The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings. The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God. However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation. But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade
The Freemason association is the most obvious and common. They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people. But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’
‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’
They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’
They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons. Wikipedia says ‘
‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866
in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’
There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.
But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:
‘something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’
They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form. So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.
But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not. There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.
You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:
I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.
This is a post from Atlas Obscura which discusses the burial places of large institutions in the US which were left behind when they closed. Patients records may have been lost and when they are buried anonymously how do their families know where they are? When I visited Netherne Hospital cemetery and also St Lawrence’s burial ground, there were very few markers but in recent years relatives have been reclaiming their loved ones. I thought this was an interesting post in light of disability rights campaigns. It also reminds us that these people are not fogotten.
Historically, institutions often interred their dead with simple markers. In Massachusetts, researchers are learning about the patients’ lives and the facilities’ fraught legacies.
BY ASIA LONDON PALOMBAJULY 1, 2021The Quest to Honor Disabled Patients Buried in Anonymous GravesThis marker in the MetFern Cemetery denotes the burial of Robert Comeau (1943-1959). ASIA LONDON PALOMBAIn This StoryDESTINATION GUIDEWaltham
IT’S QUIET. The afternoon sky is draped in a blanket of clouds and a breeze weaves its way through the trees. Down a winding dirt path in the woods of Waltham, Massachusetts, is a clearing peppered with hundreds of small, gray slabs of concrete. They sink into the earth as if pulled down by invisible hands.
These uneven stumbling stones serve as crass grave markers for the hundreds of people who died in two nearby institutions for people with disabilities. The cemetery is shared by the Metropolitan State Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital, and the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, the oldest state-run institution of its kind in the United States.
Between 1947 and 1979, these institutions buried 296 of their patients in simple, anonymous graves on a plot of former marshland now called the MetFern Cemetery, a portmanteau of the two institutions’ names. The grave markers are sunken and toppled, and have only two things etched onto their concrete slabs: “C” or “P,” for Catholic and Protestant (though records indicate that a Muslim man and two Jewish patients may have been buried there as well), and a number that denotes the order in which the patient was interred.
The burial ground is a powerful symbol for the people who grappled with the institutions’ legacies. “It kind of provides a safe, central place where everyone agrees to come back together around it,” says Green, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University. “People are sharing stories more for the first time.”
THE WALTER E. FERNALD DEVELOPMENTAL Center, also referred to as the Fernald School, was originally called the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth. Founded in South Boston in 1848 by Samuel Gridley Howe, it opened as a small experimental school to teach children and teens with intellectual disabilities life skills so they could live independently. Due to the popular perception that children with disabilities couldn’t learn, it proved to be the most progressive and radical institution of its era, says Green.
By 1888, the institution had moved to a sprawling, 196-acre campus in Waltham under the direction of superintendent Walter E. Fernald, where it quickly became the model for other institutions in the state and country. By the late 19th century, Fernald had become a custodial facility where those with disabilities might be locked away for life.
The national peak of institutionalization for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the U.S. was in 1967, when nearly 200,000 people were incarcerated in more than 350 large, state-run institutions. An additional 30,000 people were living in state psychiatric facilities, according to the National Council on Disability, an advisory agency on disability policy.
The Metropolitan State Hospital, also known as MetState, opened in 1930 and was the state’s last large-scale institution. Between 1924 and 1947, patients were buried in Waltham’s Mt. Feake Cemetery or were sent back to their original towns—though some are unaccounted for, and Green suspects there were additional burials around the institutions’ grounds. By 1947, both the Fernald School and MetState had fallen apart, and would eventually shutter (MetState in 1992, and Fernald in 2014). The onset of major crises such as the Great Depression and both World Wars caused the institutions to become severely underfunded and short-staffed. As conditions declined, an increasing number of patients suffered premature deaths, leading the institutions to open a shared cemetery, says Green.
Patients were buried in institutional cemeteries for a number of reasons. Some had no living family or couldn’t afford a proper burial. Institutions usually did a haphazard job of contacting family members about deaths, and in many cases families didn’t make an effort to collect their relative’s body. The unnamed gravestones were likely a measure taken to protect a family’s reputation in an era of overwhelming social stigma surrounding disabilities.
This was the case at similar institutions all over the state and country, and in the past few years, grassroots movements have been gaining traction from Utah to Minnesota to Georgia, aiming to bring recognition and justice to those buried under unnamed graves. These movements emphasize marking and preserving the final resting grounds of institutional patients.
“To ask for this history is not enough.”
Adam Rosenblatt, a professor at Duke University, has been studying this phenomenon for a book he’s writing—titled Cemetery Citizens and slated for publication in 2022—on people who care for places of the marginalized dead. One of his chapters focuses specifically on MetFern.
“The movement to try to commemorate mental hospital cemeteries is something that’s been around since the 1990s and seems to be slowly but gradually spreading,” he says. “There is a desire to contextualize and commemorate….even by just filling in the gaps on sites like findagrave.com with pictures of each grave.” Rosenblatt says there’s now “a lot of energy” around unearthing information and restoring dignity to deceased people who have long been overlooked.
