Poking about in churchyards as is my wont is how I discover symbols to write about. So it was while exploring 2 churchyards in Kent that I discovered this month’s symbol.
This is the All Seeing Eye, also known as The Eye of Providence, and is usually depicted as a single realistic eye within a triangle or within a burst of light. I’ve always associated it with Freemasons as it appears on their documents. But neither of these headstones had any other symbols often linked with Freemasons such as the square and compass. So what did it mean?
The one in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford had what looked like two snakes bordering it together with other familiar memento symbols. Sadly the epitaph is now illegible.
The second one is in the churchyard of All Saints in Frindsbury and this intriguing version on the grave of the Caryer family. The Kent Archaeological Society thought that it might represent the Woman of Samuria as featured in John 4.4-26 but I’m not sure about that. The epitaph reads:
To the memory of
Hannah wife of John Caryer
Died 9th Sept 1809 aged 30 years
Also Robert her son
Died 28th June 1801 aged 8 years
Also the above John Caryer
Died 11th March 1814 aged (4)2 years.’
The earliest known representation of The Eye is in a painting called ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by the Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo in 1525. This was painted during the Renaissance and it depicts the second part of the Second Appearance story in Luke 24: verses 13.35:
And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.
But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.
And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.
And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.
As you can see the Eye is above Christ’s head which shows that God is watching the event and so can be seen as a Christian symbol. On the Ancient Origins website it’s claimed that
‘the elements surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning. For example, the triangle surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning in that it’s a clear reference to the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The burst of light is meant to symbolise divinity, holiness and God himself’
Within the Bible there are many references to The Eye in the context of God keeping watch and observing in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus and also from Psalms 33: verse 18:
‘The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.
Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy . . . .
The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.’
But older religions and faiths such as Hinduism and the Ancient Egyptians also had an eye symbol that was central to their beliefs.
In Egypt it was known as the Eye of Horus. Even today it’s still used as an emblem of protection and good health. The Eye was also known as a wadjet (the whole one), wedjat or udjat. Sailors would often paint the Eye of Horus on the prows of their ships to ensure a safe voyage. I’m sure that I’ve seen this on a boat or two in some of Hollywood’s classic sword and sandal epics! The depiction of the Eye of Horus is said to resemble the markings on a falcon’s eye due to the teardrop marking which is sometimes found below the eye as here. This would make sense as Horus is usually shown as a falcon. There are several myths about Horus and his eye. For instance, in one of them Horus fought with Set who gouged out Horus’s left eye which was later restored by the goddess Hathor.
The Eye also appears on the US one dollar bill. But it made its first appearance as a Freemason symbol on the personal seal of Robert Moray (1609-1673) who was a Scottish Freemason. Then during the 18th century it appeared again in two Freemason books, one of which was Thomas Smith Webb’s ‘Freemasonry Monitor’ and, by the 19th century, it had become part of the permanent hieroglyphical emblems of the Freemasons. There are other associations with the Illuminati and, if you’re interested, there is more information online.
But with these two All Seeing Eye symbols I think that they were meant, as they often are, to be a comforting message. The All Seeing Eye meant that the departed were being watched over and so were the bereaved.
I’ll be honest. I’d been out exploring churchyards just prior to the coronavirus and St Mary’s in St Mary Cray was the last on my list. I’d noticed its distinctive steeple from the train on my daily commute and it was on my list so that I could visit and cross it off. I didn’t expect to find much and my first impression confirmed it. A few ivy clad altar tombs greeted me and then I wandered around the side of the closed church. What a surprise! A gallery of 18th century headstones placed in lines with some of the more familiar symbols depicted on them. Ouroboros’s, angel heads, skulls, crossbones and then this fine selection.
As you can see, it boasts a large, sharp scythe, a half open coffin with the incumbent visible, a trumpet blowing from what seems to be a heavenly cloud and, in the centre, a heart pierced by an arrow. We usually associate a pierced heart with the ones found on millions of St Valentine’s cards as a representation of Cupid’s love darts. You may be thinking that it doesn’t have the usual heart shape but there may be how the stonemason interpreted it. This is the Symbol of the Month.
The headstone‘s epitaph reads:
‘In Memory of
Mr THOMAS ABBOTT
Late of this PARISH who departed this life
24 May 1773
In the 75th Year of his life
Near lieth the body of
MRS SARAH ABBOTT his wife
,,,,who departed ….22 January 1769 aged 69’
Although there are other Abbotts buried in the same churchyard I couldn’t find any sign of a headstone or monument dedicated to Sarah Abbott and there was none recorded on the Kent Archaeological Society survey of the churchyard So whether it has vanished over time we will never know.
On Thomas’s headstone, the heart is surrounded by symbols of resurrection and the Day of Judgement when all of the dead will rise. This is the meaning of the half open coffin lid. So is the pierced heart a symbol of everlasting love which means that the Abbotts will be reunited on that day? After all, Keister suggests that it’s a sign of matrimony which would fit in with both husband and wife being mentioned on the headstone. However, Cooper comments that the pierced heart is also a sign of contrition so perhaps Mr Abbott felt guilty or sad about outliving Sarah by 6 years.
