Symbol of the month – the Lamp

 

Tombstone with sculpted lamps dedicated to Marie Cordelia Winfield who died aged 19
©Carole Tyrrell

 

I was looking for butterflies, the Marbled White to be exact, on a side path in Brompton Cemetery when I found this memorial.  Should I rub one of the Aladdin style lamps and see if a genie appeared to grant me three wishes?  I was intrigued as to why they were on the stone and so began my research for this month’s symbol – The Lamp.

The grave is that of Marie Cordelia Winfield who died young at the age of 19.  There is another family member commemorated on the headstone who is called James Alfred Winfield.  But it’s very lowdown on the stone and the encroaching summer vegetation obscured it making it difficult to read.

Lamps are an unusual symbol to see in a cemetery but Light as a motif in itself has been used in many forms.  Often it’s represented by the eternal flame or a downturned/ upturned torch but lamps are rare.  Obviously now I’ve said that, I’ll see lamps in every cemetery on every tombstone but so far it’s just been this one.

The Winfield lamps appear to be oil lamps and these have been used as illumination for thousands of years. In Arabian folklore a genie’s lamp contained a magical spirit known as a djinn or genie.  This mythical being could help or hinder those who were brave enough to rub the lamp as in the story of Aladdin.

An example of an Aladdin Lamp.

In this story the lamp was seen as a gateway to another world of mystery and other gods.  The symbol of the lamp was later adopted by Christianity as many pagan motifs were and it came to symbolise Jesus as the ‘light of the world’.  There is a famous passage in the New Testament in Matthew 25:1-13 of the parable of the 10 virgins:

‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

                                                                            King James version

 There are several other references to lamps in Matthew 6:22-23, Revelation 22:5 and also John 5:35 in which John the Baptist is described as

he was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.’

And let’s not forget God appearing to Moses in the burning bush.  There is also a famous quotation from Psalms 119:105:

‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’

The lamp as a representation of God and faith appears in other religions including the Jewish Feast of Dedication or Festival of Lights and also Diwali which is the Hindu Festival of Lights.  Judaism sees lamps as a way of lighting the way for the righteous and the wise.  This is represented by the seven branched ritual Jewish oil lamp which is known as a menorah.  Lamps are also an integral part of the Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic churches as they are used on the Holy Table or altar and also to illuminate icons.  In Chinese religions an oil lamp is always lit at traditional Chinese shrines before either an image of a deity or a plaque in classical Chinese characters with the name of the deity.  Lamps also feature in the Koran. There is also a strong element of self-sacrifice associated with the lamp as it consumes itself in order to bring light to the world.

There is long tradition of lamps representing purity and virginity as well as love. So it’s highly appropriate for the Winfield tombstone which is dedicated to a young girl.  When I looked more closely at the Winfield memorial I noticed that both of the lamps were pointing towards the cross in the centre with what I presumed were the rays of the sun coming from behind it almost like a halo. The lamps are obviously lit as fumes are coming from their spouts and, to me, they seemed to be illuminating the way through eternal darkness towards the light of a new life.  I thought that it would have been comforting to those left behind to mourn the loss of a daughter who had been taken too soon. As the epitaph says:

Greatly loved and sadly missed.’

However,  as I explored further in Brompton I noticed actual lamps placed on top of graves or alongside them.  These were mainly on the graves of Polish people.

In Poland, there is a long tradition of lighting lamps and candles on their All Saints’ Day which is held on November 1st each year.  This is the day before the Christian festival of All Souls Day which is traditionally held on November 2nd.   I visited Brompton Cemetery on November 1st 2015 and witnessed the local Polish community’s celebration of All Saints with lit tea candles and lamps on top of Polish and non-Polish graves alike. The lights were again being used as a way to help the souls of the departed on their way and so the tradition continues.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A1-13&version=KJV

http://www.biblemeanings.info/Words/Artifact/Lamp.htm

http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art10fr.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_lamp

A murder in Brompton Cemetery! Wildlife in Cemeteries no 5

 

 

An ominous gathering of crows and possible juveniles on 21 May 2017..
©Carole Tyrrell

On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples.  On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials.  There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos.  My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.

Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.

A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.