SOME OF GREEN’S ACTIVISM INVOLVES working alongside students—especially 11th graders he once taught part-time at Gann Academy, an independent Jewish high school tucked between Fernald and MetFern. In 2017, Green, Yoni Kadden, and Kevin Levin—two history teachers at Gann—created a disability history curriculum focused on MetFern, Fernald, and MetState. Over the years, students have parceled through census data to research the individual lives of those buried at MetFern. In 2020, the students created a memorial book and an official website, coded by a 2020 Gann graduate, to house the names and biographies of each person buried in the cemetery. The website led to some relatives finally learning where their loved ones are buried after decades of speculation. In this way, these institutional cemeteries are “two-way streets to the past and into the present,” Green says. “They help [us] process the trauma and grief around them.”
When students learned about the burial ground’s legacy they “were horrified. They wanted to know more,” says Kadden. “A lot of them tied this to our responsibility to talk about other injustices.” Kadden will be leading another disability history class at Gann in the fall of 2021.
The work surrounding MetFern echoes elements of the deinstitutionalization movement that gained steam in the early 1970s. The movement was spearheaded by a large number of parent advocacy groups who witnessed the squalid living conditions in these facilities and demanded court-mandated safeguards for those living in institutions. This work coincided with a rise in self advocacy, where people with disabilities agitated for their own rights, and was compounded by support from institutional staff members who witnessed the human rights abuses in these facilities up close. This advocacy reverberates into the present as activists continue to fight for this dark and overlooked part of American history.
“There is an enormous growing coalition of disability rights people who see this is a galvanizing example of why denying us the access to our history is in of itself a form of cruelty,” says Green, who has a history of mental illness which has closely tied him to his work and helped inform the way he processes what he learns. “I see another history where I’m just another person in that graveyard. There is a personal level.”
MASSACHUSETTS’S DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION AND Recreation (DCR) manages MetFern, and its groundskeepers trim the grass regularly and erected the cemetery’s first two signs in the early 2000s. These explain what the markings on the gravestones mean, and list the years the cemetery was operational. A makeshift shrine has been erected at MetFern’s center where family members and passersby leave statues, coins, and notes to the deceased.
In the summer of 2019, George Darcy, a Waltham City Councilor, applied for a $80,000 city preservation grant to restore MetFern. Over the coming year, the goal is to transfer those funds to the DCR through a matching grant program; if approved, the DCR will use the $160,000 to restore the cemetery with community input. Darcy’s grant aims to regrade the land, reset the headstones, and place signage at the cemetery’s entrances. Based on designs by Gann students, the signs will offer a brief history on the institutions, list patients’ names, and provide instructions on how to identify each person.
The DCR plans on keeping the gravestones as they are instead of installing new ones with names, as was done at other institutional cemeteries across the state. Being able to see these unmarked stones is fundamental to understanding how these institutions fit into the larger fabric of American society, explains Green.
In February 2021, a bill was introduced into the Massachusetts State House to study the history of institutions for people with disabilities in the state. Co-authored by Green alongside Representative Sean Garballey and Senator Michael Barrett, the bill proposes a disabled-persons-led commission tasked with locating records and graves and issuing a formal report. Green hopes this bill will help reconcile the different approaches taken at various cemeteries across the state to find the best way forward for MetFern.
While MetFern is just one of many institutional cemeteries across the country, it is emblematic of an era and an attitude that continue to exert influence. For Green and other activists, these defunct institutions and their cemeteries are not merely relics of a bygone era, but reminders that the past is never truly far behind us.
“To ask for this history is not enough, ” says Green. “To fight for this history as our history, as disabled people, is to fight for respect for [our] fundamental rights.”
I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a very flamboyant and imposing monument. However, it is also one with great poignancy. It dates from the early 17th century and can be found in St Olave’s church, Seething Lane in the City of London. I was working in the City at the time and spent my lunch hours exploring the ancient City churches. St Olave’s is known for several grinning skulls on the entrance arch to the churchyard which dates to 1658. They impressed Charles Dickens so much that he included it in his book of sketches, The Uncommon Traveller, in which he renamed the church, St Ghastly Grim.
The diarist, Samuel Pepys and his wife had strong connections to St Olave’s and Mrs Pepys is buried within it. It is a church steeped in history.
So, Sir Jacobus, or James, Deane is in good company. This would have been an immensely expensive monument when it was created and is one laden with skulls. Deane and his 3rd wife kneel, facing each other, over a prayer table which was a convention of the time. They are both fashionably dressed as she wears a ruff and bonnet in addition to her beautifully carved black gown. Jacobus himself wears dull gold armour which has been highlighted in red.
The two women also dressed in fashionable clothing on either side of the couple are Jacobus’s first 2 wives and both carry skulls. However, it isn’t a Gothic fashion accessory but an indication that they both died before their time. The three swaddled infants beneath the figures, a pair and then one on its own, all died in infancy. According to the V & A:
‘Newborn babies were swaddled, wrapped in cloth with bands around them for the first 6-12 months of their lives. It was thought to strengthen the spine and help their body develop. Swaddling would usually bind the whole body, leaving only the head to move. These bands were usually just plain linen.’
The swaddling bands can be seen quite clearly on the figures of the infants. The pair rest on a small skull as does the single one which again indicates mortality.
Two other skulls grin from on top of the monument. Cherubic heads or possibly winged messengers also look back at the observer and there are several armorial bearings as well.
