What will survive of us
April 21, 2014 § 4 Comments
Several days ago I visited Chichester – a first for me, which is slightly shameful given a. how close it is to London (well, to someone who still has a somewhat American conception of distances) and b. it has both a great cathedral and a very fine art gallery.
What I was most excited about seeing in the cathedral, however, was something I had known about for years, but from a poem rather than a photograph – the Arundel tomb. And while I wouldn’t dream of trying to outdo Larkin’s verse with a humble blog post, I will say that I was floored by the spark of recognition I felt when I happened upon the tomb in a chapel halfway up the north side of the nave – despite never having seen an image of it I felt as if I’d known it forever. No exaggeration to say that I spent longer with that tomb than with all the other monuments in the cathedral combined.
I’ve been wondering since then wherein the tomb’s power lies. Perhaps it’s only that I’ve been preconditioned by Larkin to have my heartstrings pulled by the knight and his lady holding hands for eternity, but I think that might be an oversimplification. I think, actually, that it has something to do with the quality of the sculpture – or the lack thereof.
The Arundel tomb isn’t a great piece of sculpture. Medievalists can be pretty snobby about it (step forward, Ian Nairn). They’re not wrong: I’ve seen far more elegant gisants at St-Denis and the cathedrals of Tours and Alcobaça, masterpieces of the sculptor’s art. It’s pedestrian and very much the worse for age – the features of both figures softened to stolid anonymity, the limbs rigid and stylised, more like those of lay figures than of humans. And yet…
Would those three seemingly casual but all-important details – the cant of the lady’s hip as she turns toward her husband, the discarded gauntlet in his left hand, and the clasped hands – retain such piercing poignancy if the sculptures were more finely detailed and gracefully made?
I very much doubt it.
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
(Philip Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, 1964)