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.
Sometimes a wander through a cemetery can make you feel as if you’re in a heavenly library due to the number of open books reverently laid on top of graves. They’re usually made from stone or granite, inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased and often a decorative book marker complete with carved tassel keeping the pages open. On first appearance the open book can seem a very simple and obvious symbol and it’s used in place of a more formal headstone. But, as with other symbols, it can have alternative meanings.
The 3 dimensional version that is carved to simulate a real book is a 20th century innovation. Prior to this it was rendered in a 2 dimensional, flat form and can be found on 18th and 19th century tombstones as part of an overall design or epitaph. This example is from the Gibbs memorial in Brompton cemetery in which the downwardly pointing finger indicates the large open book.
The open book can almost resemble a visitors book with the deceased’s details inscribed on it as if they were signing in or checking out for eternity and sometimes one page is left blank for perhaps the partner who will follow. On a recent stroll through Beckenham I came across several variations:
For example, there was one with both pages blank which could indicate that the inscription has worn off or that they were ready to be written for eternity. The latter echoes the well-known phrase ‘he or she can be read like an open book’ and the empty pages can indicate that this is how they want to be judged on the Day of Judgement. The echoes the quotation from the Book of Revelation 20:11-15:
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. King James Bible
This is also why the open book is also known as the Book of Life as it contains everything that the deceased has done throughout their life and for which they will now be accountable. Christ is often depicted carrying a book. J C Cooper also sees it as the Book of Life and adds that it can also represent
‘….learning and the spirit of wisdom, revelation and …wisdom.’
It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed.
In this example, a favourite verse has been inscribed on the pages. It is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:3
The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. King James Bible
This makes the symbol almost resemble a Bible. Other suggestions are that it can indicate the grave of a writer, publisher or even more obviously a clergyman.
It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed and a variant is the closed book. I found this one in West Norwood cemetery and it clearly indicates a life that has ended with the final chapter now written.
So the open book has made me think about how my book of life would look on my last resting place. I’m determined to make sure that it’s a good read for any passing visitor.
It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment. And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.
There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides. But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well. Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s. They are buried in the vaults beneath the church. St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.
However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These tombstones are topped with classic memento mori symbols. This is Latin for ‘remember me.’ They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:
‘Remember Man as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Remember man that you must die.’
Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.
St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’
I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols. There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable. However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.
The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.
This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds. It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield. All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’
Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it. This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel. These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible. The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard. In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.
Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a definite smirk. On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them. Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.
Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other. Below them is a small worn hourglass. I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.
Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre ‘Death’s Head.’ This is a human face with wings on either side of it. I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.
I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones. However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable. The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby. It reads:
‘ ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘
A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side. The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.
On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown. It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven. This verse from the Bible refers to it:
A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.
But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay. He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read. He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students. Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.
On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb. There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity. There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one. At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death. The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers. The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens. Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity. In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended. Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful motifs of mortality and resurrection.
St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable. It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard. However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’ 18th century symbols. But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..
It’s a two for one offer on symbols this month folks as I feature two ancient symbols which are often combined together. They both predate Christianity and were then adopted by the newly emerging faith. This was a time when Christians only communicated with fellow believers via a secret language of symbols and codes known only to each other. Discovery would have meant death and so the codes were designed to keep outsiders away.
These symbols are the Alpha and Omega and the Chi-Rho. They’re not all that common in cemeteries but I found these two examples in Brompton Cemetery, London. They stood out because of their simplicity and classicism.
The Alpha and Omega
This fine example which also features the Chi-Rho is on the substantial Platt memorial in Brompton Cemetery. I’ll write about the Chi-Rho later. Thomas Platt was the first to be buried here in 1899 followed by his wife, Annie, who outlived him and died in 1925. Two of their daughters are also buried and commemorated here – one died in 1935 and the other, also called Annie, in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out much about him or the family but this is a substantial memorial with space for more incumbents. It’s made of pink granite in the classical style with a large cross on top and acroteria on each of the corners on the pedestal under the Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho and cross.