Sir Jacobus Deane was knighted on 8 July 1604 and was a very wealthy man. He made his fortune as a merchant adventurer to India, China and the Spice Islands and was very generous to the poor in every parish in which he lived or owned property. He built almshouses and left liberal bequests. Susan Bumsted was his first wife and Elizabeth Offley was his second. James’s third and last wife was a widow, Elizabeth Thornhill. She already had a son by her first husband and her third husband was John Brewster. Sir James Deane died on 15 May 1608 aged 62 having left no children.
There has been a suggestion that there is a significance to the number 3 contained within the monument. I can’t see it apart from the references to 3 wives and 3 children, but I would refer you to the Rushton Triangular Lodge in which there are a plethora of references to this number and its symbolism. It dates from the same period.
It was on a cold, wet day in April when I visited St Anne’s church in Limehouse, East London. Again, I had been enticed there by ‘strange symbols’ according to a reader in Fortean Times. Headstones and altar tombs sulked in the abundant cow parsley as the traffic sloped along Commercial Road. It didn’t appear to be very gentrified there – yet.
Headstones lined the churchyard walls, piled up three deep. I could just about discern symbols and scenes on them but maybe on a sunnier day they would be more obvious. The churchyard is now a park with the aforementioned altar tombs and urns in one area near the road.
St Anne’s is one of London’s six Hawksmoor churches and was sadly closed when I visited. It is a very large church and was consecrated in 1730. After it was gutted by fire in 1850 it was restored to its original beauty and has a Baroque style interior from what I could see from photos on the church’s website.
Then I saw the pyramid – well, I could hardly miss it as it’s 9 feet high and nestles up to a tall tree. No one’s sure if it’s an actual grave marker or was originally intended to be the pinnacle on top of the church tower. It is reputed that the builders may have just left it there.
On one side it has an eroded crest and coat of arms with ‘the Judgement of Solomon’ inscribed on it in both English and Hebrew. Nicholas Hawksmoor, who designed St Anne’s, was known as ‘the Devil’s architect’ and worked with Christopher Wren on various buildings.
However, It wasn’t the only pyramid that Hawksmoor designed as he’s also responsible for the Pyramid at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.
He designed it in 1728 and it contains the
‘colossal bust of Lord William Howard, the 3rd Earl’s great, great, great grandfather which sits on a stone plinth.’
David Castleton says in his fascinating blog post on pyramid tombs that,
‘Hawksmoor was a noted Freemason and fond of peppering his buildings with pagan symbols such as obelisks and pyramids.’
The Solomon reference could be a nod to King Solomon who Freemasons revered. Again, according to David Castleton
‘Hawksmoor apparently made plans for a full reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple, a monument that was thought to express the universe’s secrets with its geometry.’
It would have been an amazing building!
As I said in my post on the Darnley Mausoleum, the pyramid fascinated architects of the 18th century. They may have been inspired by the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and may have been one of the inspirations for the Darnley Mausoleum.
According to symbolsage:
‘The word ‘pyramid’ may have come from the Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid which was ‘MR’ which was often written as mer, mir or pimar. However, another theory is that it may come from the Roman word ’pyramid’ which itself came from the Greek word ‘puramid’ which meant ‘a cake made out of roasted meat’. The Greeks were mocking the Egyptian burial monuments as resembling stony cakes.’
Pyramids can also be seen as representing the struggle to reach the top either in earthly ambition or the ascent to Heaven. They are also supposed to represent enlightenment and spiritual attainment.
However, the one that I like best is that a pyramid shaped tomb prevented the devil from reclining on a grave and you can’t argue with that!
We’ll never know why Hawksmoor placed his enigmatic symbol in St Anne’s churchyard so it is destined to remain as one of London’s little mysteries.
I was drawn to make my first church crawl post lockdown by the lure of ‘strange symbols’ at St Peter’s in Bridge, Kent. It’s in a village, well hamlet really, where the number of pubs outnumber the shops. The church is only open on one day of the week and, knowing only too well the vagaries of country bus services, I planned it like a military campaign with timetables etc.
Blackthorn blossom foamed over the hedgerows and the acid yellow of rapeseed was beginning to spread over the fields. It felt good to be outside on a sunny April day. St Peter’s church nestles at the end of the high street and I could see its distinctive ‘candle snuffer’ spire when I got off the bus. I have missed poking about inside churches although I have had a good poke about in churchyards over the last year.
St Peter’s is a really pretty and ancient church surrounded by a small churchyard. Spring flowers were dotted around the headstones and in the remembrance section by the wall. Bluebells were still in bud, there was the understated yellow of primroses, purple violets, dandelions and the leaves of Garlic Mustard gave colour around the stones There was a part of the churchyard that was overgrown and a side path led to a more modern section. But I wasn’t alone as I explored. 2 squirrels cavorted amongst the large trunks of the yew trees and from the large field beyond the churchyard wall there were many enthusiastic baaa-ings and bleats from a flock of sheep and lambs.
According to Tim Tatton-Brown from the Kent Archaeology Society,
‘there is evidence of burials in the churchyard since 1474 but there are no markers for them.
But what of the symbols? There was a sprinkling of skulls and winged souls but no ‘strange symbols’ – yet. So I assumed that, as the book which had recommended them had been published in the 80’s, they might have eroded away. So I went inside.