The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486.  This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals.  These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’.  These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’.  There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc.  The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’.  A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.

There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,

 ‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’

Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd

However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.

A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents.  The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life.  They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators.  Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls.  A distress call will bring other crows to their aid   as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.

A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.

©Text and photo Carole Tyrrell

Reference:

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-a-group-of-crows-called-a-murder

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©Carole Tyrrell

Cosy cats and an Egyptian deity of the underworld – creating the Brompton Cemetery animal app.

Cemeteries are often great places to find wildlife. If you’re lucky you might see a bright little robin or blue tit flitting amongst the memorials as well as foxes, cats  and the odd dog out for a walk with his owner. The beginning of summer also heralds the arrival of insects such as butterflies and grasshoppers.

But app designer, Simon Edwards and I, were exploring Brompton Cemetery to find animals of the stone or granite variety either carved or perched onto tombstones.  Simon, a GP by trade, had the same enthusiasm as me and we began near the chapel.

 

The weather couldn’t have been better and my way down to meet Simon I saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker land on a memorial and then take off again before I could get my camera out.   I had a few suggestions as to where we might find some interesting examples and Simon already had some on his phone and so we began.  We also included insects and birds. However once you start looking for carved wildlife it suddenly catches your eye whereas you might not have noticed it before.   The afternoon became a treasure hunt as we found cats, a polar bear, a butterfly and a carving of an Egyptian deity amongst others. If you want to find out how many we found you will have to try the app at: https://ticl.me/West-Brompton/headlines/13317/view

 

However the most popular animal motif was undoubtedly the dove.  They were everywhere – both in 2D and 3D versions whether portrayed flying downwards or perched on a cross until eventually we decided that we were both ‘doved-out’.  Undoubtedly the best ones were the one on Susannah Smellie’s memorial near the chapel and the one on the headstone dedicated to a 6 month old baby near Hannah Courtoy’s  imposing mausoleum.

The app is intended to give you a pleasant way of spending an afternoon exploring the cemetery and finding the graves on which they are and perhaps wondering more about the people who chose them.  Don’t forget to let Simon or me know if you find any that we’ve missed!

© Text and images Carole Tyrrell

Symbol of the Month – the open book

Another example from Beckenham Cemetery where the inscription is now unreadable but the weathering of the stone makes it still very attractive.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Sometimes a wander through a cemetery can make you feel as if you’re in a heavenly library due to the number of open books reverently laid on top of graves.  They’re usually made from stone or granite, inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased and often a decorative book marker complete with carved tassel keeping the pages open.  On first appearance the open book can seem a very simple and obvious symbol and it’s used in place of a more formal headstone. But, as with other symbols, it can have alternative meanings.

The 3 dimensional version that is carved to simulate a real book is a 20th century innovation.  Prior to this it was rendered in a 2 dimensional, flat form and can be found on 18th and 19th century tombstones as part of an overall design or epitaph.  This example is from the Gibbs memorial in Brompton cemetery in which the downwardly pointing finger indicates the large open book.

The open book can almost resemble a visitors book with the deceased’s details inscribed on it as if they were signing in or checking out for eternity and sometimes one page is left blank for perhaps the partner who will follow.  On a recent stroll through Beckenham I came across several variations:

For example, there was one with both pages blank which could indicate that the inscription has worn off or that they were ready to be written for eternity.  The latter echoes the well-known phrase  ‘he or she can be read like an open book’ and the empty pages  can indicate that this is how they want to be judged on the Day of Judgement.   The echoes the quotation from the Book of Revelation 20:11-15:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. King James Bible

This is also why the open book is also known as the Book of Life as it contains everything that the deceased has done throughout their life and for which they will now be accountable. Christ is often depicted carrying a book.  J C Cooper also sees it as the Book of Life and adds that it can also represent

‘….learning and the spirit of wisdom, revelation and …wisdom.’

It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed.

Here the Book doesn’t have an epitaph but instead is inscribed with a Biblical quotation from Jeremish 31:3
©Carole Tyrrell

In this example, a favourite verse has been inscribed on the pages.  It is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:3

The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. King James Bible

This makes the symbol almost resemble a Bible.  Other suggestions are that it can indicate the grave of a writer, publisher or even more obviously a clergyman.

