Tomb, a memorial for the dead at the place of burial, customary, especially for distinguished persons, among nearly all peoples. It is of much importance in the history of art because the development of plastic art can be traced almost in its entirety by means of tombs, for the tombs, having, as a rule, been erected in churches, are better preserved. Apart from the sepulchral slabs in the Catacombs, sarcophagi ornamented with portraits, and scattered examples of mausolea, tombs may be divided into four special classes.
The first class consists of tombs with recumbent tombstones; among such are the stone or metal plates inserted in the flooring of churches. These are the oldest Christian monuments. Originally, at least in Germany, they were ornamented with a cross having a long shaft; from the eleventh century they also bore the figure of the deceased. The monumental metal plate of the tomb of King Rudolph of Swabia (d. 1081), in the cathedral of Merseburg, is of this era. During the Gothic period an engraved brass plate was the favorite sepulchral monument, while the Renaissance returned to the plate cast in relief, such as the plates by Peter Vischer of Nuremberg.
The second class consists of detached altar-tombs, that is, a raised tomb containing the body of the deceased. One variety rises like a table above the place of burial. Romanesque art generally left the side walls of the altar-tomb without ornament, while Gothic art adorned them with numerous small figures, as those of relatives, mourners, praying figures, and allegorical forms. On the lid the deceased was represented at full length. Numerous examples are to be found in all the medieval cathedrals and monastic churches. Even England, where there are but scanty plastic remains, has a rich treasure of such monuments. Probably no altar-tomb is more celebrated than that of Emperor Maximilian at Innsbruck. Another worthy of mention is Charles the Bold’s tomb at Dijon by Claus Sluter. More elaborate monuments have frequently an additional structure above and around them, as a baldachin, e.g. the tomb of the Della Scala at Verona; chiefly that of Cansignorio (d. 1375). During the Renaissance the baldachin assumed an entirely monumental form, almost that of a triumphal arch; fine examples are the monuments of Galleazzo Visconti in the Certosa at Pavia and of Francis I at Saint-Denis.
The third class may be called mural tombs, that is, altar—tombs set originally in a niche against a wall, and later raised upon pillars, caryatides, or a solid understructure. They were decorated on all sides with rich plastic ornamentation. They were customary as early as the Gothic period and attained their highest development in Italy, where the inordinate craving for fame and the longing to be remembered by posterity led to the production of those magnificent sepulchral monuments for physicians, lawyers, professors, statesmen, and, by no means last, prelates, which fill the churches from Venice to Naples. During the period of the early Renaissance it was a favorite custom to place a recumbent statue of the deceased upon a state bed or a sarcophagus and to set this at a moderate height; this structure is surrounded by standing or kneeling angels who draw back a curtain of the niche in which the Madonna is often visible. A fine example is the tomb of Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444) in Santa Croce at Florence. During the late Renaissance undue consideration was paid to architecture, as in the sepulchral monument of Giovanni Pesaro in the Frari church at Venice. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the art of sculpture obtained again a greater opportunity in the treatment of tombs, but unfortunately only in the monotonous Baroque style. Hardly more than the figure of the deceased was brought into prominence. It was placed within an altar of similar style or upon a broad podium and was surrounded by all kinds of symbolical figures in the most daring positions. In a material sense these tombs are often very fine but they frequently lack the desired spiritual earnestness and repose.
The fourth class consists of hanging sepulchral monuments (memorial tablets). These occur as early as Gothic art in the form of funeral escutcheons and coats of arms made of wood or leather; and are especially prominent in the period of the Rococo and Baroque styles. Besides the altar-shaped tablet often constructed in several stories, the cartouche containing a portrait of the deceased was very popular in sepulchral monuments of this class.
Since the modern era put an end nearly everywhere to the burial of the dead within the church building, a new form of sepulchral art has gradually developed; it has produced works of the greatest beauty in all countries, but has also shown great perversions of the artistic sense, especially in Italy where the tendency is more to an excess of technic than to the conception of the eternal. The finest sepulchral monument of modern times is perhaps the one designed by A. Bartholomé and erected at Père Lachaise.