The Alpha and Omega are very similar in a way to an ouroboros as they both express eternity. They are formed from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and represent God. He is the first – the alpha – as there is no God before him and the last – the Omega – as there is no God after him. The symbols also appear in several Bible verses including Revelation verses 1.8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,theBeginning andtheEnd,”says the Lord,“who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” King James version
They also appear in Revelation verses 21.6 and verses 22.13 as well as Isiah verses 44.6.
Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths use the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe the name of their God.
The Alpha and Omega have been represented by an eagle and an owl. There has also been a suggestion that the Omega is an ancient representation of the Goddess Ishtar’s headdress and that the Alpha was derived from the ox horn headdress worn by male deities and kings but I would like to see more evidence of this. However it’s an interesting theory on how these symbols might have come into being.
Interestingly, the two motifs are known as a merism. This is a figure of speech that articulates the beginning of something and the ending of something with the implication that it also refers to all things in between. For example, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer etc.
However, Douglas Fielder in ‘Stories in Stone’ has suggested the Alpha and Omega may be the representation of the beginning and end of a life and that would certainly fit in with their use within cemeteries. J C Cooper’s definition is that they denote the beginning and end of all things.
This is a striking example from Brompton Cemetery London and is on the grave of Matthew Boyd Bredon. He was an Irishman who served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and rose through the ranks. He became a Lieutenant in 1875 and a Captain in 1878 and became a Major. The epitaph states that he died in Swatow, or Shantou is it was originally known, in China in 1900. This was the time of the Boxer Rebellion in which treaty ports were imposed on China by the British and other foreign powers who wanted to open up trade. However, these ports weren’t strictly ports and instead were separate communities in which foreigners lived according to their own customs, traditions and rules of law. Bredon was also the Deputy Commissioner of Customs in China at the time of his death. In 1900 a brass eagle was presented to his local church, St Saviours in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland in his memory.
The Chi-Rho was created by using the first two capital letters from the Greek word for Christ:
These are Chi and Rho and this is the earliest form of christogram. The definition of a christogram is, according to Wikipedia,
‘ a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ and is a traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian church.’
The combination of the letters have led to claims that the Chi Rho symbolises the status of Jesus as the risen Christ as the vertical stroke of the Rho intersects the centre of the Chi. Thus it could be seen as a symbol of resurrection when used in cemeteries.
However, it wasn’t originally a religious symbol and was, instead, used to mark an especially valuable or relevant passage in a page. When used like this it was known as a Chresten which meant ‘good.’ It also appeared on ancient Egyptian coins.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, (306-337) used the Chi Rho as part of a military standard known as a Labarum. He had a dream in which he felt that military success would follow if he put a heavenly and divine symbol on his soldiers shields to protect them
From 350 onwards The Chi Rho began to appear on Christian sarcophagi and frescoes and has been found in the celebrated Roman catacombs. It came to Britain via the Roman invasion and can be seen on a mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, UK.
Nowadays it has been adopted as a popular tattoo symbol.
I did try and discover the significance of these two symbols to these two men who both died relatively young but a search through coats of arms and regimental cap badges in the case of Bredon and other sites with Platt yielded no new information. But they have left us with impressive examples of these early and powerful symbols.
This is a more unusual symbol although hands often feature as motifs in cemeteries usually in the more familiar clasped hands..
The Pointing Finger is usually one finger, the index one, pointing upwards or downwards. On the three that I saw, it was the right hand that was being depicted with the remaining fingers and thumb turned down into the palm. I have yet to see the downward pointing version but rest assured that it doesn’t indicate that the departed is going ‘down below’ or to Hell. Instead it can signify an untimely, sudden or unexpected death. As you’ve probably already guessed, the upwardly pointed finger is meant to reassure the grieving family that their loved one has ascended to Heaven and has received the reward of the righteous.
However, I found these three lovely examples in Beckenham Cemetery during a recent visit, much to my surprise, and they made me wonder why it isn’t more popular. In all of these the pointing finger and hand are surrounded by flowers.