 

It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed and a variant is the closed book.  I found this one in West Norwood cemetery and it clearly indicates a life that has ended with the final chapter now written.

An example of a closed book from West Norwood Cemetery/
©Carole Tyrrell

So the open book has made me think about how my book of life would look on my last resting place. I’m determined to make sure that it’s a good read for any passing visitor.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise indicated.

References:

An illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978

Stories in Stone, a field guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister,

Gibbs Smith, 2004

 

http://biblehub.com/search/jeremiah/31-3.htm

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%2020:11-15

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemetery-symbolism-4123061

 

Symbol(s) of the Month – the exuberant 18th century symbols of St George’s churchyard

One of the skulls at base of blank cartouche on one side of large chest tomb, St George’s.
©Carole Tyrrell

It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that  the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment.  And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.

There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard  the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides.  But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well.  Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s.  They are  buried in the vaults beneath the church.  St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from  a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street  especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.

 

However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These  tombstones  are topped with classic memento mori symbols.  This is Latin for ‘remember me.’  They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:

Remember Man as you pass by

As you are now so once was I

As I am now so must you be

Remember man that you must die.’

 

Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do  could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.

 

St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones  are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were  ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’

 

I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols.  There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable.  However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.

 

The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.

 

This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds.  It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield.  All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’

 

The skull and crossbones, a winged hourglass and a set of sexton’s tool on the left hand side.
©Carole Tyrrell

Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it.  This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel.  These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible.  The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard.  In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.

Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a  definite smirk.  On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them.  Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.

 

Somersaulting skulls and hourglass
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other.  Below them is a small worn hourglass.  I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.

 

Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre  ‘Death’s Head.’  This is a human face with wings on either side of it.  I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.

A closer view of the Saxby Angel with what appears to be a faded open book on one side and a stylised flower on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones.  However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable.  The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby.  It reads:

 

‘               ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘

 

A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side.  The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.

Crown in clouds with small faces, presumably angels, peeping out from either side.
©Carole Tyrrell

On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown.  It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven.  This verse from the Bible refers to it:

 

James 1:12 New International Version (NIV)

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James%201:12

 

A very plum faced Death’s Head with an open book on one side and a skull and a long bone on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.

 

 

 

 

But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay.  He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read.  He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students.  Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.

On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb.  There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity.  There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one.  At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death.  The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region  and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.  It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers.  The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens.  Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity.  In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended.  Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful  motifs of mortality and resurrection.

 

St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable.  It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard.  However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’  18th century symbols.  But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated.

References

Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008

St George’s Churchyard, St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, Revised June 2005

St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, information leaflet,, October 2003

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

http://www.catholictradition.org/Saints/signs4.htm

http://www.planetgast.net/symbols/plants/plants.html

https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemetery-symbolism-4123061

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

 

OLIVE: The olive is a true Biblical tree, a tree ‘full of fatness’ w

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 4- Life and Death – springtime flowers

 

An April day in my local churchyard, St George’s and a profusion of Spring flowers on one grave.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Now that the spring equinox has arrived and winter seems to be coming to an end this is a good time to be visiting cemeteries.  The vegetation will have died back and you can often find little gems which would normally be covered by undergrowth.

But cemeteries also attract many spring flowers as I discovered when I went to photograph Dr James Barry’s tombstone  in Kensal Green cemetery recently.  It was a March day and was initially overcast. But eventually the sun decided to make an appearance despite the slight nip in the air.

As I walked up the main avenue to the Anglican Chapel I noticed that in some areas the large swathes of flowers almost flowed like a colourful carpet between the graves and memorials.  The   backdrop of grey granite, pensive angels, crosses, Turkish men and many others emphasised their bright colours.  Yellows, pinks, blues, whites and purples:  they were all reminders that life goes on.   Some graves were an absolute riot of nodding flower heads as the breeze made them move.

Snowdrops are often seen in churchyards. They are traditionally associated with Candlemas Day on February 2 and are often known as ‘the passing of sorrow.’ They are also called corpse flowers as the unopened bloom has been said to resemble a lifeless body in a shroud.

