Yes, dear reader, it was three years ago in 2015 that I began this blog. A complete novice, I set it up in order to talk about primarily funerary symbols which are my main interest and to promote my work in progress which will be a book about them. One of my great pleasures in life is exploring cemeteries, graveyards and cemeteries to find new symbols to write about. But a word of warning, remember to take a camera with you and take photos of the graves around the one that you’ve chosen otherwise they can be difficult to relocate. I feel that symbols are the deceased’s final message to the world. It can either be a way to say goodbye or a message of comfort to those left behind. However, I can only speculate on the reasons for their choice.
But, while writing this blog, I’ve also become interested in the living residents of cemeteries – the wildlife. Often cemeteries are locked up at night and are usually quiet places which enable wildlife to flourish. There are often wild areas where the grass is left uncut and these can be a vital lifeline in an urban green space. They can support many different varieties of wildflowers, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, dragonflies and also foxes and birds. At a recent Brompton Cemetery Exploring Butterflies day 13 species of Butterflies were found. It’s interesting how people use cemeteries as one man enthusiastically recommended Brompton Cemetery’s plentiful supply of blackberries for his smoothies!
So, thanks to my readers and visitors for staying with me over the last 3 years. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts, photographs and theories on particular symbols. There’s plenty more to come including exploring what remains of the Necropolis Railway at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, a return visit to Chaldon Church to look at the churchyard memorials and also to the place where my interest in cemeteries began, St Lawrence’s Hospital burial ground also in Surrey and a Roman necropolis surrounded by back gardens in Italy.
And as always there will be Symbol of the Month. It’s always fascinating to undertake the research for these as there may be several different interpretations of meaning and it can also led into other directions.
So please come with me through either the cemetery gates or perhaps the lychgate to a churchyard and let’s explore together. There’s a symbol over there that I haven’t seen before and although I’m not sure what it means now I soon will…..
However, despite it being a common shell and also an invaluable food source, I have only found it gracing 3 monuments so far. There are several flat 2D versions on a tomb in Nunhead Cemetery and two examples within Brompton Cemetery; one is a more decorative touch and the other is this lovely 3D beauty. So well carved and tactile – I just wanted to reach out and touch it. But I’m keeping a look out for any other shells adorning memorials.
Shells have been with us since time immemorial and who hasn’t picked one up from a beach to take home as a souvenir?
The scallop is inextricably linked with the Christian religion and its use in funerary rites pre-dates the Egyptians. In pre Christian times, the Celts in particular, used it as an emblem of the setting sun and note that in the above example it is placed in the centre of the supporting Celtic Cross. The nimbus of the Cross is considered to be a sun symbol. In Christianity baptismal fonts were often shell shaped and a shell was used to scoop water up and then pour it over the person being baptised’s head. This emphasises the shell’s association with water as it’s thrown up by the sea onto the shore. But there is another link in that it’s seen as representing the final journey from the world of the living to that of the dead by the crossing of a body of water such as the River Styx and so is also a motif of rebirth. This is how the early Christian church used it.
Another funerary use for the shell was being placed, often with stones and coins, on tombstones or at gravesites. The artofmourning website says:
‘It has been suggested that this refers to the ancient tradition of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks as protection from scavenging animals or as a reminder of the deceased.’
But there’s also a more meditative side to the scallop as its grooves can also be seen as representing many paths leading to one point such as searching for God or a path in life. So this ancient motif can be seen as representing a journey through life itself or indeed to St James’ shrine.
It’s also associated with fertility and, in particular, the goddess of love, Venus. In Botticelli’s celebrated painting, ‘The Birth of Venus’, the goddess is portrayed as standing on a large scallop shell.
Sandro Botticelli The Birth of Venus shared under Wiki Creative Commons
Incidentally, it also features in Palladian architecture which flourished 1715 – 1760 which was built on the heritage from Greece and Rome. Here the shell was used in a concave form and usually within a niche. In this example, also from Brompton, the shell is less obvious and more of a decorative feature.