The first one is to John James Lumsden who died on 25 November 1903 aged 63. It’s very well carved with a daffodil on one side of the hand and two sprays of Lily of the Valley flanking the hand. When I first saw it, a thick branch of ivy obscured the flower on the other side of the daffodil. But on a return visit in January 2017 the branch had been trimmed back and a rose with one full blown bloom and a bud was now visible again. The bud is significant as it often appears on childrens graves to symbolise a life unlived, that never fully bloomed and was ‘nipped in the bud.’ But not on this one.
In floriography or the language of flowers the daffodil is an important representation of resurrection.This is because of its association with Easter, rebirth and renewal. The Lily of the Valley is also associated with Spring as its month is May. Other qualities that the Lily represents are chastity, purity and the return of happiness. It’s mentioned in The Song of Solomon 2.1
‘I am the rose of Sharon
And the lily of the valley.’
There’s also the legend that Mary’s tears turned into the lily of the valley at the exact spot when she cried at the Cross so an alternate name for the flowers is ‘Mary’s tears.’ The Lily is also meant to have healing powers and has other nicknames such as ‘Jacob’s Tears’ and ‘the ladder to heaven’.
This is to Charles Henry McKay who died on 1 November 1910 at only 23 and was the only son of Charles and Ellen McKay as it states on the epitaph. Although the flowers surrounding the pointing finger and hand are the same here as on Lumden’s, on this one they are more stylised and 2D. They would have mourned his short life and unfulfilled ambitions. So there is an added poignancy to the rosebud as his was a life cut short. There is also the word ‘GONE’ carved on the cuff of the hand which emphasises that he has gone to a better place. It really stood out amongst its neighbouring grey stones so it may have been recently cleaned or restored.
There is a third memorial featuring the pointed finger which is in the same style as Lumsden’s but not as well kept. .This was to ‘Will, eldest son of William and Sarah Greenfield. Born 10 December 1874 died 1 August 1905’
Again, another memorial to a life cut short as Will died aged only 31.Three other members of the Greenfield family are also commemorated on the headstone.
To our eyes they could be seen as sentimental but I found them very touching with their aim to comfort those left behind through the use of flowers.
But here’s a mystery from my own local churchyard:
This is to a woman who died at 38 called Georgiana Margaret Barns and it has a pointing finger on the headstone. But instead of pointing upwards or downwards, it’s pointing to the left and apparently into thin air. The hand appears to have a woman’s lacy cuff and I noticed that, although her husband’s dates are also recorded, he isn’t actually buried there. Instead he lies in Hilderstone churchyard in Stafford. He died at 76 nearly 20 years after his wife. Is the finger pointing towards his resting place? Is it a personal symbol known only to them? I found a few details about them online but not much more so I am intrigued and mystified by this one.
I have to admit that The Pointing Finger symbol does remind me a little of a palmist drawing of the hand but in the ones that I’ve seen it’s also very decorative and moving.
Firstly, Happy New Year to my readers and happy symbol spotting!! This month I have two symbols for you to read about.
I first saw this symbol during a visit to Beckenham Cemetery. It’s a less well-known symbol and stands for victory or truimph over death. It has, from earliest times, been a symbol of leadership, distinction and royalty. A variety of saints also wore crowns to indicate that they were either a martyr or of royal blood. Also, according to Julian Litten, it is ‘The Crown of Life’ which is a reward for those who stayed faithful until death. There are 3 biblical quotes which illustrate this:
Interestingly enough, J C Cooper says that it is also ‘an architectural emblem of the celestial world and form the point of exit from this world and entry into the divine.’ So the crown has several interesting connotations.
In the Jewish faith it’s known as ‘The Crown of Good Name’ which alludes to the deceased as being of ‘exceptionally noble character.’ However, it can also be a representation of the head of the family or of a household.
This eye-catching example comes from Beckenham Cemetery.
This example comes from Brompton where it is at the top of a very ornate and beautiful memorial. This is a radiate crown and, according to J C Cooper, it can represent ‘ the energy and power contained in the head which was regarded as the seat of life-soul, …an attribute of sun gods,….of supernatural people and the points of the crown symbolise the rays of the sun…’ or it may just be an attractive decorative device.
