Coffin portraits have been around for a long time. 17th and 18th century coffin portraits on display at Poland’s National Museum in Warsaw, for example, realistic portrait of a deceased person that had first been placed on his or her coffin for the funeral service. Afterwards it was removed before the burial to become a family keepsake.
These works of funerary art were often painted on sheet metal, such as copper and shaped to fit on the narrow end of the coffin above the head. Where possible, a coat of arms or family crest was also included. Following removal, the image could also be hung in the church where the family congregated. Research also suggests that the portraits were created to leave the impression that the deceased was taking part in their own funeral.
Although such artistic – and often lavish – renderings were most common among Polish nobles, the coffins of the poor also often had coffin portraits. These, however, were simple and often with no artistic merit. In all cases, these were filled with historical significance, such as clothing, jewelry and more.
Unfortunately, many coffin portraits were stolen from churches and monasteries and then melted down. Others were destroyed or decomposed over time.
Photo credit: Coffin portrait of Jan Gniewosz, c. 1700, oil on tin plate. Signature: I.[an] G.[niewosz] N.[a] O.[oleksowie] K.[asztelan] C.[zchowski]/ English: Jan Gniewosz [lord] of Oleksow, castellan of Czchow.