The link with St James is that scallop shells are very common in Galacia where the shrine is located. But there are also 3 very famous myths and legends that reinforce the link. According to the hillwalktours website:
St James, together with his brother John, one of Christs’ disciples. After Jesus’s death, James went to Iberia, which is now Galacia in the north of Spain with the intention of converting the pagans there to Christianity. However, in roughly 44AD, after returning to Jerusalem, James was beheaded by order of King Herod. This made him the first disciple to be martyred. James’s body was then carried by ship to Galacia where the three myths arose.
In the first, the ship carrying St James’ body was lost and destroyed in a severe storm. After an unspecified length of time, his body washed ashore completely covered in scallop shells. In the second myth, a knight fell from a clifftop as St James’ ship passed beneath. The saint’s influence was felt as the knight emerged from the sea unharmed and covered in scallop shells. The third and final one features a wedding in which the horse carrying the bride bolted into the ocean as St James’ ship passes by. But the bride and horse were saved as they emerged from the water covered in scallop shells. Hence the link between St James and the shell.
Pilgrims were big business in medieval times and the scallop was a badge of honour for pilgrims to display that they had made the journey. They often had their shells buried with them or carved on their tombs.
And so the humble scallop shell reveals itself as an important symbol with several significant meanings. A fertility symbol, evidence of a seeker exploring many oaths towards their goal or a passenger on Charon’s boat towards eternity? Myself, I would incline to the final river journey but I also like the idea of exploring many paths in life. We will probably never know the actual significance of the shell to the deceased but it was important enough to be placed on their memorial to be enjoyed by any passer-by.
The remarkable discovery of a stone sarcophagus in Lant Street, Southwark last year spurred the Museum of London to collate forty years of work into one exhibition. How did Roman London commemorate death and what can we learn from what they’ve left behind?
Exhibition curators Jackie Kiely, Rebecca Redfern and Meriel Jeater have put together a collection that looks at the Roman way of death and Britain’s place on the edge of the Roman Empire.
There is a murderous tradition associated with Mayday or May 1st. For on this day the Jack or Jack in the Green must be slain and his body torn apart and thrown to a waiting crowd. Of course it an also happen on May 7th if that’s the date that the Mayday bank holiday falls on.
Jack’s murder marks the coming of Summer as he is also seen as the Green Man or the embodiment of Nature. There are also associations with Puck. Mayday also coincides with the Celtic festival of Beltane which is a fire festival. It burst forth with abundant fertility although Beltane is one of the names for the god of death. But there’s no blood spilt in Jack’s murder. Instead his large, tall body is formed from leaves and flowers which is why he’s known as Jack in the Green . You’ll find him being pulled apart at various locations within the UK.
According to The Living Myths Celtic Year website
‘Beltain is the origin of pagan May Day festivities such as that of the Padstow Hobby Horse, and maypole dancing, of the ‘Queen of the May’, and of ‘well dressing’ – decking holy wells with flowers, as still practised in some rural communities.’
The tradition carried on in England as, according to the Hastings Jack in the Green website:
‘In the 16th and 17th centuries in England people would make garlands of flowers and leaves for the May Day celebration, they became increasingly elaborate. Works Guilds would try to outdo each other, in the late 18th century this became a matter for competition, milkmaids in London carried garlands on their heads with silver objects on them, but the crown had to go to the chimney sweeps. Their garland was so big it covered the entire man. It became known as Jack in the Green.’
The Jack has a conical or pyramidal framework on which the greenery is entwined with a man inside to ‘walk’ it along streets and in procession. Mayday celebrations were often rowdy, drunken affairs with the Maypole as a very obvious phallic symbol in a festival dedicated to fertility. It, the May Queen and the Jack are the only survivors. I found this 17th century image of a Jack on Wikipedia.
As you might imagine it was the Victorians who called time on Jack in the Green declaring it unruly and raucous (surely not). They replaced the merry stumbling prance or stagger around the Maypole with a smaller one for children to skip round. Then most of the celebrations vanished apart from the May Queen and well dressing in some regions.