‘If you are here alone. Does anyone know where you are?’ announced a printed sign on the welcome table which made me feel a little spooked. Most of the pews were cordoned off and I was soon admiring the colourful and beautiful stained glass. The sun shone through the chancel windows creating little patterns on the carpet. Tom’s window, which is a recent addition from 2019, is a masterpiece of modern stained glass and is in memory to a boy who lived for 100 days. My camera couldn’t do it justice. The window was designed by Grace Dyson, a glass painter and conservator at the highly regarded Cathedral Studios based at Canterbury Cathedral.
There has been a church on this site since 1189 and it is now regarded as a chapel of ease. St Peters became a church during the 12th and 13th centuries. There are still traces of the 12th century and again, according to Tim Tatton-Brown:
‘the nave may be 11th century but there’s no proof of this. The bells in the tower may have been castin the 14th century by William de Belyetre of Canterbury.’
Until 1850 part of the church was used as a schoolroom. St Peter’s was restored in the 19th century by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott during 1859-60 and some say that it has been over restored. It was then that the outer walls were covered in knapped flint. However, there are still traces of the 12th century building in the nave, chancel, south aisle and tower base. I walked up to the altar and there were the strange symbols at last!
Mounted on a wall was a carved relief with biblical scenes carved on it. These were the strange symbols mentioned in Peter Haining’s Ghosts of Kent. The ones that I could recognise were of Adam and Eve by the tree of knowledge with a strange bird climbing it, Cain and Abel, and Abraham sacrificing his son. The others were too damaged to read. The figures all have little scripts issuing from their mouths – a little like a ancient century comic strip. Nobody’s sure if its 16th century or if it was originally set into a 12th century doorway. I agree with the Kent Archeological Society that it was a tympanum. According to Wikipedia:
‘a tympanum is the semi circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window…it often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments.
There’s more work to be done on this which will form a future post.
On the other wall of the chancel facing the sculpture were fragments of a relief memorial to another vicar of the church named Malcom Ramsey who died in 1538. He was the vicar of Patrixbourne and Bridge for 44 years. The fragments form part of an inscription.
There is a wooden effigy, split into 2 halves, on one side of the altar which is of a 15th century priest called Macobus Kasey who died in 1512. However, there was no guidebook to tell me anything more.
There is an ancient memorial set in the chancel wall on the same side as the effigy. It has a date of 1635 on it but I am not sure if it’s a headstone or a memorial. I wanted to take a photo but there was a chair in front of it which I decided to move. However, the chair weighed a ton and it felt as if someone was actually sitting in it. In the end I had to drag it across the tiles but only a little way. I took a photo of the memorial and then decided to take another one of the effigy. My camera wouldn’t focus. It had been working perfectly before I moved the chair. So I dragged the chair back into position and the camera worked again. A little strange I thought.
I walked back towards the church door and turned round to have a last look at the church interior. I could now hear loud sounds from the direction of the organ and the font but I hadn’t heard anyone come in. Coincidence – who knows? The church had grown colder as well.
But it was time to go and have a look at the field of sheep and lambs and catch a view of the church from across it.
Another symbol from the archives while I finish editing my first church visit of 2021. The lure of strange symbols can lead you into all sorts of interesting places…..
Stylised animals, sinuous snakes, Celtic knots and traditional strapwork, flowers, angels and even a cat! The decoration on Celtic crosses within cemeteries can be varied and interesting. But it wasn’t until I was exploring Brompton Cemetery with an apps designer that I really began to look at them more closely. He spotted the Viking style animals on Margaret Stevenson’s cross near the Chapel and we were soon seeing spirals and the more emblematic strapwork known as Hiberno-Saxon art or Insular art amongst others.
Celtic Crosses first appeared within cemeteries during the Celtic Revival of the 1850’s and it has since become a worldwide emblem of Irish identity. The Revival has also been described as the Celtic Twilight and the Cross is seen as its lasting contribution to the western world’s funerary art. The Celtic Cross has been known in Ireland since the 9th century and in mainland Britain since medieval times.
It’s a form of the traditional cross but with the addition of a nimbus or ring. The latter is seen as a symbol of eternity as it has no beginning or end. The addition of the nimbus has been attributed to St Patrick who is reputed to have added it to a Christian cross, extended one of the of the lengths to form the stem and then placed it on top of a stepped base. It was this combination of a pagan symbol and a Christian one that became the Celtic Cross. It has also been described as the ‘sun cross’ by those who interpret the nimbus ring as a representation of the sun. The four arms have also been interpreted as representations of the four elements; air, earth, fire and water as well as the stages of the day or the four fixed compass directions.
The more traditional, intricately patterned bands known as strapwork are known for the unbroken lines that make up any piece. There have been 8 basic designs that have been identified and claimed to be the basis of nearly all of the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art. Hiberno-Saxon art is also known as Insular art and examples appear in the Books of Kells. Here are four examples from West Norwood Cemetery.
It was in Brompton that I noticed two examples with single spirals on them. A spiral on a Celtic cross is generally drawn clockwise to represent either the sun or the direction of running water.
It is one of the most ancient symbols known to mankind. A double spiral is more difficult to create and has been seen as a depiction of universal balance such as yin and yang or night and day. The triple spiral or triskele is the most difficult for obvious reasons and has several meanings attributed to it. But the one that I thought was the most appropriate in a funerary context was the triskele being seen as a representation of three worlds: the spiritual, the earthly and the celestial. The word Triskele is reputed to have come from the Greeks and it’s one of the most complex Celtic symbols.
