This is the voluptuous, but homeless, mourning woman of West Norwood cemetery. I first noticed her on a visit in 2013 when I found her under bushes in the front courtyard of the cemetery. I was immediately intrigued. After all, It’s not every day that you find a naked woman on her own with no identification. I emailed Colin Fenn of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery and he was kind enough to reply that no-one knew which grave or memorial she had originally belonged to.
This was because. in 1965. Lambeth Council made a compulsory purchase of the cemetery. Like the others in London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, the cemetery company that owned had gone bankrupt and left it to deteriorate. Lambeth then claimed ownership over the existing graves after extinguishing past rights. But even worse, they then embarked on a ‘lawn conversion’ which was a euphemistic term for a drastic and catastrophic clearance of the cemetery. As we know, some councils are very keen to make it easy for their parks and gardens department to mow round tombstones etc cemeteries and so they embarked on a free-for-all. Memorials, monuments, statues, – all were cleared away and smashed beyond repair. From old postcards it can be seen that the cemetery was heavily populated with weeping angels, crosses, mausolea, etc and it has been estimated that up to 10,000 monuments including some of the listed ones. The cemetery had been closed to new burials as it was full but Lambeth didn’t let this deter them and so they restarted new burials by reselling existing plots for re-use. As a result, the new burials were stopped and a handful of the damaged or memorials had to be restored. Lambeth were also required to publish an index of cleared and resold plots so the descendants of historic owners can identify and request restitution of their family’s plot.
But this poor lady has lost her place in the cemetery. She obviously had a place on which to grieve somewhere on the cemetery once but not now. She has a slightly Art Nouveau look about her so she may date from the turn of the century, perhaps around 1900. We are lucky that she hasn’t been stolen altogether as in other cemeteries.
Since then she has moved again, further inside the cemetery near the entrance which is where this photograph was taken.
And so she is condemned to grieve and mourn, now an anonymous memorial, a eternal symbol of sadness.
Acknowledgement: Wikipedia and Colin Fenn.
Text and photo copyright Carole Tyrrell
I was going through my memory cards recently and found some more photos of this lonely lady when she had been placed on the lawn at the front entrance of West Norwood cemetery.
As the boat neared San Michele, the gleaming white walls of San Isola came into view, almost as if it was floating on the water. An elderly lady fellow passenger enquired as to my reason for being the only person disembarking at the Cimiterro stop. The crowded waterbus quickly sped away on its way to Murano, the glassmakers island. Then I entered the place where the dead rule, where silence is absolute and there was a strong sense of ‘Enter if you dare’.
The hurly burly of San Marco was far behind me as the atmosphere of San Michele, the true Isle of the Dead surrounded me. Once away from the crowds the streets were deserted under the glaring sun. De Chirico images seemed to around every corner. I had been able to see San Michele’s high walls and tall cypress trees from the Fondamente Nuovo quayside on the main island. I wasn’t sure if they were to keep the living out or the dead in.
San Michele is the closest island to Venice and was a former fishing port. Its creation was, like London’s Magnificent 7 Victorian cemeteries, a response to overcrowded city graveyards which resulted in Napoleon issuing a decree on burials. Due to the lack of space most burials are disinterred after 12 years and taken to the ossuary island of Sant ‘Angelo. However its most famous residents,Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, Diaghilev and Joseph Brodsky all most definitely rest in peace. Venice has two cemeteries; San Michele mainly for Protestants and Catholics and a Jewish one on the Lido.
Coducci designed its grand Renaissance church, San Michele Isola, which was the first one built in Venice and commissioned by Franciscan monks in 1469. The monastery on the island was established in the 10th century and was extremely successful and wealthy. The cloister and funerary chapel still remain and more recently political prisoners were housed in the now former monastery.
There were only a few other visitors exploring and it seemed as if every inch of space had been utilised. There are wall graves, conventional graves and huge columbariums with their contents placed in large drawers stacked on top of each other. The effect is rather like a succession of filing cabinets.
It was difficult to navigate my way around as there didn’t seem to be any site plans or maps visible and I wandered into the main part and was surprised by how the monuments and mausolea stretch on into the distance. Poppies brightly stud the grassy gaps between them. On November 1, All Soul’s Day, chrysanthemums, the Italian flowers of the dead, are everywhere on the island. Diaghilev and Stravinsky lie in the Greek and Russian Orthodox sections and Ezra Pound is in the Evangelic or Protestant part. Jan Morris, the travel writer, has written of being enchanted by the island’s ‘seductive isolation’ and it is absolutely silent here. The only sounds during my visit was the water lapping at the steps of a three window doorway and a fight between what sounded like a cat and a seagull on the other side of one dividing wall. I could almost understand the claim that tourists commit suicide in Venice just so they can be buried on the island. An Englishman from Staffordshire is said to have ‘left us in peace Feb 2 1920.’
In many ways it’s very like a British Victorian cemetery with its carvings and statues of mourning women and sorrowing angels. One wall grave had putti or cherubs holding flowers as decoration. One seemed to be screwing his eyes up against the sun even though his luxuriantly carved locks cast a shadow
A mourning woman in beautifully carved robes, her hand clasped around her face as if she had toothache stood by a grille as if waiting to be admitted to a seedy club.
In the columbarium Elisa Marcosanti’s columbarium drawer is decorated by putti with oddly awkward legs to ensure that they fit into the space.
Venice has always been celebrated for its mosaics and the Mazzega memorial boasted a particularly lovely example in a portrait of the deceased.
There didn’t seem to be the same quality to more contemporary examples which looked amateurish in comparison in my opinion. A huge statue of a woman in a hooded robe stood in the centre of one section and looked as if she was clutching her stomach in pain.