Crown of thorns:
This is a variant on the crown as it is a representation of suffering, passion and martyrdom. It’s based on the ‘crown plaited by the soldiers and imposed upon Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate’ according to Julian Litten. J C Cooper asserts that this was a ’parody of the Roman Emperor’s crown of roses’. The soldiers then mocked Jesus by kneeling in front of him and hailing him as ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ A potent emblem of royalty and power had been turned into one of pain and degradation. But the crown of thorns is a prelude to Jesus being given a far worthier crown in Heaven. This is confirmed in Hebrews 2:9: “
But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honourbecause of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone”
In a famous painting of the executed King Charles 1, the Eikon Basilike, he has abandoned his earthly crown, the symbol of majesty, for the crown of thorns that he is holding in his hand as a representation of his suffering.
Five child angels, their faces turned to each other, framed by small wings, except for one that was staring out at me, I wanted to reach out and touch them but didn’t want to damage them. They formed a roundel at the centre of a tall cross with the phrase ‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ inscribed at the base of its stem. I was on a tour of Beckenham Cemetery when I first saw them.
Our guide didn’t comment on them but the monument is in a prominent place on the main road through the cemetery and I often wondered about this pretty and poignant memorial.
On a visit to Highgate East in 2014 I found another example but on a smaller scale on a tombstone in the name of Alfred Hack and dated 1956. There is a distinctly 1930’s look about the angels from their hairstyles.
I also found another version which featured cherubs faces instead of childrens on a visit to Knebworth this summer.
Then , on a more recent visit to Beckenham Cemetery, I found another similar one which was only a short distance away from the first. In this the child angels seem to have more definite, individual faces and the one that has her head towards the viewer is looking down instead of outwards. Now I wanted to find out more about the quotation and the angels and my research led me to a Victorian hymn that was sung on the Titanic at its final service on board and by the inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp as the S.S led them in. The ‘angel faces’ is a quotation from ‘Lead, kindly Light’, in fact it’s the penultimate line and like ‘Rock of Ages’ it caught the mood of its time.
These are the lyrics:
‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not for ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on,
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.’
However, the writer John Henry Newman (1801-90), always refused to reveal the meaning of the ‘angels faces’ or what the ‘kindly light’ actually was.
Originally a poem, it was written by Newman in 1833. He was then a young theologian and Anglican vicar and was going through a challenging time in his life. Struck down by a fever which nearly killed him while travelling in the Mediterranean, Newman’s servant was so convinced that he would die that he asked him for his last orders. But in his autobiography, Newman told him ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light’.
Newman recovered but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Desperate to return to England he then took a boat from Palermo to Marseilles only to end up stranded and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio. Exhausted and frustrated Newman wrote the poem, ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ that, in 1845, became ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. Newman was not happy about this as by then he’d converted to Catholicism and hymn singing wasn’t included as part of divine service. He went onto become Cardinal Newman, one of the most important figures in English Catholicism, and also an important writer. In 1900 Elgar set Newman’s poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music.
‘Lead, Kindly Light’ has struck a chord with those in danger or about to enter the endless dark realm and needed the comfort of a light leading their way through it. Miners awaiting rescue from deep underground during the 1909 Durham mining disaster sang it as did the passengers on one of Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship, Carpathia, was sighted the morning after. It caught the Victorian mood perfectly as did ‘Rock of Ages’ and Queen Victoria asked for it to be read as she lay dying. It also inspired a celebrated painting by the Scottish artist, Sir Joseph Noel Paton in 1894 in which the angels are pensive young woman.
But why did one line from this song inspire two monuments in Beckenham Cemetery and one in Highgate East? I noticed that both of the Beckenham monuments were on children’s graves and that the carved angels were also children. Perhaps the mourning relatives left behind may have wanted the consolation that their beloved children would be waiting for them when their time came.
The first one is the Foster family monument. The epitaph is now virtually unreadable but I could make out the name ‘Francis Frederick’ carved along the base. There are two inscribed ‘Books of Life’ placed on top of the grave. One is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Gladys Alice Chapman and the other is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Emma Foster.
The second one is the Pace family monument and is to the two daughters of Henry William and Elizabeth Pace. These were Lilian Alice who died in 1888 and Grace Irene who died in 1903. Strangely enough they both died at the same age and Elizabeth herself is commemorated here as she died at 33 in 1912.
