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The image of an unknown young woman is an example of a coffin portrait: a special genre of portraits that emerged in close relation with the funeral customs in the Baroque period.

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The image of an unknown young woman is an example of a coffin portrait: a special genre of portraits that emerged in close relation with the funeral customs in the Baroque period. The most distinct feature pointing to the use of such portraits in funeral ceremonies is their characteristic hexagonal shape which reflects the outline of the shorter side of the coffin. When exhibiting the body in the church, the portrait was attached to the coffin so that those who came to say their last goodbye could see it. The deceased in coffin portraits are always depicted in the living, and their images are usually characterised by high doses of realism. The painter’s talent was used here to achieve the most faithful similarity to the figure so as to emphasise the deceased person’s presence during funeral ceremonies.
Unfortunately, written sources do not state whether coffin portraits were prepared when the model was alive or whether they were prepared after their death. They were usually painted on a metal sheet with the shining metallic background left unpainted.
Coffin portraits belong to the complex funeral ceremony which appeared in Poland in the modern era. The threat of death, the vanity of worldliness and the passing of time were frequent motifs in Baroque art, so the Art of Old Poland Gallery in the Bishop Erazm Ciołek Palace devoted a separate room called the “Room of Death” to exhibits related to this theme. Shrouded in darkness, the room offers stirring music from that epoch, and, apart from the coffin portraits, one can see many interesting works here illustrating the theme of vanitas.

Elaborated by Tomasz Zaucha, PhD (The National Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved

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Coffin portrait of a young woman

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