Also in Brompton, I discovered a Celtic cross with decoration that ended in snakes heads which is interesting as snakes which were revered by the Celts. They saw them as a representation of rebirth as they shed their skins and then live again. Notice also the Celtic knot in the centre of them. These have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe as well as appearing within Celtic insular art. They are supposed to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life with the closed ends signifying unity.
So the next time you visit a cemetery or churchyard look out for the Celtic Cross and see what you find. It’s not only Celtic inspired decoration that appears on them. These two examples are from my local churchyard – one features traditional strapwork and the other has a lovely and unusual angel with beautifully carved feathery wings and the nimbus is almost like a halo.
This is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery and features beautifully carved passionflowers, a deeply significant symbol in the language of flowers, and also the IHS in the centre of the cross.
And finally, again from Brompton, one with a cat in its centre which is possibly a pun on the name of the family commemorated – Cattenach.
This is another reblog of a n older post from when I began shadowsflyaway and it’s always been a favourite of mine.
I have been out again looking for symbols and have found one or two so looking forward to sharing them with you. I went church crawling earlier this month and visited a church in Kent rumoured to have strange symbols. It certainly did and other curiosities. You never know what you’re going to find in a church and I have often been pleasantly surprised. Beyond the churchyard wall was a field of sheep and lambs, merrily bleating and baa-ing away at each other, and it made me feel so glad to be outside again on a warm Spring day. I also visited a church in the east End of London on a wet, cold day as the tall cow parsley was rampant amongst the tombstones and found something that I didn’t expect. I’m really looking forward to researching and writing about it for next month.
A pelican in her piety. Detail of monument, The Drake Chapel, St Mary’s Amersham. copyright Carole Tyrrell
This is a more unusual symbol to find in cemeteries and dates from pre-Christian times. There are two versions of the legend. In one, the pelican pierces her own breast to feed her children with her own blood and in the second she feeds her dying children with her own blood to bring them back to life but as a result she dies herself. In both of them the pelican is a potent motif of self-sacrifice and charity. It’s also seen as a powerful representation of Christ’s Passion in that he gave his life for us and rose again. The symbol is known as a pelican in her piety.
However, the legend of the pelican is found in Physiologies, an anonymous Christian work from Alexandria which dates from the 2nd century. It contained legends of animals and their allegorical interpretations which is where the attribution of the pelican’s sacrifice to the Passion of Christ come from. It states that
‘ the pelican is very fond of its brood, but when the young ones begin to grow they rebel against the male bird (the father) and provoke his anger, so that he kills them, the mother returns to the nest in three day, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, revives them, and they feed on the blood.
The pelican in its piety was very popular during the Middle Ages and can be found on altar fronts, fonts and misericords in churches. Also, when tabernacles were occasionally suspended over the altar, they were shaped like pelicans as was one in Durham Cathedral.
Later, in St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn ‘Adoro te devote.’ or Humbly we adore thee’, in the penultimate verse he describes Christ as:
‘the loving divine pelican able to provide nourishment for his breast’
In Nicholas Hilliard’s famous 1573 portrait of Elizabeth I which is known colloquially as the Pelican portrait she wears a prominent piece of jewellery which features a pelican feeding her young with her blood which symbolised her role as Mother of the Nation.
The pelican also appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act IV in which Laertes says:
‘To his good friend thus wide,
I’ll open my arms.
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican
Repast them with my blood.’
The renowned bird appears in key Renaissance literature. For example, Dante in The Divine Comedy refers to Christ as ‘our Pelican’. John Lyly in Euphues of 1606 also wrote:
‘Pelicane who striketh blood out of its own owne bodye to do others good.’
John Skelton wrote in 1529 in his Armorie of Birds:
‘They sayd the Pellycan’
When my Byrds be slayne
With my bloude I them nevyve. Scripture doth record the same dyd as our Lord
And rose from deth to lyve.’
However, the belief that the pelican nourishes her children with her own blood is a myth. It may have arisen from the fact that pelicans have a large pouch attached under their bill. When the parent is about to feed its chicks, it macerates small fish in this pouch and then whilst pressing the bag against its breast, it transfers the food to the babies.
However, its use in Victorian cemeteries may indicate a resurrection motif in that the pelican gives er life to her children so that they are resurrected. It is quite a rare one to find although it does appear within churches especially on wall memorials, altars and fonts.
This is a magnificent impressive pelican sculpture from a church in Germany.
There is an impressive monument in a Cuban cemetery which has a large marble pelican and children carving on it and there is also one on a memorial in Arnos Vale Cemetery near Bristol. This is an especially poignant one as is it is to a young doctor, Joseph Williams, who insisted on treating the local workhouse inmates for cholera, during the 1849 Bristol epidemic. Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, he succumbed to it himself and subsequently died. Here the pelican and her young are a true representation of self-sacrifice.
This is one is in my local church, St Georges in Beckenham and appears on a monument to Dame Ann Frances Hoare who died in 1800 at 64.
And this one is from the Drake Room in St Mary’s Church Amersham.
Here is a more recent use of the Pelican in her piety on a World War II blood donor appeal.