This is the one in Highgate East dedicated to Alfred Hack and dated 1956.
So, a line from a hymn that even its writer was unsure of its meaning, became a symbol of comfort to sorrowing families.
However the symbol has been adapted to feature cherubs as in St Mary’s, Knebworth’s churchyard. These are on the tombstone of the Lutyens family’s nanny, Alice Sleath.
But I am indebted to Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone for the possible origins on the image of the angels.
The composition of the five heads may have been adapted from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA entitled ‘Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon’ which was painted during July 1786 – March 1787. The sitter was the then 5 year old Frances Isabella Keir Gordon (1782-1831) who was the only daughter of illustrious parents. They were Lord William Gordon (1744-1823) and his wife Frances Ingram (1761-1841), second daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine (1727-78), who were married on 6 March 1781. Her uncle was Lord George Gordon (1751-93), whose political activities had sparked the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
Frances’ mother outlived her by 10 years and the painting was then presented to the National Gallery. It was enormously popular and was reproduced on numerous decorative items and photographic reproductions such as ‘The Cherub Choir.’
And so a poignant and powerful symbol was created from the combination of a great painting, an inspirational hymn and Victorian taste and led to these three lovely memorials to much missed children.
The two masks of comedy and tragedy, or Sock and Buskin as they are also known for reasons I’ll explain later, are not often found in cemeteries. And as you might expect, when they are there’s a theatrical association.
But what is the history behind this two faced symbol and how did these icons from Ancient Greece come into Victorian cemeteries?
It began with the custom of actors wearing masks, an essential part of the performance, in early Greek theatre. It was a vital part of Greek culture and civic pride. However, Comedy and Tragedy were viewed as completely separate genres and no plays ever combined them.
This genre began in Athens around 532 BC with Thespis, the earliest recorded tragic actor. He was known as ‘Father of Tragedy’ and it has been suggested that his name inspired the English term, thespian, for a performer.
Muse of Tragedy:
Melpomene is the Muse and is often depicted holding the Mask of Tragedy. She often also holds a knife or club and also wears the ‘cothurni ‘or buskin boots that elevated her above other actors. She was a daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne as was Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, and there were also 7 other daughters who were all Muses.
After the defeat of Athens by the Spartans in the Peleponnesian War and the subsequent decline in its power, comedy became more important than tragedy. I imagine that people wanted some relief after a protracted war and these were comic episodes about the lives of ordinary Greek citizens. Maybe they were similar to today’s comedy sketches. Greek comedy is reputed to have had a major influence on Roman humour as well. Perhaps they had an early version of Up Pompeii…..
Muse of Comedy:
She is called Thalia but can also be sometimes spelled as Thaleia and is depicted holding the Mask of Comedy in one hand. She’s generally depicted as a young woman crowned with ivy. Thalia wears the thin-soled shoe known as the ‘sock’ from the Latin soccus. It may seem strange but it’s the footwear of the two Muses that led to them being called ‘sock and buskin’.
And so both Comedy and Tragedy became two sides of the theatre world.
They were seen as one of the iconic conventions of classical Greek theatre and date back to the time of Aeschylus (525-456 BC) commonly considered to be the father of Greek tragedy. The Ancient Greek term for mask is ‘prosopon’ or face. There are paintings on vases, such as the 5th century BC Pronomos vase, depicting actors preparing for performance with masks. However none have survived due to the organic materials from which they were created such as stiffened linen, leather or cork with wigs of human and animal hair. After the performance they were dedicated at the altar of Dionysus.
It was mainly the chorus that used masks on stage of which there could be up to 12-15 members. Masks created a sense of unity when representing a single character or voice. They always created a sense of mystery and were also a method of disguise. The actor would use the mask to totally immerse himself in his role and become someone else. It also allowed him to appear and reappear in several different roles instead of only being seen as one character. The exaggerated features of the mask also enabled audience members who were sitting at a distance to see characters emotions.
I have found four monuments featuring Tragedy and Comedy each in differing styles, in London Victorian cemeteries: Fred Kitchen in West Norwood Cemetery with a link to Charlie Chaplin. There are two in Brompton Cemetery: Gilbert Laye and Augustus Henry Glossop Harris’s elegant monuments and the exuberant Andrew Ducrow tomb in Kensal Green.
