Painted Medieval Burial Vaults Surface In Belgium

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Painted Medieval Burial Vaults Surface In Belgium

Excavations at the Church of Our Lady in the heart of historic Bruges, Belgium, have unearthed a third medieval burial vault. Just like the first one

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Excavations at the Church of Our Lady in the heart of historic Bruges, Belgium, have unearthed a third medieval burial vault. Just like the first one discovered back in May, this one also features highly-detailed painted biblical scenes.

Recent excavations in West-Flanders, at the Notre-Dame de Bruges Cathedral, have now unearthed three decorated medieval burial vaults. Two were discovered in May this year and another has just been unearthed during a dig that took place before construction of a new underground pumping station begins.

Burial vault unearthed in excavation of cemetery of Notre-Dame de Bruges. ( Raakvlak)

The find was announced on Friday by the BAAC Vlaanderen consultancy and the intercommunal archaeological service Raakvlak, who are controlling the dig. The press release says the skeletal remains of around 50 individuals have now been excavated from the remains of the painted stone boxes in which they were buried.

Medieval Rush Jobs Make For Hard Work

A report on Archaeology News Network explains that the first two masonry vaults were discovered less than a week into pre-construction archaeological excavations back in May. One tomb was found to be “richly decorated” with brightly painted murals on its interior walls. All of the main figural arts have been sprinkled with red flowers and red crosses “ bottony,” which are square-shaped crosses with thin bars terminating in trefoils. Based on the religious imagery and painting style, this first tomb was dated to the late 14th century.

Angel with censer and bottony design on the long side of burial vault (Raakvlak)

Angel with censer and bottony design on the long side of burial vault ( Raakvlak)

Before we get into the nature of the majestical painted artworks, it is important to take into account that these vaults were built in a hurry. An article on The History Blog explains that the burial vaults were medieval “rush jobs because in the 14th century bodies were always buried within 24 hours of death.” This meant bricklayers, masons, plasterers and painters were all working against the clock. Subsequently, the lime plaster on the vault walls failed to dry properly and this led the archaeologists describing the condition of the painted burial boxes as “challenging.”

Calvary scene at the head of painted burial vault. (Raakvlak)

Calvary scene at the head of painted burial vault. ( Raakvlak)

Biblical Arts For The Other Side

Both sides of the first discovered rectangular stone vault are illustrated with angels swinging censers (incense burners). The shortest end (feet end) of the ancient burial vault depicts the biblical scene at Calvary (or Golgotha). Blood runs from a crucified and speared Jesus while his mother Mary is featured to his right, and the apostle John stands on his left. At the widest end of this vault a depiction of “ Sedes sapientiae ,” which in Roman Catholic tradition means “Seat or Throne of Wisdom,” referring to Mary when depicted on a throne with the child Jesus in her arms. A 3D model of the first painted vault has already been completed which you can watch here on Sketchfab.

3D imaging of the latest burial vault to be excavated, provided by Sketchfab

3D imaging of the latest burial vault to be excavated, provided by Sketchfab

The second vault was only partially painted, but the third, that was unearthed only last week, is highly-decorated similarly to the first discovered vault. Again, two angels wave censers in the air amidst florals and cross motifs and at the short (head) end of the box, another Crucifixion scene depicts Mary and John beside the crucified Christ.

Furthermore, another depiction of Sedes sapientiae  is featured opposite. This latest tomb has also been dated to the later part of the 14th century, but it is thought be slightly younger than the previous two vaults discovered back in May.

Sedes sapientiae scene at the foot of painted burial vault (Raakvlak)

Sedes sapientiae scene at the foot of painted burial vault ( Raakvlak)

It’s Time To Raise The Dead, Well, At least Their Burial Vaults!

The archaeologists say the murals studied in the first vault discovered in May are better conserved than in the second. Now, to best preserve the paintings and the burial vaults, a team of conservators have cleaned the artworks and as soon as they were photographed and documented in situ, the vaults were infilled to prevent further environmental erosion. However, they won’t be staying there for long.

A model of the second painted vault will soon let the conservators strategize on their next, rather audacious step, which is to lift all three tombs from the site for further study and conservation. This will all be carried out after serious risk assessment has been conducted to assess any potential damage that might he caused to the delicate, 600-year-old, painted biblical scenes.

Top image: Various biblical images that are painted on the burial vault found in Bruges. Source: Raakvlak

By Ashley Cowie

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