In darkest Eltham, there is a headstone dedicated to an Aborigine who came to England in the 18th century. It was the New World meeting the Old World. The English had begun to colonise New South Wales which had been his home although he called it by another name. The country itself wasn’t called Australia when he left his home for England. In fact, it wouldn’t be called that until 1804. It was known as New Holland. He was a young man who died in England and never returned home.
So who was he?
And why is he buried here? After all, Aborigines believe that, until the bones are returned to his ancestral homeland, he is destined to remain forever a wandering spirit, homeless and alone. If he’s actually still here.
I was out exploring, during the Christmas/New Year relaxation of lockdown. when I visited the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Eltham. It has a fine old churchyard with a few 18th century memento mori. Then I found this headstone by the boundary wall which is dedicated to Yemmerrawanyea, a native of New South Wales. The full epitaph reads:
a Native of
NEW SOUTH WALES
Who died the 18th of May 1794
In the 19th Year of his
I was intrigued as the headstone is a substantial one and it isn’t everyday that you discover an Aborigine grave.
There are several spellings of the name but I will keep to the spelling on the headstone as it’s easier.
In the 18th century, the British had begun to colonise what they called New South Wales and they wanted to establish relations with the Aborigines. George III was very keen for this to happen and the first Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, resorted to kidnap to get one man, Bennelong, involved. There will be more on him later.
Yemmerrawanyea was a member of the Wangai tribe, part of the Eora nation of Aborigines. They lived in the Port Jackson area on the south bank of the Parramatta river where Sydney is now. He was known to the settlers and Capt Watkin Tench, as ’ a good tempered, lively lad who became a great favourite with us, and almost constantly lived at the Governor’s house.’ He had clothes made for him and he waited at the Governor’s table. He was a servant.
In February 1791, aged 16, he was initiated according to Aboriginal custom, by having a front tooth and part of his jaw knocked out by a Kebba which was a stone or rock. This allowed him to use the name Kebarrah which was only given to men who had undergone this ritual. It was done according to Keith Vincent Smith:
‘…..in February 1791 at a bay in the Gamaragai territory on the north shore of Port Jackson. It was Bennelong who officiated, removing the teeth with a specially cut womera or throwing stick. Though Yemmerrawanyea ‘suffered severely, losing apart of his jawbone, he ‘boasted the firmness and hardihood, with which he had endured it.’ wrote Capt Tench.
He came to England with Bennelong when Phillip returned home to England in 1792-93 after his first stint as the British Governor of the colony of New South Wales. Apparently, they went on the very long sea journey ’voluntarily and cheerfully’. Bennelong could speak English but I have been unable to discover if Yemmerrawanyea could also do so. However, they did have English lessons during their visit.
In 1793, they arrived in Falmouth, Cornwall and then travelled onto London. Mayfair to be precise and there they mixed in high society. Fashionable Regency clothes were made for them and they were tutored in reading, writing, and English. There are still expense claims on file for their visit. The men visited St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and even went bathing in the Serpentine. I did wonder what Regency society made of them and vice versa.
At a fashionable gathering, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanyea performed a native song accompanied by clapsticks and you can hear a modern recreation of it here:
They said that the song was ‘in praise of their lovers; but the meaning of the song has been lost. Only two words have been translated and were apparently about jumping kangaroos.
Edward Jones, (1752-1824) who was in the audience, wrote down and published the words and music and called it ‘A song of the natives of New South Wales.’ It appeared in Musical Curiosities in 1811. Jones was the composer, Welsh Harpist, folk music collector and bard to the Prince of Wales who became George IV.
However, in October 1793, disaster struck when Yemmerrawanyea fell ill and began to drastically lose weight. After injuring his leg, his health declined even further. He and Bennelong were taken to Eltham which was then a village and he was treated by Dr Gilbert Blane. He was the Prince of Wales’s physician. They lodged at the house of William Kent who had been employed by the former Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. This again emphasises the circles in which the two men moved. But it was to no avail as Yemmerrawanyea died on 18 May 1794 aged roughly 19 from a lung infection. This may have been tuberculosis but no-one’s quite sure.
There are still bills preserved at the National Archives for his burial and,according to Keith Vincent Smith:
‘A gravedigger covered Yemmerrawanyea’s grave with turf at a cost of 1 shilling and 6 pence. The headstone costs £6.16.00’,
This was a substantial cost for a headstone.
There have been several campaigns to have his remains returned to Australia but their current location in the churchyard is unknown. In fact, they may no longer be there due to the practice of graves being re opened and re used for burials to reduce overcrowding. The headstone has also been moved and restored several times.
In 1982, 3 Aboriginal men made what is believed to be the first Australian Aboriginal pilgrimage to visit Yemmerrawanyea’s grave. But they were unaware that his body may have been removed and that the headstone may not even be over his grave.
Bennelong returned to what is now Sydney in 1795 and went back to the bush. He was considered by some of Sydney’s white society to be a ‘thorough savage’ who couldn’t be tamed. Relations between the Aborigines and the colonists were deteriorating as Keith Vincent Smith says:
‘as more and more land was cleared and fenced for farming and they were seen as savages who were unwilling to give their country and become labourers and servants to the colonists.’
