, temporary products, made as substitutes for the encoffined corpse for use during the funeral ceremonies".[5] Others, however, have found this distinction "rather pedantic".[6]

Related genres of commemorative art for the dead take many forms, such as the moai figures of Easter Island, apparently a type of sculpted ancestor portrait, though hardly individualized.[7] These are common in cultures as diverse as Ancient Rome and China, in both of which they are kept in the houses of the descendants, rather than being buried.[8] Many cultures have psychopomp figures, such as the Greek Hermes and Etruscan Charun, who help conduct the spirits of the dead into the afterlife.