Fred Kitchen (1872-1951):
The graceful Kitchen memorial was recently restored by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain & America in March 2016 with the Heritage Lottery Fund’s support. It almost dazzles under a summer sky. Both Fred and his father, Richard (1830-1910) rest here and note the broken column on which the Sock and Buskin are placed. This denotes that the head of the family as a broken column indicated that the support, or head of the family, rests here.
Fred came from a theatrical family in that his father, Richard, was the Ballet Master and Dancer at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Fred worked mainly in the music halls which were considered a low form of entertainment but many famous comedians learned their craft in them. He was discovered by the legendary impresario, Fred Karno, while playing in a production at Glasgow’s Princess Theatre. It was the stuff of showbiz legend, or cliche depending on your point of view, as Fred was standing in for the chief comedian and so, as a result, a 50 year career theatrical career began. From 1897-1910 Fred was a member of Fred Karno’s Army along with such legends as Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Kitchen had a unique style which featured a splayed walk as he had flat feet and scruffy costume. Chaplin later admitted that this had influenced or he had simply ‘borrowed’ it for his iconic tramp character. In 1913 Fred appeared in a Royal Command Performance for King George V and continued to work until 1945 aged 73. But the music hall circuit was beginning to vanish but his son, Fred Kitchen Jr, continued the family tradition in film and theatre.
Gilbert Laye (1855-1826) – Brompton Cemetery
This is a striking memorial with ‘Comedy & Tragedy’ of either side of a stylised young woman who is holding what appears to be a lyre. There isn’t much known about Gilbert Laye, the incumbent, and I could only find one credit for him online. This was as the director of ‘My Lady Molly’ at Daly’s Theatre on New York’s Broadway. It was a musical comedy and opened on 5 January 1904 and closed on 16 January 1904. He was also briefly the manager of the Palace Pier in Brighton. Both he and his wife, Evelyn Stuart were known as struggling minor actors/ However, she was known as a respected provincial Principal Boy. However, it was their daughter, Evelyn Laye (1900-1995) who became a huge star on stage in musical comedy roles. She made her stage debut in 1915 and acted until well into her nineties. Evelyn worked with Noel Coward and made her first appearance on Broadway in 1929 in his Bitter Sweet. However, her parents disapproved of her first marriage to
actor Sonnie Hale in 1926 which ultimately ended in divorce when he left her for actress Jessie Matthews. Evelyn attracted public sympathy over this with the divorce judge branding Matthews ‘an odious creature.’
Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852-1896)
This is a very sophisticated monument with a barefoot mourning woman in robes and her hair tied back resting one outstretched arm on the cenotaph. In vintage photos, the other is raised towards a bust of Harris which tops the plinth. However, the bust is no longer in place and neither is the hand that seemed to stroke it. There are three people commemorated on the monument: Augustus himself, his wife Florence Edgcumbe and their daughter, Florence Nellie Cellier. None of them appear to be buried in Brompton as Augustus died at Folkestone and Florence’s ashes were scattered elsewhere. Florence remarried after Augustus’s death so she may actually be buried with her second husband.
Augustus was a British actor and impresario who came from another theatrical family. Born in Paris his father was a dramatist, Augustus Glossop Harris, and his mother was Maria Ann Bone, a theatrical costumier. The Brompton Augustus Henry was known as ‘the Father of British pantomime’. He co-wrote and produced scripts for large scale pantos that were performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane every Christmas. They attracted a popular cast including the legendary Dan Leno. Augustus was also involved in local politics and, in 1890, represented the Strand division in the London County Council. In 1891 he was appointed a sheriff and was also knighted. He married Florence Edgcumbe Rendle in 1881 and after his death she remarried and died in 1914.
Florence Nellie Harris Cellier was their daughter. She married Frank Cellier in 1910 and divorced him in 1925. He was an actor who both appeared and directed in numerous plays and acted in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1948.
‘Comedy and Tragedy’ lie beneath a laurel wreath and violin on top of a carved cloth at the base of the cenotaph.