But you can’t keep a good Jack down forever and in the 1980’s he was slowly brought back to life.
In 1983, the Hastings Jack in the Green was revived by Mad Jack’s Morris Men. They take their name from Mad Jack Fuller with their symbol being that of his pyramidal mausoleum in Ditchling churchyard which is also known as the Sugarloaf.
The festival is a 4 day event in the town culminating in a parade of giant figures and the releasing of Jack before he takes centre stage in the procession along the High Street and onto West Hill. The Jack stands in waiting on his own stage with his attendants, known as ‘bogies’ or Green Men as morris dancers and singers take to the centre stage. Here is a selection of images from the Hastings Jack in the Green from 2012 and 2018:
Morris dancing has been around for over 600 years and there are several regional variants. He wears a beautiful crown of flowers on top. The costumes have become more ornate and decorative over the years since I first came upon the celebration by chance on a visit to Hastings in 2001. Then it was within the grounds of Hastings Castle and I sat and listened to Maddy Prior singing as the sapphire sea below glittered under the afternoon sun. The Hastings Mayday also coincides with hundreds of bikers descending on the town but there’s not trouble as they are much more interested in buying insurance or bathrooms.
The final event is the slaying of Jack and he is walked to the stage surrounded by his entourage and spun round to the sound of massed drums. Then the ripping apart of him begins in earnest and sprigs and branches of evergreens are tossed out to the eager crowd as having a piece of Jack is meant to ensure you good luck for the coming year.
I am indebted to Sarah Hannant’s invaluable book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids – a Journey through the English Ritual Year for the information on my local Jack in the Green which takes place around Deptford. There Jack’s slaughter takes place on May 1st regardless of whether its’s a working day or not. The group are still known as Fowlers Troop and their version took place from roughly 1906 until 1924 when the police stopped it. Again it was associated with chimney sweeps. A local photographer of the time, Thankfull Sturdee, (now there’s a name) took photos of the 1906 Jack and his work can be found on the Fowlers Troop website and also in Lewisham Borough photos archives.
I saw it in 2017 and it followed a route through Greenwich which includes several pubs. Outside each one there was morris dancing and singing and two old sea dogs relating various tall tales. The Jack is very tall, roughly 3m, decorated with flowers at the top and has to have a guide to lead him forward as it must be difficult to see his way. I followed them through the wet grounds of the former Royal Naval College and enjoyed seeing the looks of amazement on car drivers and casual bystanders faces as we passed by. Sadly, I missed the killing of Jack as I lost them at the Rose and Crown. Here is a selection of photos from the 2017 Deptford Jack – look at the size of the Jack!
A Jack in the Green is an event worth seeing as it’s always very lively and there’s a pub or two involved if that’s what you fancy. It’s a celebration of English culture, albeit slightly watered down these days, and an acknowledgement of the changing of the seasons.
So support your local Jack!
There are several Jack in the Greens in the UK:
Brentham, North Ealing, Guildford, Kuntsford, Oxford, Rochester, Whitstable, Bristol, Carshalton, Central London at Conway Hall, City of London, Highworth, Wilts, Ilfracombe, Knutsford, Oxford,,
The theatre is dark, the audience and backstage staff have all gone home or off to the pub and the final curtain has been brought down. The end of a show, the end of the evening and, in funerary symbolism, the end of a life.
This fine example is from West Norwood Cemetery where it commemorates the Raikes family. Theatre was in their blood and so the sculpture of a theatrical curtain is very appropriate.
But curtains and draperies have always been associated with death and remembrance. There is the old saying which is sometimes quoted on headstones and memorials that the deceased has ‘gone beyond the veil’. An urn on top of a memorial will often have a sculpted piece of cloth draped across it which indicates the division between the living world and the realm of the dead.
In the 19th century and also well into the 20th century drapes were hung over mirrors with curtains and blinds drawn down at windows during the period of mourning. It was as if they were hiding death from the world or containing it within the family. On the Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery website they mention mirrors being covered with black crepe fabric in order to prevent the deceased’s spirit being trapped in the looking glass.
