Object of the Month: Monument to Lady Elizabeth Nightingale

My name is Susan Jenkins, I am the Curator of Westminster Abbey and it is my great pleasure to introduce you to one of my favourite objects here, the marble funerary monument to Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1704-31) and her husband John (1696-1752). It was made in 1761 by the sculptor Louis François Roubiliac (1702-62) and was one of his last creations before his death in 1762.

Of course, Westminster Abbey is the national home of around 600 amazing works of monumental sculpture and we are currently cataloguing them to bring them to life for a new generation.

‘The Nightingale monument’ is in a side chapel – St Michael’s Chapel, off the north transept. Despite its compact size and side-chapel location, it commands attention through its exquisite detailing and powerful drama. The partially-shrouded skeletal figure of death issues menacingly from the crypt and aims his spear at Elizabeth’s heart as her horrified husband helplessly tries to ward off the threat with his outstretched arm. In fact, Elizabeth died giving birth to their premature daughter Elizabeth, apparently induced by a flash of lightning, which is perhaps referenced by Death’s spear.

Roubiliac has produced a touching masterwork of pathos and drama, using two different coloured marbles. The figures are sculpted in white Carrara marble and the base is made up of a darker marble that alternates in bands with white marble tooled to resemble rusticated stone. The sculptor has done his utmost to convince us of the dynamic properties of the monument, willing us by his virtuosity to forget the immoveable properties of its material. He has created a sculptural masterpiece of true Rococo movement.

Please come and make a tour of Westminster Abbey so that you can experience our impressive monuments by Roubiliac for yourself. And whilst you are here, do take the time to visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, where you can see the small terracotta model Roubiliac made as his working design for the Nightingale monument – with an etched scale up the side. I promise you, you won’t regret the experience. See you here!
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