The gentry coffin portrait

Polish historical painting cannot boast such achievements as the Dutch art, but in one respect it is unique on a global scale. The talk is about a coffin painting, very characteristic for the Polish gentry of the XVI-XVII centuries.

A coffin portrait was already created in antiquity – in Egypt of the Ptolemy dynasty (the famous portraits of Fajum). After centuries it was reborn only in Poland. Its protoplast was a tiny, measuring only 18.2 x 13.2 cm, oval image of the deceased king Stephen Batory (who died in 1586), which was attached to his coffin. The image did not play any significant role at that time, but the nobility had liked it so much that after short time it became a very important part of the gentry’s funeral ceremony.

Stanisław Woysza, 1617

The funeral ceremonies

The noble’s funeral was prepared very carefully, often for several months (so the family could arrive from the distant places), and was held with a big pomp, as a great, dark death spectacle. The coffin was carried around the church, special wooden gates were built and lit by torches, and everything was decorated with skeletons and other symbols of death. The cost of this theatrum funebris was so high that the family was sometimes forced to sell ancestral jewelry or a village to provide a proper burial.

An important element of the ceremony was the symbolic presence of the deceased: up to the early 17th century the dead person was symbolized by his double, dressed in his clothes, later the double was replaced by a coffin portrait. Such portrait was placed at the front of the coffin or directly at the coffin.

Jan Karol Opaliński, 1695; Museum “Zamek Opalińskich” in Sieraków; photo: Tadan

The coffin was put on a catafalque, around which were placed heraldic shields, laudatory tables and decorations symbolizing death (skulls, skeletons), as well as statues of saints. The wealthy one could afford even a canopy.

Photo: Łukasz Bednaruk, archives of the Museum of the Międzyrzecz Land in Międzyrzecz

The whole construction was called castrum doloris, what means “the castle of suffering” (this was not a typical Polish invention however). After the mass, portraits were hung in churches or manors.

The remains of the noble burial tradition are tin cartouche epitaphs, which at the time of the funeral were nailed to the coffin on the feet side of the deceased. In XIX and XX centuries those epitaphs were attached to the wooden or metal cemetery crosses. They are now used on the temporary crosses put on the graves until the gravestone is made.

The coffin portrait

The coffin portrait had been in use since the beginning of the 17th century (the biggest popularity is circa 1675) to the beginning of the 19th century. The last portrait dates back to 1809. It was usually painted on a zinc or lead sheet, rarely on silver or brass one. To preserve paint from slipping of the plate the garlic juice was used. The shape and size of the sheet were adjusted to the coffin in its cross-section, and it was typically a hexagon or an octagon with dimensions of 40 x 40 cm or 50 x 50 cm, though the larger ones could also be made.

The unknown man / Jan Gniewosz

The image of the deceased was very realistic – it was not embellished, and thus faithfully reflects personality and nature of the dead person. Since the portrait was painted in the last moments of life or just after death, the face often shows traces of illness. The 17th century portrait features a lot of simplification of the face details – the face had to be expressive and well visible from a distance. The picture is also flat and lacking perspective. Special attention was paid to the eyes – the dead person looked directly at the participants of the funeral, and his argute gaze is impressive even today.

Piotr Adam Opaliński, 1682; Museum in Sieraków; photo: Tadan

An important feature of the coffin portrait is the great attention to the meticulous rendering of the details of the dress (very adorned) and hairstyles. Women often look like they are going to the ball, they wear valuable jewelry,

Barbara Domicela Grudzińska, 1675

fascinating are their headdresses.

Barbara Domicela Szczawińska

These paintings perfectly show the current fashion.

Ewa Bronikowska, 1672

In the 18th century the coffin portrait is clearly changing, and the harshness and simplicity are replaced by the more sophisticated painting technique. There is three-dimensional light, the dead does not look straight ahead, and sometimes even smiles gently. The shape of the sheet ceases to reflect the appearance of the coffin, the portrait becomes more decorative. The portrait itself is often only a copy of the previous images so loses its uniqueness.


The artistic value of the noble coffin portrait varies. Wealthier families could afford a good painter, but the average nobleman had to use the services of not-so-skilled guild painters. Because of the mass demand for such a portrait there were not enough good artists to do the work. So some portraits are excellent, but most do not have great artistic value. Anyway, they are all beautiful as show real people. it is a pity that many were lost: they were robbed or silver ones were minted.

Unknown man, Olkusz

Coffin image collections are among others in following churches or museums:

  • Museum of the Międzyrzecz Land in Międzyrzecz – the largest collection
  • National Museum in Warsaw, Poznan, Cracow,
  • Archdiocese Museum in Gniezno and Poznan,
  • Museum of the Wilanow Palace,
  • Diocesan Museum of Church Art in Sandomierz,
  • State Collection of Art at Wawel Castle
  • churches and monasteries in Krakow, Łowicz, Olkusz, Osieczna, Piotrków Trybunalski, Poznan, Torun, Tuczyn, Wieluń, Wschowa

as well as in Ukraine:

  • the Lviv Picture Gallery
  • the Lviv Historical Museum

Chlebowska / The unknown woman, Rawicz

Renata Głuszek

Published: October 30, 2017

Read also: The 1st November, Death in the Netherlands

2 thoughts on “The gentry coffin portrait

  1. I have a coffin portrait, but wondering if there is a resource to identify the person in the painting. It appears to be oil paint on tin. Thank you

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