Education And Debate

Dead body with mourners: medical reflections on the entombment of Christ

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 24 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:215
  1. Johan P Mackenbach, professor (
  1. 1Department of Public Health, Erasmus MC, University Medical Center Rotterdam, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, Netherlands

    Illness and early death were common in the Middle Ages, and in the absence of effective medical treatment religion was important in helping people cope with the harshness of life. Meditation on depictions of Jesus's suffering stimulated compassion and may thereby have helped lay the foundations for modern health care

    Sculptures of the burial of Christ were popular throughout western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The genre was part of a more general obsession with death that partly arose from the poor health conditions. The sculptures provided an ideal of dignified behaviour for mourners and may have helped replace the popular taste for the macabre with the positive force of compassion, not only towards Jesus but towards sick and dying people generally.

    Depiction of the entombment

    The entombment of Christ is one of several standard representations of Jesus's suffering and death at the hands of the Romans. Other frequently painted or sculpted scenes include the flagellation, man of sorrow (Jesus sitting with the crown of thorns on his head), crucifixion, deposition from the cross, and pietà (the dead Jesus lying on Mary's knees).1 The genre of the entombment is thought to have originated in Flanders in the early 15th century, from where it spread to the north east of France (Burgundy and Lorraine) and then to other parts of western Europe. Three hundred and eighty seven monumental entombments have been documented in France, 28 in Belgium, over 20 in Germany, about 60 in Italy, and 25 in Spain.2 3

    One of the best examples of a sculpture of an entombment is in Chaource, a small town in the Champagne region of France. The old church has a crypt that can be entered through a small door flanked by two, more than full size, Roman soldiers. Dim light flows from a …

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