Curtains also feature on headstones where they are depicted as parted in order to display a meaningful symbol or to draw attention to an epitaph that takes centre stage. This example comes from Nunhead Cemetery where the curtains are parted to display a downturned dove which is a symbol of The Holy Ghost.
However the Raikes one is very obviously a theatrical curtain and it’s beautifully detailed. They were powerful players in that flamboyant world and the curtain is a direct reference to this. For example, in 1889, they had Sir Edward Elgar and his new wife, Caroline, as guests in their house, Northlands in College Road, Dulwich. This was just prior to his Salut D’Amour being performed at the Crystal Palace.
But the family home had a secret in its basement. This was where Charles Raikes (1879-1945) had constructed his own private theatre. He lived there with his mother, Vera, (1858-1942) and two sons, Raymond and Roynon, from his former marriage. Roynon’s wife, Greta, and their daughter Gretha were also part of the household. Charles lived and breathed theatre and he was ahead of his time when he converted a large billiard room into the Northlands Private Theatre. Nowadays it would be a lavish home cinema with comfy seats and popcorn on tap with his own home movies onscreen. He extended his pride and joy by removing a couple of inconvenient bay windows and then converting a coal cellar and wine cellar into dressing rooms. He was a talented scenic artist and stage carpenter and from 1924 – 1939 the Theatre put on nearly 23 productions a year to an invited audience. This was made up of the Raikes’ friends and relations and the actors and actresses friends as well. The lavish after show parties were renowned.
Charles’ sons continued the links to the entertainment world. Raymond (1910-1998) became a professional actor in the 1930’s and played Laertes to Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet at Stratford upon Avon.
However he eventually became a BBC producer, director and broadcaster. He won several awards over a long career which included pioneering the use of stereo sound in radio drama. In 1975 he retired and is known as one of the three greatest radio drama producers. Roynon became a professional photographer specialising in theatre pictures and also as a stills photographer for the BBC. Greta, his wife, became a theatrical costumier and drama teacher and her daughter, Gretha, in turn became a speech and drama teacher. In a 1997 Dulwich Society article she was also credited with being the curator of the archives of the Northlands Private Theatre.
The quotation below the curtain is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It comes from the 21st, 22nd or 23rd stanza depending on which version you read. This is the verse in full and is taken from the 1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
He saw them as a selection of quatrains or Rubaiyats that had been attributed to the Persian poet who was also known as the Astronomer Poet of Persia. Although Fitzgerald’s translation was initially unsuccessful, by the 1880’s, it had become immensely popular. It has influenced many creative people over the years including the Pre-Raphaelites and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also a fan and mentions ‘wise Omar’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, H P Lovecraft and Daphne Du Maurier are amongst many who may have borrowed a line a s a book title or used an Omar like figure within their works. Interpretations of the Rubaiyat can be very free and as a result the quatrains can change their wording. The underlying message of the Rubaiyat appears to be Seize the Day or Carpe Diem in Latin. There are also several references to drinking with the implication that once drinking is over so is life. But this particular line seems appropriate for its use on a headstone.
And so the curtain has bene brought down on the Raikes family but, as I took my photos, I thought I detected a faint smell of greasepaint and the appreciative sound of applause……
Nature has decided to burst forth now that the sun’s out and suddenly everything’s out at once. West Norwood Cemetery basked in a warm glow and its two terracotta mausoleums; the Doulton and the Tate, seemed to be glowing. I walked along the path from the entrance towards Ship Path and realised again how beautiful a cemetery can be in spring as new life appears amongst death.
I admired the groups of brightly coloured red and yellow tulips as they gracefully lifted their cups to the sun as in homage and a perennial Spring flower, garlic mustard, clustered around the base of a hedge around a memorial. I’ve seen plenty of it already this year and wondered if it was an omen of future weather.
A queen wasp flew indecisively above one group of primroses as if unable to choose which one to land on and so evaded my camera. A Queen wasp is one of the 7 signs of Spring as they awake from their winter slumber. Multi-coloured carpets of primroses were everywhere between monuments and memorials and butterflies were on the wing obeying the imperative being to mate.