Bennelong died on the 3 January 1813 and his grave has been finally been located. The New South Wales Government has announced that it has bought the house and garden in which he is buried. It would be turned into a public memorial with a museum commemorating the impact of the European invasion on the indigenous people of the Sydney area. The site of the Sydney Opera House is located at Bennelong Point which was named after him.
These were 2 important figures in Aboriginal society and have left their traces in Australia and England. Yemmerrawanyea’s grave is of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people and their history. it seems sad that the stone is the only surviving trace of him in the churchyard and yet it’s it’s a reminder of the New World visiting the Old World. So that passers-by, like me, stop and wonder who he was. how he came to Eltham and remember him.
This is another older post about a symbol that is not common within churchyards and cemeteries and so I am always thrilled whenever I see an example. This gorgeous example is in below is in the interior of St Nicholas’ church in Chislehurst, Kent. It’s dedicated to a woman and perfectly illustrates the use of the butterfly as a symbol of transformation and resurrection.
As the lockdown edges closer to more restrictions being relaxed, I hope to be out exploring again very soon!
Cemeteries and graveyards can be happy hunting grounds for butterflies. But not just the bright, dancing summer jewels, borne on the breeze, but also the much rarer kind which perches in them for eternity.
So far I’ve only discovered two of this particular species which were both in London. One was in Brompton and the other was in Kensal Green. But I have also seen others online in American cemeteries.
But I’m surprised that the butterfly symbol isn’t more widely used as it is a deep and powerful motif of resurrection and reincarnation. It has fluttered through many cultures which include Ancient Egypt, Greece and Mexico.
In classical myth, Psyche, which translates as ‘soul’, is represented in the form of a butterfly or as a young woman with butterfly wings. She’s also linked with Eros the Greek God of love. It is also a potent representation of rebirth and in this aspect, the Celts revered it. Some of the Ancient Mexican tribes such as the Aztec and Mayans used carvings of butterflies to decorate their buildings as certain butterfly species were considered to be reincarnations of the souls of dead warriors. The Hopi and Navaho tribes of Native American Indians performed the Butterfly Dance and viewed them as symbols of change and transformation.
The butterfly is an archetypal image of resurrection in Christianity and this meaning is derived from the 3 stages of a butterfly’s life. These are: 1st stage = the caterpillar, 2nd stage = the chrysalis and 3rd and final stage = the butterfly. So the sequence is life, death and resurrection. The emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis is likened to the soul discarding the flesh. It has been depicted on Ancient Christian tombs and, in Christian art, Christ has been shown holding a butterfly. It is supposed to appear chiefly on childrens memorials but the two that I’ve seen were on adult memorials.
Butterflies also feature in Victorian mourning jewellery and there is a fascinating article on this with some lovely examples at:
In the 20th century, butterflies appeared in the flowing, organic lines of Art Nouveau and often featured in jewellery and silverware.
Face and butterfly on exterior of chapel. copyright Carole Tyrrell
This example is from the Watts Chapel in Surrey and shows the flowing lines and stylised butterfly. They also appear in vanitas paintings, the name given to a particular category of symbolic works of art and especially those associated with the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands. In these the viewer was asked to look at various symbols within the painting such as skulls, rotting fruit etc and ponder on the worthlessness of all earthly goods and pursuits as well as admiring the artist’s skill in depicting these. Butterflies in this context can be seen as fleeting pleasure as they have a short life of just two weeks.
There are many superstitions and beliefs associated with butterflies. They are often regarded as omens, good and bad, or as an advance messenger indicating that a visitor or loved one is about to arrive. In Japan, they are traditionally associated with geishas due to their associations with beauty and delicate femininity.
The Chinese see them as good luck and a symbol of immortality. Sailors thought that if they saw one before going on ship it meant that they would die at sea . In Devon it was traditional to kill the first butterfly that you saw or have a year of bad luck as a result. In Europe the butterfly was seen as the spirit of the dead and, in the Gnostic tradition, the angel of death is often shown crushing a butterfly underfoot. In some areas in England, it’s thought that butterflies contain the souls of children who have come back to life. A butterfly’s colours can also be significant. A black one can indicate death and a white one signifies the souls or the departed. It’s also a spiritual symbol of growth in that sometimes the past has to be discarded in order to move forward as the butterfly sheds its chrysalis to emerges complete. So it can indicate a turning point or transition in life. There are also shamanistic associations with the butterfly’s shapeshifting and it has also been claimed as a spiritual animal or totem.
Brompton Cemetery, tomb unknown
This example with its wings outstretched is from Brompton Cemetery in London. Alas, the epitaph appears to have vanished over time and the surrounding vegetation was so luxuriant that I will have to return in the winter to investigate further. Note the wreath of ivy that surrounds it. Ivy is an evergreen and is a token of eternal life and memories. The wreath’s ribbons are also nicely carved.
The Gordon monument, Kensal Green
The second one is perched on the tomb of John Gordon Esquire, a Scotsman from Aberdeenshire who died young at only 37. As the epitaph states ‘it was erected to his memory as the last token of sincere love and affection by his affectionate widow’. Gordon came from an extended family of Scottish landowners who had estates in Scotland and plantations in Tobago amongst other interests. The monument is Grade II listed and is made of Portland stone with a York stone base and canopy supported by the pillars. There was an urn on the pedestal between the four tapering stone pillars but this was stolen in 1997.
