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.
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