Here are some of the flowers that I saw, both in Kensal Green and also in my local churchyard:

:

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Symbols and Symbolism in Brompton Cemetery – Saturday 8 April 2017

Hand holding Lily of the Valley at Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

If you’re in London and near Brompton Cemetery around 2.30pm on Saturday 8 April 2017 then you are cordially invited onto the Symbols and Symbolism tour.

If you’ve ever wondered what the symbols often found in Victorian cemeteries actually mean and the fascinating background to them then this is the tour for you!

Some of the symbols which will be discussed on the tour have featured on this blog but there will be others as well.

The details are below – cost will be £5 per head – so let’s hope for decent weather on the 8th!

The Brompton Butterfly surrounded by an ivy wreath.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The Friends of Brompton Cemetery invite you to 

Symbols and Symbolism in Brompton Cemetery – a guided tour Sat 08 April 2017 : 2.30pm – 4.15pm.  

on the meaning of Brompton Cemetery’s

symbols and the lost language of Victorian death.

Meet near front entrance to chapel

Cost £5

for further details and to book contact 0207 351 1689/email: info@brompton-cemetery.org.uk

Address:  Brompton Cemetery, Fulham Road, Kensington, London, SW10 9UG

Transport links:  Tube West Brompton, Earls Court. Buses: 74,14,211,190,328,430,C1, C3.

Website: http://brompton-cemetery.org.uk.

 

Symbol(s) of the Month – the Alpha and the Omega and the Chi-Rho

It’s a two for one offer on symbols this month folks as I feature two ancient symbols which are often combined together.  They both predate Christianity and were then  adopted by the newly emerging faith.  This was a time when Christians only communicated with fellow believers via a secret language of symbols and codes known only to each other.   Discovery would have meant death and so the codes were designed to keep outsiders away.

These symbols are the Alpha and Omega and the Chi-Rho.  They’re not all that common in cemeteries but I found these two examples in Brompton Cemetery, London.   They stood out because of their simplicity and classicism.

The Alpha and Omega

This fine example which also features the Chi-Rho is on the substantial Platt memorial in Brompton Cemetery.  I’ll write about the Chi-Rho later.   Thomas Platt was the first to be buried here in 1899 followed by his wife, Annie,  who outlived him and died in 1925. Two of their daughters are also buried and commemorated here – one died in 1935 and the other, also called Annie, in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out much about him or the family but this is a substantial memorial with space for more incumbents.  It’s made of pink granite in the classical style with a large cross on top and acroteria on each of the corners on the pedestal under the Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho and cross.

The Alpha and Omega  are very similar in a way to an ouroboros as they both express eternity.  They are formed from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and represent God.  He is the first – the alpha – as there is no God before him and the last – the Omega – as there is no God after him.    The symbols also appear in several Bible verses including Revelation verses 1.8:

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” King James version

They also appear in Revelation verses 21.6 and verses 22.13 as well as Isiah verses 44.6.

Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths use the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe the name of their God.

The Alpha and Omega  have been represented  by an eagle and an owl.   There has also been a suggestion that the Omega is an ancient representation of the Goddess Ishtar’s headdress and  that the Alpha was derived from the ox horn headdress worn by male deities and kings but I would like to see more evidence of this.  However it’s an interesting theory on how these symbols might have come into being.

Interestingly, the two motifs are known as a merism.  This is a figure of speech that articulates the beginning of something and the ending of something with the implication that it also refers to all things in between. For example,  for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer etc.

However, Douglas Fielder in ‘Stories in Stone’ has suggested the Alpha and Omega may be the representation of the beginning and end of a life and that would certainly fit in with their use within cemeteries. J C Cooper’s definition is that they denote the beginning and end of all things.

The Chi-Rho

This is a striking example from Brompton Cemetery London and is on the grave of Matthew Boyd Bredon.  He was an Irishman who served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and rose through the ranks.  He became a Lieutenant in 1875 and a Captain in 1878 and became a Major. The epitaph states that he died in Swatow, or Shantou is it was originally known, in China in 1900.  This was the time of the Boxer Rebellion in which treaty ports were imposed on China by the British and other foreign powers who wanted to open up trade. However, these ports weren’t strictly ports and instead were separate communities in which foreigners lived according to their own customs, traditions and rules of law.  Bredon was also the Deputy Commissioner of Customs in China at the time of his death.  In 1900 a brass eagle was presented to his local church, St Saviours in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland in his memory.