On one of the most desirable and prominent plots in Kensal Green Cemetery lies Andrew Ducrow. To call his blue painted tomb flamboyant is an understatement although the 19th century magazine ‘The Builder’ described it as a piece of ‘ponderous coxcombry‘ . It was supposedly created for his first wife but as the epitaph states
‘Within this tomb erected by genius for the reception of its own remains are deposited those of Andrew Ducrow’
It’s a feast of symbols ranging from 4 Egyptian style 4 sphinxes and columns on the mausoleum and a Greek style roof. A relief over the door depicts Pegasus, the winged horse and a weeping woman in Grecian dress with ‘Comedy and Tragedy’ beside her on clouds.
A pair of gloves and hat lie almost just discarded waiting for their owner to don them again on part of a broken column. There’s also beehives, shells, flowers and downturned torches. Two angels flank the now bricked up entrance which are the closest to any Christian symbolism.
However, Pegasus and an urn decorated with horses heads and garlands are not just mere emblems but direct references to Ducrow’s profession which was as a renowned circus performer. He was known as the ‘Father of British Circus Equestrianism’. Modern day horse acts owe a huge debt to him as he created many horse feats and acts that are still in use today. For example, his most famous act ‘Courier of St Petersburg’ is still performed to this day at equestrian events. In this a rider straddles 2 cantering horses while other horses bearing the flags of the countries through which a courier would pass on his way to Russia passed between his legs.
Ducrow owned a circus called Astley’s Amphitheatre and had learned his skills from his Belgian father who had emigrated to England in 1793. However, Ducrow also had another act that attracted and thrilled audiences. This was the ‘plastique’ or physique performances in which he and his sons would wear ‘fleshings’ or flesh coloured body stockings and pose on white stallions as they carried them around the amphitheatre several times. It must have been quite a sight to see under the lights and it’s a shame that no-one has yet attempted to revive it. There was a black performer in the company called Pablo Fanque who is mentioned in the Beatle Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band track, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ which is one of my favourites.
As you can imagine Ducrow and his company were incredibly popular but bad luck dogged him. The Amphitheatre burned down 3 times and after the last one in 1841 he had a nervous breakdown. He died soon after in 1842 and the Amphitheatre and circus were taken over by others who had worked with him.
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!
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…..
Most people associate Knebworth with huge rock concerts and as a Gothic backdrop to many well-known films including The King’s Speech.
But it has other claims to fame apart from gargoyles and lovely gardens. It also has a wonderful mausoleum in its own field and the Lytton Chapel which, according to Pevsner and Simon Jenkins, has the finest 18th century memorials in England.
The Knebworth church is officially known as St Mary’s although it’s actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury or Thomas a Becket. It sits facing the House with its own small graveyard and surrounded by trees and railings. This is where many of the past owners of Knebworth are buried and you enter under a lovely lychgate. But why is it there?
St Mary’s was originally part of the medieval village of Knebworth and was first recorded in the Domesday Book. But when the village was moved after the creation of Knebworth Park in the late 1300’s , St Mary’s stayed in its place. It’s a church steeped in history and an architectural jigsaw as so much of it comes from different periods. The nave and chancel, for example, date from 1120 AD. When you first enter, the interior appears very plain but St Mary’s real glory is the Lytton Chapel in a side room near the altar.
However, amongst its impressive marble monuments was a memorial tablet mounted on a side wall, to the left as I entered.
This is dedicated to a woman who died on the last day of February 1601, Anne St John, and for anyone fascinated by iconography it has a rich display of symbols. She was the wife of Sir Rowland Lytton who was her second husband. Sir Rowland’s memorial slab is on the church’s floor and he died in 1674 at 59. Anne died comparatively young at 40 and I wondered if this is why there are so many references to death on her tablet. The motifs on Anne’s memorial are beautifully carved and delicately coloured. It’s a wonderful example of a memento mori. According to J C Cooper:
‘This was an image or item that urged people to remember their death. It was a reminder that death was an unavoidable part of life and to be prepared at all times.’
Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which translates as: ‘Remember you must die’ and often expressed in art through symbols as in this memorial.
