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Immortality begins from the end

· Sculpture and funerary art from ancient Egypt to Bernini ·

The Italian edition of Erwin Panofsky’s 1964 essays

Today, the need to establish constructive relationships with death and with the dead is often overlooked, unsatisfied and covered in taboo. One cannot but favorably welcome, therefore, the publication in Italian of Erwin Panofsky’s book, originally published in 1964, La Scultura Funeraria , dall’Antico Egitto a Bernini (Tomb Sculpture: Its Changing Aspects, from Ancient Egypt to Bernini, Torino, Einaudi, 2011, pp xxxviii – 162, euro 40).

Tombs, mausoleums, cenotaphs, sarcophagi, urns, tombstones, lapidaries, chapels, stones and headstones, marble epitaphs and monuments are in fact the surfaces upon which funeral art was expressed, using sculpture and at times, architecture.

The period covered by the book extends from Ancient Egypt to the 17th century.

Faced with the problem of organizing such an abundance of artistic material that represents the passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, Panofsky did well to trace two dominant lines: the “prospective” approach and the “retrospective” approach. To the first belong themes of existence after death, aspirations for peace, repose, the salvation of the soul and help offered for the resurrection of the body. In the second, the themes of the glorification and commemoration of the past are found.

Observing the iconography from another point of view, a chronological one, the difference between the two worlds comes closer. Etruscan sculpture for example, presents situations of the after-life which recall aspects of Egyptian funeral sculpture. As for paleochristian funerary sculpture, the mix of Roman iconography is evident in its depiction of the past with representations of common people and positions. In these cases, the sarcophagi assume the configuration of houses, such as the “doll house.”

Continuing along chronological lines, with regard to the Christian revolution, a question that is often overlooked but is central to funerary sculpture, the author notes, “To us it seems self-evident that the history of funerary sculpture can be studied in the churches. We expect to find and in fact do find, the tombs of the Popes in St. Peters, the tombs of the bishops and archbishops in their cathedrals, the tombs of the kings of France in St. Denis, the tombs of English nobles in Westminster Abbey and the tombs of local nobles – dukes, knights, mayors, doctors, lawyers and businessmen – in their parish churches. Few of us stop to consider that it would have been impossible to bury the remains of Pericles in the Parthenon or of Julius Caesar in the Capitoline Temple of Jove.”

In the pagan era, in fact, the dead were kept far away from the sanctuaries. The custom of burial in churches or in surrounding areas to allow the buried the possibility of eternal rest, developed throughout the centuries and gave rise to the tendency to erect funerary sculptures within the churches themselves. Where there was a problem of space, architecture offered the solution in the form of lapidaries, vaults and memento mori .




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020