The Chi-Rho was created by using the first two capital letters from the Greek word for Christ:

ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ

These are Chi and Rho and this is the earliest form of christogram.  The definition of a christogram is, according to Wikipedia,

 ‘ a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ and is a traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian church.’

The combination of the letters have led to claims that the Chi Rho symbolises the status of Jesus as the risen Christ as the vertical stroke of the Rho intersects the centre of the Chi.  Thus it could be seen as a symbol of resurrection when used in cemeteries.

However, it wasn’t   originally a religious symbol and was, instead, used to mark an especially valuable or relevant passage in a page.  When used like this it was known as a Chresten which meant ‘good.’  It also appeared on ancient Egyptian coins.

Missorium depicting Emperor Constantine’s son Constantius II accompanied by a guardsman with the Chi-Rho depicted on his shield (at left behind horse) photograph © Ludwig von Sybel 1909
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons – in public domain in country of origin.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine, (306-337) used the Chi Rho as part of a military standard known as a Labarum.  He had a dream in which he felt that military success would follow if he put a heavenly and divine symbol on his soldiers shields to protect them

From 350 onwards The Chi Rho began to appear on Christian sarcophagi and frescoes and has been found in the celebrated Roman catacombs.    It came to Britain via the Roman invasion and can be seen on a mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, UK.

Nowadays it has been adopted as a popular tattoo symbol.

I did try and discover the significance of these two symbols to these two men who both died relatively young but a search through coats of arms and regimental cap badges in the case of Bredon and other sites with Platt yielded no new information. But they have left us with impressive examples of these early and powerful symbols.

©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References;

Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978

 

http://grammar.about.com/od/mo/g/Merism.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_and_Omega

http://www.religionfacts.com/alpha-omega

http://biblehub.com/revelation/22-13.htm

http://symboldictionary.net/?p=2883

https://library.nd.edu/about/symbols_of_christ/alpha_omega.shtml

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01332a.htm

https://www.gotquestions.org/alpha-and-omega.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi_Rho

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christogram

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2017/3/18/1636415/-The-Daily-Bucket-A-stroll-through-London-s-Brompton-Cemetery

 

 

 

Death parted them and then reunited them – The Pointing Finger Symbol update

Anderson memorial - the downward pointing hand in detail. ©Carole Tyrrell
Anderson memorial – the downward pointing hand in detail.
©Carole Tyrrell

In my  recent post on the Pointing Finger symbol I was bemoaning that I hadn’t found an example of the downward pointing version.

Someone must have heard me because, lo and behold, as I was pottering through Brompton Cemetery I suddenly saw one.  It was on a side path and set back from it in front of a thick clump of brambles which probably engulf it when they’re in high season.  Winter is always a good time to  look for symbols as the encroaching ivy; brambles and long grass will have died down and don’t obscure them.

The Anderson family grave headstone.in Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell
The Anderson family grave headstone.in Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

There is a fascinating story behind this memorial as it’s the tale of two Irish brothers who first enlisted together at the tender age of 11.  They both had action packed lives in military service together until one died before the other at a young age.  This confirms what I said in my previous post,  that the downward pointing finger denotes an untimely, sudden or unexpected death.

The headstone   announced that it was the ‘Family Grave of Thomas Anderson’ and there are six members of the family commemorated on it.  The first one was to Andrew Anderson, who was a sargeant in the Coldstream Guards Band until died suddenly, aged 35, on August 11th 1856.   Sadly it doesn’t give the cause of death so we can only guess at what might have happened to Andrew. The epitaph also says that his death was ‘regretted by all who knew him’ so he was obviously popular and much missed.  Accident?  Heart attack? Murder?  We may never know but I may do some further investigating.

Andrew Anderson's epitaph in detail. ©Carole Tyrrell
Andrew Anderson’s epitaph in detail.
©Carole Tyrrell

Underneath  Andrew’s epitaph are recorded two more members of the Anderson family.   These are Thomas Anderson’s  ‘infant daughter’,  Alice Jane, who died at 17 months on November 19th 1859 and also his wife and Alice’s mother, Euphan.   She died on September 22 1888 aged 63.   The quotation underneath reads ‘Sleep on dear one and take thy well earned rest.’