Orange Tips, Holly Blues and the odd Brimstone, the first butterflies of the year, impressed me with their speed and acrobatics. One Holly Blue dived under a spreading rug of plants that covered last year’s forgotten or discarded horse chestnuts and dead leaves. There has been a lot of clearing going on in West Norwood and it was like rediscovering it again as I found memorials and monuments that I had never previously seen as they’d been hidden under ivy, brambles and other vegetation. The clearances have made it much easier to get to the back of Captain Wimble’s exuberant and magnificent tomb to admire the still crisp carving of one the ships on which he sailed. But more about him and his indomitable wife in a later posting. It is the reason that the grass path that runs past it is named, strangely enough, Ship Path.
In one clearing two drifts of wood anemones stood proud and nearby was a large patch of lesser celandine – another Spring time flower. I’ve also seen so much of it this year and again is it an omen of a hard winter to come or a hot summer….
A flash of russet behind a group of headstones caught my attention and I saw an adult fox selecting a good place in a patch of foliage as his mattress in which to have an afternoon kip. After he tucked himself in he then spotted me and got to his paws and limped off with difficulty. He appeared to have a bad problem with one of his front paws and I felt guilty for having disturbed him.
There is a part of West Norwood Cemetery which backs onto a small row of houses and so the occupants household pets, cats, come into explore. There’s often a good selection of them on a sunny afternoon; using the cemetery as an extension of their garden while checking each other out, going on the hunt or as their playground. After having disturbed the fox, I caught sight of a fluffy back and white cat on his rounds trotting along a grass path. I tried to keep a discreet distance as he passed Mrs Beeton’s modest memorial and the top of Ship Path. However, as I galumped along, he began to pick up speed. He trotted, more quickly now, across the main path in front of the catacombs and then leapt gracefully onto the wall above them. He looked back as if to say ‘Too late!’ and then vanished over it.
A grey cat near the houses was quite timid and I didn’t want to come too close and frighten him away completely. I took a couple of photos from as close as I dared and moved on.
So many dandelions this year and there was a fine spread of them in between memorials. After all the recent murky weather it was encouraging to see their bright splashes of colour.
Bluebells, at their most effective when in great drifts in woodland, were clinging together in a patch opposite the crematorium. It was just as if Mother Nature had brought everything into bloom at the same time instead of one after the other.
As I ate my lunch whilst admiring the crimson blossom on a tree nearby I could hear an old lawnmower in the distance. As I got up and came around to explore another large cleared area I saw a descendant of the Doulton family mowing the grass around the mausoleum. Terracotta always looks at its best in the sunshine and today it looked almost on fire.
A small statue of a praying child was almost being enveloped by lesser celandine and there’s been plenty of it everywhere I went this year,
I descended from the columbarium admiring the speed of butterflies as they whizzed around tantalizingly out of reach of my camera. It was then that I encountered the fox again. He lay draped over a grave like a fur stole and raised his head as I passed.
A cuckoo flower was half hidden in the long grass near another glorious display of brilliantly coloured tulips.
As I walked I thought how lucky I was in to be in this oasis with the busy world kept at bay outside its magnificent Gothic gates. I passed the Stonehenge inspired monument to John Britton which still looks as if it’s just landed from the opening scenes of 2001 and then to one of my favourite memorials in West Norwood or maybe any cemetery.
It’s a real gem and is the unashamedly Art Nouveau headstone dedicated to Amelia McKeown. Its modest size and poignant dedication have always impressed me and the primroses beneath it emphasised its deep blue colouring. This had been a chance discovery a few years ago when the main entrance had been closed for building works and visitors had had to enter via a side gate. Sometimes the road less travelled can bring the unexpected to your notice.
As I left the cemetery, feeling that I’d had almost a Spring walk in the countryside with some attractive monuments, I noticed the Unknown Mourner still grieving in a rose garden. The elderly lawnmower and the sparse cars of visitors were behind me and I was back out onto the slow moving traffic of Knights Hill and Norwood High Street again. I nearly turned round and went back in again…….
