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THEOLOGY

British carved cadaver sculptures were not meant to be a replica of the actual individual as they were, or might be, at death. They were symbolic of (showed) the person’s inner spirituality. This is because in the Gospel of Matthew we find that: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (19:24).

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And those commemorated with a carved cadaver were all very wealthy; we know this from records about some of the people and because the sculptures cost a huge amount of money including the cost of the stone or wood, the sculpting work, and the materials to polychrome (paint) it; they were painted to look life-like. This sculpture of Bishop Chichele (in Canterbury Cathedral) was repainted in 1897 but gives an indication of the flesh-coloured skin.

The sculptures also petitioned (asked for) prayers from priests and visitors to the churches and cathedrals where they were placed. These prayers helped to make the after-death sufferings easier. After death everyone, except saints and the damned, went to Purgatory to remove (purge) their forgivable earthly sins. Purgatory was where people purged (cleansed) their forgivable or minor sins. These included greed, and sloth (deliberate laziness); recently uncovered and restored medieval wall paintings at St. Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan, show these sins; their website includes images - see www.stcadocs.org.uk.

The church also has a wall painting of a young man being taken by death. This image bridges the Three Living/Three Dead and Dance of Death style of memento mori (remember you will die) art with the carved cadavers; note that the corpse is in his shroud.

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It was thought that Purgatory was like hell with terrible pains, although they were only temporary as eventually one would gain entry to the Kingdom of God. However, no one knew how long they would suffer in Purgatory, possibly thousands of years. There were several ways to reduce the time or pains, in Purgatory. These including going on pilgrimage, giving to the poor, buying indulgences (a certificate pardoning certain sins), and praying for the dead. A number of the sculpted carved cadavers appear to have had inscriptions asking people to pray for the person memorialised. Remembering you would die (memento mori) was important and as few people could read visual means of passing on the message was crucial.

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Carved cadavers date to the late-medieval and very early modern period, and this site largely explores those found in England, Wales, and Scotland. These date from c.1425 to c.1558.  I have mapped their locations and details of each.