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Till Death Do We Part: Love, Art, and Funerary Monuments

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme.  Something must be in the air this month because we’re discussing LOVE in art.  Check out all the stories below!

Maria Theresa's tomb

The Tomb of Maria Theresa & Francis I, Kaisergruft, Vienna. Despite his infidelity, Empress Maria Theresia of Austro-Hungary was deeply devoted to her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. She designed their dual tomb with portrait busts that would forever gaze at each other. (Photo: Gregg, flickr)

Romantic pursuit, courtship, and love in general whether between Gods and Goddesses, royals, or peasants, is a common theme in art history.  Universally appealing and understood, it crosses cultures and time periods.  While it’s interesting to infer attitudes from the images used, we have to extrapolate from these ideal pictures to see what “love” was like for everyday people.  Studying mortuary monuments are one little glimpse into these romantic relationships.  Some memorials are so personal and meaningful, we can’t help but feel the love these couples shared.

Adorable Etruscan Couples

Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses Rome

A happy couple atop the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, Etruscan 520 BC, National Etruscan Museum, Rome, originally discovered in the necropolis of Cerveteri. (Photo: Wikicommons)

The Etruscans of ancient Italy often entombed their cremated dead in sarcophagi that featured a recumbent figure of the deceased on the lid.  These casual, charming depictions show the individual as if reclining for their own funeral banquet and in many cases smiling.  Now while the ancient Greeks downplayed the role of women in society and the Romans considered marriage mainly a social contract, Etruscan funerary art shows us a very different attitude about romantic relationships.

Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses, Louvre

“Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, terracotta, 520-510 BC (Photo: Louvre)

It is common to find “couple tombs” in which the husband and wife are shown reclining together atop their shared sarcophagi.  Entwined for eternity, the man is shown with his arm around the woman pouring an offering of oil into her hands.  The Louvre in Paris and the National Etruscan Museum, Rome each have marvelous 6th century BC terracotta examples of this so called “Sarcophagus of the Spouses“.  Given that single male and female Etruscan tombs can also be found, I have to think that these couple tombs were specially chosen by their occupants or by surviving family who knew their relationship very well.

Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses, MFA Boston

300 years later, these examples from the Museum of Fine Art in Boston show us that Etruscan Spouse Sarcophagus design has progressed significantly but that the sentiment is still the same. (left) Parents and (right) their son and his wife. (Photo: MFA Conservation)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two later Etruscan spouse tombs (4-3th century BC) that, in addition to being more artistically sophisticated, show an even greater intimacy between these immortal couples.  Decoration along the sides of the tomb shown on the left above suggests that the husband died before the wife and he is now greeting her in the afterlife.  Atop the tomb, they are clasped tight but tender eternal embrace – even if their feet are sticking out from under the covers.  The tomb on the right belongs to this couple’s son who appears to have been just as lucky in love.  While the design appears to be very influenced by classical Greek art, the Etruscan concepts of male and female equality and of romantic love are very evident.

Widow First, Queen Second

Prince Albert memorial canopy

Central canopy and statue from the Prince Albert Memorial, London. (Photo: JH, flickr)

No era in history has ever been as overshadowed by the love and loss of a single relationship as England in the second half of the 19th century.  The premature death of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha at 42 years of age sent his wife Queen Victoria into a permanent state of mourning.  While she proved to be a powerful and decisive leader on her own, her 64 year reign was filled with constant visual reminders of her beloved Albert.

Prince Albert memorial statue, London

Prince Albert statue from his memorial in Kensington Park (Photo: WJPrior, flickr)

While there are numerous memorials to Prince Albert including those in Liverpool, Grimsby, and Manchester, the greatest monument Victoria commissioned in honor of her husband is the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London completed in 1871.  The outer parameter of the monument is marked by four large allegorical statue groupings each representing a continent.  The inner parameter around the canopy is decorated with four allegorical groupings presenting the industrial arts.  An ornate Gothic canopy shades a golden statue of Albert which rests on a large freize of poets and artists in the company of the Muses.

