The skull and crossbones. One of the central motifs of 18th century Memento Mori and intended to be a stark and macabre reminder of the viewer’s inevitable destination. This would be all that would remain of you after death.
However it wasn’t a very comforting message to either the loved ones left behind or to the living.
But fashions and tastes change, even in funerary symbolism, and the skull and crossbones had served their purpose.
Instead they were replaced by the winged soul. This consisted of a small child’s head flanked by a pair of wings or a garland of leaves. They have the faces of babies with big, round eyes, plump cheeks and pouting lips and resemble Renaissance putti which are child-like. Putti represent the sacred cherub as they are known in England.
The winged soul may have been intended to be a more comforting image as the wings represented the soul of the deceased ascending to heaven. This could also give hope of a resurrection to those left behind. According to headstone symbols:
‘In the USA the winged soul is known as a soul effigy.’
It was immensely popular and in my explorations of medieval Kent churches and their churchyards I found many examples. In fact, in one or two churchyards they outnumbered the skull and crossbones symbol. They mainly had one winged soul on a headstone but there were sometimes two or three clustered together as in these examples:
They can also appear in several combinations with other classic memento mori symbols as here:
In addition, every mason seemed to have his own interpretation of feathers as they can be carved as typical fluffy feathers, resemble broad leaves or be very stylised.
With wings in general they are an important symbol of spirituality. They express the possibility of flying and rising upwards to heaven. For example, in the Hindu faith, they are:
‘the expression of freedom to leave earthly things behind…..to reach Paradise.’
However, as the full flowering of the Victorian language of death in the 19th century began to appear the emblems of memento mori were retired. Although a couple, such as the hourglass and ouroboros, were revived. But I did find two modern examples of the winged soul in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford, Kent.
I had always previously thought of the winged soul as being a more general symbol and just a decorative feature. I called them winged cherub heads or death heads and never considered that they might have had a specific meaning or purpose. It was exciting to see so many variations and interpretations sometimes within the same churchyard. But it depended on the skills of the mason as to how well they were carved and whether they were 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional.
But as a message of comfort it is one of the most poignant in memento mori. The other central motifs emphasise time running out, think about your life now and this is all that will be left. The winged soul suggests an eternal life and a more uplifting message.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
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