Stylised animals, sinuous snakes, Celtic knots and traditional strapwork, flowers, angels and even a cat! The decoration on Celtic crosses within cemeteries can be varied and interesting. But it wasn’t until I was exploring Brompton Cemetery with an apps designer that I really began to look at them more closely. He spotted the Viking style animals on Margaret Stevenson’s cross near the Chapel and we were soon seeing spirals and the more emblematic strapwork known as Hiberno-Saxon art or Insular art amongst others.
Celtic Crosses first appeared within cemeteries during the Celtic Revival of the 1850’s and it has since become a worldwide emblem of Irish identity. The Revival has also been described as the Celtic Twilight and the Cross is seen as its lasting contribution to the western world’s funerary art. The Celtic Cross has been known in Ireland since the 9th century and in mainland Britain since medieval times.
It’s a form of the traditional cross but with the addition of a nimbus or ring. The latter is seen as a symbol of eternity as it has no beginning or end. The addition of the nimbus has been attributed to St Patrick who is reputed to have added it to a Christian cross, extended one of the of the lengths to form the stem and then placed it on top of a stepped base. It was this combination of a pagan symbol and a Christian one that became the Celtic Cross. It has also been described as the ‘sun cross’ by those who interpret the nimbus ring as a representation of the sun. The four arms have also been interpreted as representations of the four elements; air, earth, fire and water as well as the stages of the day or the four fixed compass directions.
The more traditional, intricately patterned bands known as strapwork are known for the unbroken lines that make up any piece. There have been 8 basic designs that have been identified and claimed to be the basis of nearly all of the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art. Hiberno-Saxon art is also known as Insular art and examples appear in the Books of Kells. Here are four examples from West Norwood Cemetery.
It was in Brompton that I noticed two examples with single spirals on them. A spiral on a Celtic cross is generally drawn clockwise to represent either the sun or the direction of running water.
It is one of the most ancient symbols known to mankind. A double spiral is more difficult to create and has been seen as a depiction of universal balance such as yin and yang or night and day. The triple spiral or triskele is the most difficult for obvious reasons and has several meanings attributed to it. But the one that I thought was the most appropriate in a funerary context was the triskele being seen as a representation of three worlds: the spiritual, the earthly and the celestial. The word Triskele is reputed to have come from the Greeks and it’s one of the most complex Celtic symbols.
Also in Brompton, I discovered a Celtic cross with decoration that ended in snakes heads which is interesting as snakes which were revered by the Celts. They saw them as a representation of rebirth as they shed their skins and then live again. Notice also the Celtic knot in the centre of them. These have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe as well as appearing within Celtic insular art. They are supposed to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life with the closed ends signifying unity.
So the next time you visit a cemetery or churchyard look out for the Celtic Cross and see what you find. It’s not only Celtic inspired decoration that appears on them. These two examples are from my local churchyard – one features traditional strapwork and the other has a lovely and unusual angel with beautifully carved feathery wings and the nimbus is almost like a halo.
This is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery and features beautifully carved passionflowers, a deeply significant symbol in the language of flowers, and also the IHS in the centre of the cross.
And finally, again from Brompton, one with a cat in its centre which is possibly a pun on the name of the family commemorated – Cattenach.
It was a, shall we say, bracing February day in Brompton Cemetery. The snowdrops were clinging together for warmth along the main avenue and a drift of daffodils near the soon to be completed café thought better of coming out in bloom. But I, and the apps designer, local GP Simon Edwards, didn’t let this spoil our fun. We had previously worked with together on the Brompton animals app and it was good to have another pair of eyes with me.
Our aim was to devise an app that gave a good selection of symbols within the cemetery, both common ones that can also be found in other cemeteries and others that were perhaps unique to Brompton. There would be a brief comment on each one by yours truly and there was also the opportunity to see me in person. You’ll have to make up your own mind about whether I’m attempting fruitlessly to hide behind a Celtic Cross or draping myself elegantly around it.
