Nowadays, most people associate the hourglass symbol with the irritating little symbol on your computer screen that announces that the PC or laptop is thinking about doing something or the one that times the boiling of your egg to boil. It’s a traditional symbol of waiting nowadays.
But an hourglass, sometimes with wings, on a tombstone is different. Instead, it’s a reminder of mortality in that the ‘sands of time’ have run out. A winged hourglass reminds us that time waits for no-one as time flies literally. It can often be seen in vanitas paintings as a reminder that life is fleeting, that time is passing rapidly and that every day, one comes closer to death.
Still Life with Skull ‘Life, Death & Time’
Vanitas, from the Latin for vanity, is a genre of art that flourished in the Netherlands during the early 17th century. It’s a particular form of still-life and contains collections of objects that are symbolic of the inevitability of death, the transience of life and vainglory of earthly pursuits and pleasures. The viewer is invited to look at the picture and to be reminded of their own mortality. They also provided a moral justification for painting attractive objects. As in much moralistic genre painting the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message. Vanitas pictures evolved from earlier simple paintings of skulls and other symbols of death which were frequently painted on the back of portraits during the late Renaissance. It’s height of popularity was from 1620 – 1650 and was centred in Leiden in the Netherlands, Flanders.
Very few vanitas picture contain figures; instead they contain certain standard items. These are: symbols of arts and sciences (books, maps, and musical instruments), wealth and power (purses, jewellery, gold objects), and earthly pleasures (goblets, pipes, and playing cards); symbols of death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers); and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life (usually ears of corn or sprigs of ivy or laurel). And of course hourglasses to reflect the passing of time and the need to make the most of it. Objects were often tumbled together in disarray, suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they represent.
However, Douglas Keister, author of Stories in Stone, has suggested another, bolder interpretation. ‘The hourglass can also be turned over or inverted over and over again which symbolises the cyclic nature of life and death, heaven and earth.’ Inversion can be seen as the interplay of opposites in death giving rise to life and vice versa. ‘
In fact it wasn’t until I started researching for this piece that I realised how many interpretations the hourglass symbol could have. Pirates are reputed to use it on their flags as a warning that their time, or lives, were about to run out, to scare their victims and enemies. Hourglasses were often placed in coffins. They can also feature in tattoos especially in prison where a tattoo of an hourglass can mean no parole.
There is also an association with old movies in that the hero/heroine has one span of the sad in which to make a decision or rescue. The dramatic turning over of the great hourglass down to the spiralling of that last grain of sand adds to the mystery and drama.
A quick online search revealed masonic and spiritual associations. 2 saints are pictured with hourglasses; St Ambrose and St Magdalene. And Chronos, the personification of time, is also associated with it. But always with the same connotation of time passing and the need to be aware that life is fleeting and to make the most of it. The Grim Reaper or Death when depicted as a skeleton often holds an hourglass with his scythe.
The splendid example at the top of this page is on the roundels on the Linden Grove entrance gates to Nunhead Cemetery. This is one of London’s Magnificent 7 Victorian cemeteries. They were created and cast by Robert Stephenson who is a lecture on death and funerary commemoration and is also known as ‘Dr Death’.
How to read symbols, Clare Gibson, A C Black, 2009
A Guide to the Grave Symbols in Nunhead Cemetery, Ron Woollacott, FONC Publications, 2004, republished 2006.
Stories in Stone – A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, USA 2004
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978
Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell unless indicated otherwise.