This gisant figure from a Spanish tomb is dated on stylistic grounds to the first quarter of the sixteenth century. It shows an as-yet unidentified nobleman dressed in armor. Its many anomalies suggest that quite apart from being generic, the armor portrayed represents the actual armor owned by the deceased. The gauntlets, the warrior’s protective gloves, do not match, and, according to specialists, there are some visible repairs in the armor. The hat worn in lieu of a helmet helps to date the sculpture to circa 1500–25, as hat styles changed more quickly than did some other styles. The animal that traditionally should be at his feet is missing.
Gisant tombs (from the Old French verb gesir, meaning to lie horizontally) became a widespread type of royal tomb in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the form has continued into modern times. The deceased is represented as if on a bier. In the Middle Ages the figure was understood to be awaiting the Last Judgment, and by convention, no matter the age of the deceased at death, he or she was shown as thirty-three years old, the age when Christ died. As gisant sculptures became affordable for the nobility, tombs such as this one were erected in churches, usually in family chapels. These separate spaces were designed to receive the deceased and also subsequent family members. When churches were destroyed or deconsecrated, tomb sculptures from the chapels could be returned to the family, and sometimes were sold.
This figure of a recumbent knight is probably one of the most popular objects in the Museum’s collections, but much about it remains mysterious. Known as a gisant, from the Old French for “lying horizontally,” the knight is shown by convention as being thirty-three years old, the age of Jesus at his death. Beyond this, we can know little. The style of the hat—worn in lieu of a helmet, and from a time when hat styles changed frequently—is our only source of dating. But the gauntlets—the warrior’s protective gloves—do not match. Are these meant to convey an individual knight’s actual apparel? Does the sculpture come from a Spanish noble tomb? Was the chapel in which our knight originally reclined on his bier destroyed? Deconsecrated? Absent its original context, we are unlikely to answer these questions with confidence, but his undeniably human appeal, caught as if sleeping, remains intact.
James Christen Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director, Princeton University Art Museum
"Recent acquisitions," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 15, no. 1 (1956): p. 26-27.