Brompton opened in 1840 and, due to the 19th century anti-Papist movement. crosses, Christ statues or angels were not popular. Instead other cultures and civilisations and other older cultures and influences were used as inspiration. These included Classicism from ancient Greece and Rome, the Celtic and Egyptian Revivals, Biblical quotations and references, the language of flowers as well as animals and insects.
Simon was also looking for additional images for the Brompton animals app and soon found a group at the top of the Stevenson Celtic cross. These are supposedly based on Viking animal images but although, when we looked more closely, it was difficult to make out exactly what kind of animals they were. Brompton’s Celtic crosses are very interesting due to the variety of decoration on them from spirals, traditional Celtic strapwork, flowers and even a cat. I will be writing about them in next month’s Symbol of the Month.
But soon we were exploring the alpha and omega, the Chi Rho, shaking hands, downturned torches, and flowers amongst others.
Among Brompton’s more unusual symbols are the two Aladdin style lamps on the Cornwell headstone, the polar and cub on the Hills one in the modern burials section and the small stone boat tied up at the base of the cross on the McCaig monument.
So if you feel like taking a self guided Symbols tour around Brompton Cemetery then please click on this link:
The priest’s sermon has made you feel a little drowsy as you sit in your pew. Then, as your eyelids begin to droop, suddenly you can smell burning and hear crackling flames….faint screams as well and devilish chuckling interspersed with angels singing…..there’s a sudden warmth behind your back and when you turn around, you’re confronted with gleeful demons faces on the whitewashed wall. Is one turning round and beckoning to you? Instantly you’re wide awake again with a nudge from your mother to sit up straight and you turn to face the priest again. But you can still hear the flames and the laughter…..
Chaldon’s Doom painting, or mural as the church prefers to call it, is reputed to be the oldest in England and has been dated to at least the 12th century. It’s believed to be the work of an anonymous artist monk. Until the 17th century it taught the local parishioners which was the right path to follow if you wanted to be going upwards to eternal bliss instead of down to hell for endless torment. The mural’s official title, according to the church’s website is The Purgatorial Ladder, or Ladder of Souls, with the Seven Deadly Sins. However tastes and doctrines change and after the Reformation many of England’s Dooms were whitewashed over. It was felt by zealous reformers that they didn’t follow strict Bible doctrine and were also considered to be ‘Popish’.
But Dooms have a habit of re-surfacing and so it was with the Chaldon Doom. In 1869, the then Rector, Reverend Henry Shepherd was having the church walls prepared for whitewashing when he suddenly noticed signs of colour and halted the work. The mural was then cleaned and preserved. There was a further conservation in 1989 by the Conservator and Director of the Canterbury Wall Paintings Workshop.
According to the painted church website, Dooms were the most commonly painted subject in the Middle Ages. Dooms were often placed on a church’s west wall as a reminder to parishioners as they were leaving the church. But, as at Chaldon, they were also on the back wall or at the front on the chancel arch as at St Thomas’s Salisbury. The Chaldon mural has the disturbing effect of constantly looking over your shoulder when you turn your back on it…..
The Chaldon Doom is large and measures 17ft x 11ft and stands out against the plain white washed walls. It’s painted entirely in red whereas other Dooms are in full colour. However it’s the only image in England of the Ladder of Salvation although it’s common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It’s behind the pews and would have been a constant reminder to the parishioners to be thinking of the afterlife. A medieval congregation would have been illiterate and the Doom would have resembled a picture book or public information film on what could happen to sinners in eternity. They needed to prepare for the Final Judgement and, due to a shorter lifespan, the afterlife was much more to the forefront of the medieval mind than ours. A Doom is a traditional English term for a pictorial rendition of the Last Judgement or Doomsday which is the moment when Christ decides the eternal destination of human souls. This is because the Church was very concerned with how to portray the afterlife in a visual way that could be easily understood. After all a picture is worth a 1000 words…
There are roughly 40 surviving Dooms in Britain but in the 1880’s over 100 were recorded. They can often combine several themes: the parable of the sheep and the goats, assorted Biblical prophecies and other medieval traditions. The Chaldon mural uses the Seven Deadly Sins.