The butterfly also has an ouroboros encircling it so, not only a symbol or resurrection, but also of eternity with the tail devouring snake. It is a little hard to see but it is there.
The pharaonic heads at each corner are Egyptian elements within an ostensibly classically inspired monument. Acroteria, or acroterion as is its singular definition, are an architectural ornament. The ones on this monument are known as acroteria angularia. The ‘angularia’ means at the corners.
The entire monument is based on an illustration of the monument of the Murainville family in Pugin’s Views of Paris of 1822 and also on Moliere’s memorial which are both at Pere Lachaise in Paris.
The Gordon memorial incorporates elements of the Egyptian style and symbolism that influenced 19th century funerary monuments after the first Egyptian explorations. Kensal Green contains many significant examples and there are others to be found in Brompton, Highgate and Abney Park. The Victorians regarded the Egyptians highly as it was also a cult of the dead.
So when you next see a butterfly fluttering on the breeze or even perched on a memorial for eternity remember its importance within the tradition of symbols, religions and cultures. Who knows it might be one of your ancestors…..
In the light of the current COVID restrictions, I am reblogging this post from a previous Symbol of the Month. Enjoy!
What does a woman clinging to a cross, seemingly for dear life, have in common with the film ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and heavy metal group Def Leppard?
Strangely enough, the connection is an 18th century Protestant hymn written by a fiercely Calvinist minister which has entered the Western cultural consciousness in the same way as ‘Abide With Me’.
‘Rock of Ages’ is a hymn with an enduring message of hope and ultimate salvation. So no wonder it inspired a potent funerary symbol which is still used today. However, it’s the second line in the third verse, ‘Simply to Thy cross I cling.’ that has proved most inspirational to Victorian monument masons.
A variant is a pensive young woman leaning on a cross for support as at West Norwood. This cemetery contained several examples and here is a selection:
They’re not angels as they don’t possess wings and angels didn’t begin to appear in Victorian cemeteries until the late 19th century. But they are one of the few cemetery symbols inspired by a popular hymn. It’s also a Protestant motif and was the only way in which a cross would have been permitted in a Victorian cemetery until near the end of the 19th century. This was due to the religious wars that were raging at the time.
When the Victorians created their large municipal cemeteries there was still a fierce Anti-Catholic prejudice within Britain. This dated back to Henry VIII and the Reformation and had resulted in several anti-Catholic laws being passed during the 17th and 18th centuries. But the cry was still ‘No Popery’ in the 19th century and any symbols that were associated with Catholicism weren’t welcome in the new marble orchards. These included crosses, figures of saints and also angels. Instead, there was a return to Classicism using Roman and Greek motifs and architecture. Then, as the 19th century progressed, funerary monuments reflected the tastes of the time. So you could walk through one and see Arts & Crafts, Celtic Revival, Art Nouveau until eventually towards the end angels did being to fly in.
‘Rock of Ages’ was written by a Calvinist minister, the Reverend Augustus Toplady, in 1763 and was first published in a religious magazine, ‘The Gospel’, in 1775. It’s allegedly based on an incident in Toplady’s life. He was a preacher in a village named Blagdon and was travelling along the gorge of Burrington Combe in Somerset’s Mendip Hills when he was caught in a storm. He managed to find shelter in a gap in the gorge and was struck by the name of the crevice that had saved him. It’s still marked as ‘Rock of Ages’ both on the rock itself and maps. He is reputed to have written the hymn’s lyrics on the back of a playing card although one wonders what a minister was doing with a deck of cards. However, no-one’s sure if this incident actually happened or if it’s apocryphal….
Toplady wasn’t a popular man and in an article by Rupert Christensen of the Daily Telegraph he was described as ‘fanatical, in a gross Calvinism and most difficult to deal with.’ John Wesley avoided him. Toplady was also fond of writing bizarre articles, one of which proposed that a spiralling National Debt could never be paid off due to the extent of human sinfulness. Something for the new Chancellor to ponder on I’m sure. Toplady died in 1776 from TB and would undoubtedly have been forgotten were it not for his rousing hymn.
‘Rock of Ages’ caught the popular imagination. Gladstone translated it into Latin and Greek and asked for it to be played at his funeral. Prince Albert reputedly requested it on his deathbed and it has appeared in several feature films. These include ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ where it’s sung by David Bowie as Major Jack Celliers and both ‘Paper Moon’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ where it’s played at a funeral. It’s also inspired musicians such as Def Leppard and the writer of the film score for ‘Altered States.’ John Congliano. It’s also the title of the long running musical stage show.
These are its lyrics:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
I’ve also seen the lyrics of the hymn inscribed on monuments as at Streatham Cemetery and also Brompton.
However it does also appear as a motif on tombstones as here:
It has been described as a symbol of faith, of a person lost in sin whose only hope is to cling to the cross.
Sometimes just the phrase is enough as here:
It was also popular as a print and these are two examples:
Both seem to clinging to a cross in a raging sea – a sea of sin perhaps?
The symbol has reappeared in more recent years and there is a much smaller, modern version at Beckenham Cemetery. This is on the grave of a 16 year old who died in 1965.
An inspirational hymn to the Victorians and also well into the 20th Century but what could have the same effect these days? I’ve always fancied a video of Sid Vicious singing ‘/My Way’ on my tombstone…..