Asia grouping Prince Albert memorial

Asia grouping from the Prince Albert Memorial (Photo: Mark Ehr, flickr)

You could also argue that a better monument to his memory is actually the Royal Albert Hall which she also opened in 1871 and still hosts concerts and other performances just across the street from his beautiful neo-Gothic shrine.  Either way, Victoria made sure that her Albert was properly remembered.

Albert memorial and Royal Albert Hall

The Prince Albert Memorial across the street from the Royal Albert Hall. (Photo: wikicommons)

Upon her death and per her instructions, Victoris’s body was dressed in white and adorned with her wedding veil.  She was interred beside Albert at Frogmore Estate beside Windsor Castle.  Victoria’s long life as a widow dressed in black was finally over and she returned as a bride to her Albert.

The Most Beautiful Monument to Love

Taj Mahal, India

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India. The massive tomb complex was completed in 1648.  It took another 5 years to complete the gardens. (Photo: Wikicommons)

One of the most beautiful structures in the world is also fitting a funerary monument inspired by love.  In 1631, Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of the Shah died in childbirth.  Accord to legend, his hair turned completely white overnight from his grief.  In order to properly entomb his beloved wife, Shah Jahan, Maghal Emperor, commissioned the Taj Mahal which took 16 years to complete.

Taj Mahal outside architecture detail

Close up on some of the outer details of the Taj Mahal showing the architectural elements. (Photo: Steve Evans, flickr)

As an hybrid of Persian Islamic architectural and Hindu decorative elements, the Taj Mahal represents the best of Mughal art.  The brilliant white marble stand out against the nearby red fort and red gate.  Fine inset floral patterns of semi-precious stone and carved plants enhance the luxury of the interior without distracting from the purity of the building design.

Carved flower detail Taj Mahal

A carved flower detila from the interior of the Taj Mahal. (Photo: Maja, flickr)

inlaid flower detail Taj Mahal

The interior and exterior of the Taj Mahal is decroated with colorful flower inlays which use semi-precious stone. (Photo: Didi, flickr)

Marble Flowers Taj Mahal interior detail

Inlaid stone and carved flowers from the interior of the Taj Mahal. (Photo: Wikicommons)

When you visit, it’s important to know that the elaborate tombs in the center of the structure are actually cenotaphs, or false tombs.  The bodies of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lay quietly together in a rather unadorned crypt that is not open to visitors.

Taj Mahal Tombs in crypt

The actual tombs in the crypt of the Taj Mahal. (Photo: Wikicommons)

For the rest of the February ArtSmart Roundtable, check out:

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Those Etruscan tombs with the entwined couples are so moving. One of my favourite tomb sculptures has always been the Tomb Of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca because I think she is sculpted with such care that someone simply must have loved her, I think I could look at it all day. But the Etruscan tombs are something else entirely they are so tender and loving you are seeing a monument to a whole relationship thank you for sharing them!


    February 2, 2015
  2. What a great idea for this theme. I love those Etruscan tombs and love your photos and description of the Taj Mahal as a monument to love.


    February 6, 2015
  3. I really enjoyed your interpretation of this month’s topic Christina!
    These are really great examples. It made me think of moments where I’ve encountered funerary monuments – 2 I can recall off the top of my head. One was in Kilkenny, Ireland where I found a touching tombstone that looked a lot like your Couples Sarcophagus’. The second was while I was roaming in Paris. I still don’t know what the grounds belonged to but there was a small off shoot of the building. I peered inside of the door windows where I saw two tombs with marble figures. One of a man reclining on top staring towards a woman’s tomb where she was reclined gazing back at him. It was clear they were married and wanted to remain that way after death as well.


    February 18, 2015
    • Thanks! There are definitely other examples of “spouse” tombs. It’s touching to see couples still depicted together from other eras. 🙂


      February 23, 2015

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