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!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
From L http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/Rock_of_Ages/et me hide myself in Thee.
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…..
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.