The John Donne Monument (d. 1631) by Nicholas Stone
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St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Churchyard,
St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Churchyard,
Nicholas Stone’s effigy of the poet and preacher John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, is a remarkable survival of seventeenth-century English sculpture. Donne is shown standing, perched on a funerary urn, and enveloped in a body-hugging burial shroud which has been gathered into two decorative ruffs at the head and feet. Only the face, with its shuttered eyelids, raffish beard, and benign, half-smiling expression, manages to breach this unsettling cocoon. The clean, moist appearance of the drapery and the softly-nuanced modelling of the features testify to Stone’s position as the finest sculptor of the English Baroque. The statue was installed within eighteen months of its subject’s death on 31 March 1631.
Donne was the incumbent Dean of St Paul’s, and his effigy is one of the very few monumental figures to have survived, more or less intact, from the Norman cathedral which perished in the Great Fire of 1666. It is hard to credit the old story that, as flames consumed the old cathedral, the statue slid off its pedestal and torpedoed its way into the safety of the crypt. Yet it was here, half-forgotten and propped up amidst the fragments of other pre-Fire monuments, that the statue spent much of its subsequent history. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was finally resurrected in Wren’s church, south of the choir, in a place roughly analogous to that which it once occupied.
The idea of the statue’s near pristine resurrection from the ashes of firey tribulation is wholly appropriate to the statue’s iconography. In his Lives of 1658, Izaak Walton, gave a remarkable account of the statue’s genesis: in his final days, the ailing Donne sought to personally model for the statue, summoning an unnamed ‘choice painter’ to make a life-size sketch for just this purpose. Donne had a wooden pedestal roughly fashioned into the shape of an urn and proceeded to pose upon it clad in his own winding sheet:
[…] he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and death-like face, which was purposely turned towards the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.
Walton therefore implies that the intention was to show Donne newly regenerated and emergent from the grave at the moment of the Last Judgement. It thus anticipated a later vogue for ‘resurrection monuments’ in seventeenth-century England. Numerous upright shrouded effigies incorporated into such monuments as those to Henry Slingsbury at Knaresborough (1633) and John Dutton at Sherbourne, Gloucestershire (1656-7), were directly and demonstrably inspired by Donne’s monument in St Paul’s.
A handful of scholars have questioned the reliability of Walton’s story: is it feasible that a middle-aged dying man could stand, feet together, on a raised pedestal for long enough to model for a preparatory drawing? Surely any artist worth his salt would only require a likeness of the face; a stand-in could be employed for the rest. However, it is important to stress that the lost sketch, and the very act of modelling for it, were not merely by-products of the statue’s development. They should be related to the period’s predilection for contemplative death rituals designed to prepare the individual for death. Images played a vital role in this context, and it is arguable that the sketch of Donne in his shroud reflects the way in which new, idiosyncratic memento mori replaced the crucifixes and madonnas previously present at the bedsides of the dying in Protestant England.
Walton’s account has a ring of authenticity in other ways too: Donne was generally interested in art and art theory, and the idea that he was eager to become intimately involved with the creative process is plausible. There are a number of surviving portraits that reveal his fondness for effigising himself in various affected guises and attitudes. He was also not a man intent on taking death (literally) lying down, and was especially keen to make something exhibitive and performative out of his death. He wrote to a friend that ‘it hath been my desire and God may be pleased to grant it, that I might die in the Pulpit’. It was an ambition he almost achieved when, on 25 February 1631, prior to modelling for his monument and only a month away from the grave, he preached his last sermon in front of the court at Whitehall. He was in a shocking state of emaciation. Walton says that his text, which took death as its theme, was ‘prophetically chosen’ and that ‘he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice: but, mortality by a decayed body and a dying face […] Donne had preach’t his own Funeral Sermon’.
Donne’s writings also reveal a persistent preoccupation with the mechanics of the dissolution of the body and it its regeneration on the day of Judgement. Yet at the same time, he severely criticised art’s ability to properly reflect the horrors of bodily putrefaction as a preface to its miraculous rejuvenation. As a result, it may also be reasonable to assume that he intended his statue to critique the shrouded, desiccated corpses of the traditional transi tomb (especially as the latter retained contentious associations with an outmoded Catholic belief in purgatory).With this in mind, the shroud and the funerary urn of Donne’s statue operate beyond their roles as generic symbols of death. They supply a nuanced context to the upright figure, emphasising the miraculous narrative of its resurrection.
– Bald, R. C., John Donne – A Life (London, 1970).
– Bevan, J., ‘Hebdomeda Mortium: The Structure of Donne’s Last Semon’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 45:178 (May 1994), pp. 185-203.
– Foxell, N., A Sermon in Stone: John Donne and His Monument in St Paul’s Cathedral (London, 1978).
– Gardner, H.,‘Dean Donne’s Monument in St. Pauls’, in R. Wellek & A. Ribeiro (eds), Evidence in Literary Scholarship (Oxford, 1979), pp. 29-44.
– Peterson, R.S., ‘New Evidence on Donne’s Monument: I’, John Donne Journal, 20 (2001), pp. 1-51.
– Walton, I., The Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Dr. Robert Sanderson, ed. T. Zouch (New York, 1854).
Dr Philip Cottrell, University College Dublin