The epitaph is in Latin but, helpfully, there is an English translation provided. It reads:
‘Here lies the most illustrious Lady Anne Lytton, daughter of Oliver, Lord St John who had previously married Robert C – of Morton C—— Esquire, by whom she had two daughters, Elizabeth, who married Sir Henry Walop, and Anne, who married Adolphus Carye, Esqre, by her second husband, Rowland Lytton, Esqre of Knebworth, she had 3 sons, William, Rowland and Philip, and four daughters, Anne, Judith, Elisabeth and Jane. She lived 40 years, a noble, handsome and pious lady, beloved alike by God and men. She died, greatly d—– on the last day of February 1601 for the fulfilment of whose noble life give praise to God, and pray that you may be in communion with her among the blessed ones.’
NB: The gaps are where my camera decided to play up and rendered the words unreadable.
This was my favourite memorial in the Lytton Chapel because of its modest size and unusual iconography. I apologise for the quality of the photos – the light levels are low in the Chapel and I didn’t have much time.
Let’s begin at the top of the tablet:
It’s no accident that the skull takes centre stage, as it, Death. is the ultimate conqueror of life. There is no escape and one recalls Hamlet and Yorick’s skull. The crossed mace and spade beneath it are representations of both high and humble stations in life. The mace is a representation of absolute power whereas the spade indicates a labourer. This demonstrates that it doesn’t matter what your status was in life as Death makes us all equal.
Left hand side panel.:
Vase of broken or drooping flowers: According to Howgate, this signifies ‘the brief transience oflifebefore death intervenes, even in the first flowering of youth.’ I have discussed in a previous post the significance of roses in funerary iconography and broken rose blossoms also indicate a life cut short as the flower never blooms. But flowers are a representation of the brevity of life. Beneath is a Bible which is open at Daniel, chapter 10 which refers to Daniel going through 3 weeks of mourning. At the bottom of the panel is an Hourglass. This has been discussed in a previous post but it means that the ‘sands of time’ have run out. J C Cooper describes it as indicating
‘Time is passing quickly…everyday comes closer to the hour of their death, Life and Death is the attribute of the Grim Reaper, Death and Father Time.
When the Grim Reaper or Death is depicted as a skeleton he is often holding an hourglass and a scythe which is the next symbol. This is one of the most potent symbols of Death as the Grim Reaper is always depicted as holding one. He cuts down lives like cutting down crops or grass. Cooper adds:
‘…also symbolises the harvest which, in turn, implies death, rebirth, destructive and creative powers of the Great Mother.’
However, Keister says: ‘…form of a scythe is a union of the masculine, upright and cutting with feminine as curved and reaping.
Right hand side panel:
At the top is a spindle on which is wound the thread of life. Beneath it, the Hand of God or, as one commentator has suggested, the Hand of Fate, emerges from a cloud with a fearsome pair of shears to cut the thread and indicate that life is at an end. He is in charge of making that decision. Underneath is an empty coffin with the lid slightly ajar awaiting its next incumbent.
The bottom of the memorial – The Day of Judgement
Due to time constraints I didn’t look at the bottom of the memorial in detail. But Howgate reveals that it is an ‘image of the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgement.’ He goes onto to say that ‘The lumpy looking resurrected dead, some with hands joined in prayer, appear to be gasping for breath as they emerge with difficulty from the earth.’ Although this isn’t a very good photo I can see one person with their hands in prayer at least and I have to admit that when I saw the panel, it didn’t register as an image of people. A return visit to have a closer look is undoubtedly in the offing.
Two of Anne’s 4 daughters, Judith and Anne, are commemorated nearby in the church with floor memorials. They both lived to ripe old ages.
I am indebted to Revd Jim Pye who very kindly emailed me an informative article based on a talk given in 2008 by Michael E Howgate on the St John Memorial and the contentious panel on William Robinson Lytton Strode’s monument. My grateful thanks to him and to the 2 very helpful volunteers who were on duty in St Mary’s on my visit.
NB: Due to malicious thefts St Mary’s is only open during services and on Sundays 2-4pm during July and August – check the St Marys or Knebworth House websites for info in 2017.