As I wandered amongst the tightly packed memorials and monuments looking for the famous incumbents I came across a plain little mausoleum with its own set of steps leading up to it. The couple coming towards me seemed oblivious to my presence and so I ventured inside. There was an ornate and painted table with candles, a crucifix, small statue of St Anthony and cards and envelopes. There was no indication as to whom it commemorated, no family name and , as I felt I was intruding I crept away.
A sculpture of a couple kissing mystified me; was it Death and the Maiden or the departed saying goodbye to the sorrowing mourner? Certainly the figure of Death looked female…
But San Michele didn’t feel crowded and I wouldn’t agree that the statues and memorials are grotesque as one writer stated. Some of the larger statues were very plain. A huge statue of Gabriel, looking like a piece municipal architecture, dominated an area as he held his trumpet on one hand and looked hopefully skyward. He looked as if he’d been bought off the peg compared to the riot of angels, Franciscan friars, angels and weeping women. As I explored further I came across a stack of numbered concrete posts and photographs which I assumed came from disinterred burials.
There was so much to see in San Michele and I was aware that I only saw a fraction of it due to lack of time. I never found any of the famous incumbents as it was easier to let my feet and camera wander where they wanted to. The cloister also eluded me but on a return visit….
As the waterbus sped away back to the mainland I saw a modern sculpture in the waters of the lagoon. It seemed to portray St Peter on a boat afloat on the waves. From the quayside San Michele vanished behind it s anonymous walls again and you could easily pass it by with no idea of what its purpose was. I hope to make a return visit one day and wander once more amongst the silent mourning women to look out through the triptych window out onto the ceaselessly flowing water and hear nothing but the waves.
All images are scans from prints from films.
All images and text copyright Carole Tyrrell
First published in Friends of Nunhead Cemetery quarterly journal.
Please let me know what you think and check out Loren’s blog as well.
My involvement with cemeteries changed my life for the better – I made new friends, got involved with heritage and conservation and came to appreciate the beauty of many of the memorials and the poignancy of their epitaphs. These people had lived and loved and their friends and family wanted to remember them forever. My involvement with Nunhead Cemetery has been over 25 years no wand I still find new things to see.
This beautiful and large Celtic Cross was found in St Margarets Churchyard in Lee, SE London. I had been exploring the old St Margarets churchyard which is across the road. This contained the original St Margarets church, now a ruin, and some very interesting tombstones and memorials.
But the current St Margarets is a large Victorian building with some very colourful 19th century stained glass and, more unusually, beautiful wall paintings. These are pre-Raphaelite in style and well worth seeing if you’re in the area and the church is open. St Margarets also has windows made from pieces of broken stained glass which gives a jigsaw effect and kaleidoscope patterns on the floor when the sun shines through.
This memorial is a Celtic Cross in style and a symbol of the Arts & Crafts movement that was popular from 1880-1910 when there was a Celtic revival. The epitaph is written in curvy Art Nouveau writing and was well worn which rendered it virtually indecipherable. All I could make out was that it was in memory of a deceased wife. This was a real pity as I would have liked to have known more about the person who was buried there.
I noticed the four symbols; one on each corner of the cross within the wheel. An ox, an eagle, a lion and an angel.. I’d never previously seen this combination on a funerary monument and thought, in my ignorance, that it might have meant that the deceased had loved animals.
But, after posting my photos of the memorial onto The Cemetery Club Facebook page a fellow member, Connie Fairchild, replied saying that she thought that the symbols might represent the four evangelists. She was kind enough to post a link to a relevant site which was enormously helpful.
The four symbols are:
Human/Angel = Matthew
Lion = Mark
Ox = Luke
Eagle = John
These were the four canonical gospels with the for living creatures that surround God’s throne. In the Book of Revelations chapter 4: verses 5-11
‘Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind .
Verses 4:7 Apocalypse of Revelation of John
‘…the first living creature, like a LION, the second living creature like an OX, the third living creature with a face like a HUMAN face, and the fourth living creature like a flying EAGLE.
The four living creatures are also mentioned in Ezekiel Chapter One verses 1-14, Ezekiel, Chapter 10, verses 1-22 and Daniel Chapter 7, verses 1-8. The creatures are also mentioned in other religious texts such as St Irenaeus of Lyons and St Augustine of Hippo.
Wikipedia has quite a lot to say on tetramorphs
‘The four symbols are also known as a tetramorph. This is a symbolic arrangement of four different elements. Tetramorph is derived from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, shape. Also four forms or shapes.
In Christian art, the tetramorph is the union of the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the four living creatures derived from the Book of Ezekiel into a single figure, or more commonly, a group of four figures. The Evangelists portraits are often accompanied by the tetramorphs or the symbols often used to represent them. Each symbol can be described as a tetramorph in the singular, and a group as ‘the tetramorphs but usually only when all four are together. Tetramorphs were very common in early medieval art especially in illuminated Gospel books, They are still common in religious art up to the present day.
Other examples of the combination of different elements are the Sphinx in Egypt which has the body of a lion and the head of a human.’
The animals associated wit the Christian tetramorph originate in the Babylonian symbols of the four fixed signs of the zodiac; the Ox representing Taurus; the lion representing Leo, the eagle representing Scorpio; the man or angel representing Aquarius. In Western astrology the four symbols are associated with the elements of, respectively Earth, Fire, Water and Air. The creatures of the Christian tetramorph were also common in Egyptian, Greek and Assyrian mythology. The early Christians adopted this symbolism and adapted it for the four Evangelists as the tetramorph, which first appears in Christian art in the 5th century.’
I have also personally seen a tetramorph in Ely Cathedral.
So this is a deeply religious monument. The Cross and the evangelistic symbols are beautifully carved and it really stands out in the churchyard due to its size and position.
Since seeing this one I have found two more in Brompton Cemetery but not as well carved and, although large, not as imposing.