There’s only two choices for the dead as they arise from their graves to go up to Heaven and sitting around on clouds playing harps or down to Hell and the eternal flames. However Purgatory was also uppermost in the medieval mind as people believed that, prior to going to Heaven, a soul would have to spend time there before going up to Heaven. Chaldon’s Ladder represents Purgatory.
To interpret the Chaldon Doom and its crowded canvas you need to begin at the lower right of the painting and look for the serpent in the tree of life which is a metaphor for the fall of man. This is a rough guide from a Chaldon church pamphlet and imagine the priest using it to preach to his flock:
Two demons hold up a bridge of spikes over which dishonest tradesmen have to cross. These include a blacksmith, spinner, potter and mason who are all missing essential tools. The cheating milkman is about to climb the ladder with a brimming bowl of milk due to having given short measure in life.
Then we come onto the 7 Deadly Sins:
Avarice: A moneylender sits in flames as two demons hold him upright. He’s blind and money pours from his mouth. He has to count it all as it flows into his pouch.
Envy: There are two figures on the right hand side of the moneylender. One of them has longer hair than the other.
Lust: On the moneylender’s left hand side are two figures embracing.
On the left hand side of the ladder a demon plucks souls from the ladder of salvation.
Pride: A woman is beside a demon as a devil wolf gnaws at her hands. This could indicate either pride in her hands or that she fed her pets too well in life while ignoring the starving.
Anger: Above the woman two figures fight over a hunting horn. Two demons throw what are considered to be murderers into a cauldron.
Gluttony: A drunken pilgrim lies at the feet of a demon. He’s sold his cloak or badge of office in order to buy wine.
Sloth: At the far left 3 women dawdle.
A cloud bisects the picture to form a cross and the foot of the Ladder is the symbol of life. The Archangel Michael is weighing the good and bad deeds as the Devil slyly has a hand on the scales trying to weigh it down with bad deeds as he holds a rope dragging souls to hell. A penitent tries to point out to St Michael what the Devil is up to. The 3 Marys are being led to Heaven by an angel as another one above them helps a remorseful thief ascend to the Pearly Gates.
Elijah and Enoch are also going upwards to bliss on the right of the ladder as an angel holds up a scroll of their good deeds. Above them another of the heavenly host hold up a scroll which says ‘open ye the gates that the righteous may enter.’
On the far right the Lord is mesmerizing the Devil with his cross while welcoming Old Testament characters into Heaven and finally above the ladder is the demi figure of Christ in the act of benediction.
He has the sun on his right hand side and the moon on the left.
Chaldon church is near Coulsdon in Surrey and its correct name is St Peters & St Pauls.
It’s a lovely picture, postcard church with a candle snuffer tower but it’s in the middle of nowhere except for a scattering of nearby houses. There’s no village attached to it and it’s on the notorious Ditches Lane which leads off Farthing Downs. This can be a lonely road for walkers as there are no houses along it until you reach the church. Chaldon church is rumoured to have been built on a pagan site and there has been a church here since 1086 AD. Its foundations have been dated back to 727AD. I find it strange that such a magnificent and dramatic mural was located in such an out of the way place. It really took me by surprise when I first saw it as it’s so in your face. But as I turned away from it I thought I heard devilish sniggering and wondered what it must have look like under flickering candlelight.
There are other Doom paintings to be seen in England and these are:
South Leigh, Checkendon and Coombe – Oxfordshire
Stratford upon Avon, Worcs (this is in glass)
York Minster (a crypt carving)
St Thomas’s church, Salisbury
I have seen the one in Salisbury and was really impressed. It’s in full colour and is over the chancel arch to greet worshippers. Christ sits on a rainbow at the centre of the chancel arch with the godly rising from their graves with angels whereas on the left the sinners are being helped by demons to go down below. This again was whitewashed over and then re appeared. Here are a small selection of images from it: