Montaigne's tomb

Probably by Prieur and Guillerman, two Bordeaux ornamentists, 1593.

For nearly a century, successive generations of students at the former Bordeaux Faculty of Sciences and Letters in Cours Pasteur were welcomed by Montaigne's tomb, which occupied the centre of the entrance hall.

One can imagine how the four death's heads crowned with laurel wreaths that decorate the tomb reminded them each day of the vanity of human ambition: "Why glorify you, earth and ashes[1]?"

More prosaically, the recumbent statue became a kind of good-luck charm. The ritual during the examination period consisted of touching his foot to attract the support – and knowledge – of the illustrious man!

The tomb is in fact a cenotaph; in other words a monument erected to the glory of the dead person but which does not contain their body. It was sculpted in 1593, a year after his death on the request of his wife, Françoise de la Chassaigne, probably by Prieur and Guillerman, two Bordeaux ornamentists. Its location in the former university faculty, then in the Museum of Aquitaine which succeeded it in the early 1980s is perfectly legitimate. Montaigne was buried in the Convent of the Feuillants constructed on the site in the late Middle Ages.

The image of Montaigne which this cenotaph offers us is somewhat surprising. He is represented recumbent, clothed in armour in the medieval style, even though the fashion of the period in funerary art had already replaced recumbent figures by upright ones, which would have probably been better suited to his representation as the Mayor of Bordeaux or as a writer rather than as a man of arms.  According to the specialists, this choice is not insignificant: it was the recent nobility of Montaigne's family (1519) that was being emphasised rather than his intellectual qualities, as if social recognition was more important than any other. An epitaph is engraved on each side of the tomb. That in Latin, on the decorated part, is considered as the official epitaph; as was common in that period, it traces the ancestry of the deceased, the roles he had occupied and his human qualities. The other epitaph is in Greek, in which Montaigne ostensibly addresses the reader directly to remind him with some emphasis how successfully he himself had climbed to the top of the social tree. Where one would expect words about the meaning of life and death, we instead read the self-glorification of a man, and it is unlikely that the author of the Essais would have recognised himself in this text. In line with medieval iconography, at Montaigne's feet is a lion symbolising the courage of the deceased. The lion is unusual in that it has two tongues, which experts interpret as a reference to the two intellectual languages mastered by the philosopher: Greek and Latin. But it may also be a reference to his two native tongues: Latin and Gascon!

[1] This quotation is one of the 57 sentences engraved on the beams of the Montaigne's library.


Montaigne's tomb (c) mairie de Bordeaux