The Anderson memorial. Andrew, his brother, and Thomas's infant daughter, Alice Jane, and his wife Euphan are also commemorated. ©Carole Tyrrell
The Anderson memorial. Andrew, his brother, and Thomas’s infant daughter, Alice Jane, and his wife Euphan are also commemorated.
©Carole Tyrrell

And then underneath is Thomas himself.  He died on 15 July 1891 aged 70 with the motto ‘His end was peace.’

Initially I presumed that Thomas was Andrew’s father.   But, after doing some online delving, I discovered a post on an Irish library forum by a respondent who claimed to be Thomas’s great, great, great grandson. He was trying to carry out his own research into the family history.

According to him, Thomas and Andrew Anderson were actually brothers, probably twins, who were both born in 1821 and came from Ennis, County Clare.  This would fit in with Andrew’s age at death and there were other coincidences  between the information on the headstone and what the great, great, great grandson  was saying. The unusual name of Thomas’s wife was helpful and this led me to the Clan McFarlane website as McFarlane was her maiden name.

The brothers were very close and, aged 11, they both enlisted in the 40th Regiment of Foot on February 2 1832 and were then both discharged on 7 September 1839 aged 18.

It was the Royal Navy that beckoned next and they set off for adventure on the high seas aboard HMS Wellesley when they enlisted in 1839.  They both played their part in the Opium War of 1839 – 1842 and, as a result, they both received the China War Medal.  This was awarded to members of the Royal Navy who had ‘served with distinction’ between 5 July 1840 – 29 August 1842.

 

After that they moved on and back into the Army which is where the Coldstream Guards connection comes in.  As you might expect they both signed up: Thomas on 8 May 1850 and Andrew on 8 May 1844.  Thomas was discharged on 17 May 1860 after becoming a  lieutenant.  We know Andrew’s story but Thomas’s is less clear.

According to the family member he was living at 6 Hospital Street in Glasgow in 1845 and married Euphan McFarlane in 1863.  She came from the Gorbals which always had a reputation as a really tough area and so good preparation for the life of an Army wife.   She and Thomas had three more daughters; Elizabeth Euphan, Rosina Edith and Rosina Elizabeth.  But there’s no mention of Alice Jane.  Both Elizabeth and Rosina Edith married.

But the family member didn’t mention Alice Jane or John so one wonders where they fit in.

Thomas supposedly died in Middlesex  but after his death he joined Andrew in Brompton Cemetery.

Thomas Anderson's epitaph. ©Carole Tyrrell
Thomas Anderson’s epitaph.
©Carole Tyrrell

There are two more Anderson Family members recorded on the headstone; John, Thomas’s son, who died on 15 February 1925 aged 65 and John’s daughter, Isabella, but  her dates were too indistinct to read.

John Anderson's epitaph - not very readable now as it's near the base of the headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell
John Anderson’s epitaph – not very readable now as it’s near the base of the headstone.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Family stories can change over time as they’re handed down through the generations   but this seemed to tally with the information on the headstone.   I am trying to contact the great, great, great grandson via the County Clare forum for more information.

 

 

 

 

The Anderson brothers seemed to have led exciting lives in military service and  certainly did their bit for King and Country. So rest in peace Andrew and Thomas – you have certainly earned it.

© Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

 

http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=379308.0

http://www.ourlibrary.ca/phpbb2/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=551

http://www.clanmacfarlanegenealogy.info/genealogy/TNGWebsite/getperson.php?personID=I769&tree=UL

http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/genealogy/don_tran/mil_rec/rh_chelsea_clare_soldiers_service_docs.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_War_Medal_(1842)

 

Symbol of the Month – The Pointing Finger

 

finger2

This is a more unusual symbol although hands often feature as motifs in cemeteries usually in the more familiar clasped hands..

The Pointing Finger is usually  one finger,  the index one, pointing upwards or downwards. On the three that I saw, it was the right hand that was being depicted with the remaining fingers and thumb turned down into the palm.   I have yet to see the downward pointing version but rest assured that it doesn’t indicate that the departed is going ‘down below’ or to Hell.  Instead it can signify an untimely, sudden or unexpected death. As you’ve probably already guessed, the upwardly pointed finger is meant to reassure the grieving family that their loved one has ascended to Heaven and has received the reward of the righteous.

However, I found these three lovely examples in Beckenham Cemetery during a recent visit, much to my surprise, and they made me wonder why it isn’t more popular. In all of these the pointing finger and hand are surrounded by flowers.

The first one is  to John James Lumsden who died on 25 November 1903 aged 63.  It’s very well carved with a daffodil on one side of the hand and two sprays of Lily of the Valley flanking the hand.  When I first saw it, a thick branch of ivy obscured the flower on the other side of the daffodil. But on a return visit in January 2017 the branch had been trimmed back and a rose with one full blown bloom and a bud was now visible again. The bud is significant as it often appears on childrens  graves to symbolise a life unlived, that never fully bloomed and was ‘nipped in the bud.’ But not on this one.

In floriography or the language of flowers the daffodil is an important representation of resurrection.This is because of its association with Easter, rebirth and renewal.   The Lily of the Valley is also associated with Spring as its month is May. Other qualities that the Lily represents are chastity, purity and the return of happiness. It’s mentioned in The Song of Solomon 2.1

‘I am the rose of Sharon

And the lily of the valley.’

 There’s also the legend  that Mary’s tears turned into the lily of the valley at the exact spot when she cried at the Cross so an alternate name for the flowers is ‘Mary’s tears.’  The Lily is also meant to have healing powers and has other nicknames such as ‘Jacob’s Tears’ and ‘the ladder to heaven’.

This is to Charles Henry McKay who died on 1 November 1910 at only 23 and was the only son of Charles and Ellen McKay as it states on the epitaph. Although the flowers surrounding the pointing finger and hand are the same here as on Lumden’s, on this one they are more stylised and 2D.  They would have mourned his short life and unfulfilled ambitions.  So there is an added poignancy to the rosebud as his was a life cut short.   There is also the word ‘GONE’ carved on the cuff of the hand which emphasises that he has gone to a better place.   It really stood out amongst its neighbouring grey stones so it may have been recently cleaned or restored.

 

There is a third memorial featuring the pointed finger which is in the same style as Lumsden’s but not as well kept.  .This was to  ‘Will, eldest son of William and Sarah Greenfield. Born 10 December 1874 died 1 August 1905’

This is the third example from Beckenham Cemetery dedicated to Will Greenfield. ©Carole Tyrrell
This is the third example from Beckenham Cemetery dedicated to Will Greenfield.
©Carole Tyrrell

Again, another memorial to a life cut short as Will died aged only 31.Three other members of the Greenfield family are also commemorated on the headstone.

To our eyes they could be seen as sentimental but I found them very touching with their aim to comfort those left behind through the use of flowers.

But here’s a mystery from my own local churchyard:

This is to a woman who died at 38 called Georgiana Margaret Barns and it has a pointing finger on the headstone. But instead of pointing upwards or downwards, it’s pointing to the left and apparently into thin air.  The hand appears to have a woman’s lacy cuff and I noticed that, although her husband’s dates are also recorded, he isn’t actually buried there. Instead he lies in Hilderstone churchyard in Stafford.  He died at 76 nearly 20 years after his wife.   Is the finger pointing towards his resting place?  Is it a personal symbol known only to them?  I found a few details about them online but not much more so I am intrigued and mystified by this one.

I have to admit that The Pointing Finger symbol does remind me a little of a palmist drawing of the hand but in the ones that I’ve seen it’s also very decorative and moving.

Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated.

References:

http://www.lsew.org.uk/funerary-symbolism/

http://genealogy.about.com/cs/symbolism/p/hands.htm

https://mysendoff.com/2012/08/the-grave-secrets-of-symbols-and-iconography-of-the-cemetery/

http://mrssymbols.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/hands-beyond-grave.html

http://www.john-attfield.com/paf_tree/attfield_current/fam3951.html

http://www.allaboutheaven.org/symbols/996/123/pointing-finger

https://www.verywell.com/headstone-symbols-finger-pointing-up-1132433