But let’s discuss other representations and interpretations of the pierced heart as well as the heart in general. It’s one of the most powerful symbols and resonates through many cultures and faiths both ancient and modern. Without it, none of us would be alive as it pumps our lifeblood through our bodies. This is why it has been a central part of religions and cultures since the beginning of time.
Heart symbolism is significant in, Chinese, Hindu and most religions and cultures. For example, it is one of the eight precious organs of Buddha and also the Aztecs whose rituals involved human sacrifice. In these the chests of the victims were sliced open and their still-beating hearts were offered to the gods. The Aztecs believed that the heart was the seat of the individual and also a fragment of the Sun’s heart.
In Ancient Egypt, the heart was considered to be the source of human wisdom and the centre of emotions and memory. It could reveal a person’s true character, even after death, and was left in the body after mummification. The ancient Egyptians believed that it would survive death where it would give evidence against or for its owner and so was integral to the afterlife. This culminated in the Weighing of the Heart which appears in the Book of the Dead. The heart was given to Osiris, the god of the dead and the underworld who placed it on one of a pair of great golden scales. On the other was a feather which represented Maat the goddess of order, truth and what was right. If the heart was lighter than the feather then the deceased passed on into eternal bliss. But if it was heavier, due to past misdeeds, then it was thrown onto the floor of the Hall of Truth where Amut, a god with the face of a crocodile, the front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros who was also known as ‘The Gobbler’. Once he had devoured the heart then the individual ceased to exist. The Egyptians concept of hell was non-existence.
But the heart has an even greater significance in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are many references to it in the Bible with over a 100 in Psalms alone. One of the most famous quotations is in 1 Samuel 16.7 in which it is seen as the seat of emotion:
‘But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’ (King James Bible).
The heart is seen as revealing the inner person but not only as the centre of human life. It also expresses spiritual or emotional feelings, wisdom, piety and righteousness. There is also the famous quote from Matthew 5:8;
‘blessed are the pure in heart’
However, the heart also has a darker side as an evil person is often described as being ‘blackhearted.’ In Ecclesiastes 8:11 it’s seen as evil:
‘ Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’ (King James Bible).
In Christian iconography the heart took on a symbolic role as an indication of God and piety particularly in the Catholic church where Christ displaying a heart in his hands or on his breast is a key image. It’s known as the Sacred Heart and is one of the most practiced and well known of the Catholic devotions. The sacred heart is seen as a symbol of ‘God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.’ The pierced heart was also included in the five wounds that Christ suffered during the crucifixion
One saint in particular, St Augustine, has a special relationship with the pierced heart. He is often shown holding a heart, in some cases topped by a flame and in others pierced by an arrow. Another passage from the Confessions IX, 2:3 may explain the significance of the pierced heart:
‘Thou hadst pierced (sagittaveras) our heart with thy love, and we carried thy words, as it were, thrust through our vitals.’
(The word sagittaveras means literally ‘ shot arrows’ into as in this 17th century painting.
St Valentine’s Day was originally derived from a much darker and bawdier Roman festival called Lupercalia. This took place in Rome from 13-15 February and was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city. However, it didn’t involve the giving of chocolates and bouquets of roses. Instead there was animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and couplings which were intended to ward off infertility. In reality, it was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and also to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was finally outlawed as ‘unChristian’ in the 5th century by Pope Gelasius who declared the 14 February to be St Valentine’s Day. There were two actual St Valentines who were both martyrs.
However, the first person to mention the famous day for lovers was actually Geoffrey Chaucer in his 1375 poem, A Parliament of Fowles (or Fowls). In this he says:
‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyn’es day
When every fowl cometh here to choose his mate.’
During the Middle Ages it was believed in both France and England that February 14 was the beginning of the mating season for birds and so an ideal date for romance for all.
But it was during the early medieval and early Renaissance when the heart began to resemble the more stylised symbol that we know today. It took on the shape of a converted A and represented Amor or Love. Since the 19th century it has been associated with love and romance and the pierced heart has also been known as the wounded heart due to Cupid’s arrows.
But, due to its placing within other potent symbols of resurrection, I interpret the pierced heart on Mr Abbott’s headstone to be a token of love. Although he wasn’t buried with his wife he may have hoped that they would be reunited on the Day of Judgement when the angels trumpets sounded and the dead met the living again.
It was one of the most potent symbols that I have found in my explorations and I haven’t seen another one – yet. The pierced heart has also been one of the most fascinating symbols to research because of its many connotations and associations. Who would have thought that Chaucer might be the father of the St Valentine’s Day industry that we know so well today.
Was the pierced heart a token of love or a hope of a meeting in the after-life? We will never know but a fascinating collection of symbols for the passer-by to admire.
As you pass by a cemetery do you ever think that you hear celestial music drifting on the air? Maybe it’s because there are so many musical symbols to be found within them – violins, trumpets, guitars and harps to name a few.
This month, I’m going to be discussing the harp. It may immediately bring visions of angels in pristine white gowns, perched on clouds, plucking away on golden harps to mind. Harps have that ethereal quality.
I found many online images of statues of angels playing harps in cemeteries worldwide but all on stock photography sites. It’s a reassuring image of heaven as a place of peace and calm. According to Alison Vardy, a professional harpist, the word ‘Harp’ or ‘Harpa’ comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words for ‘pluck’ as in plucking the strings.
However, when I first considered writing about the harp as a symbol I did think about linking it with St Patrick’s Day. After all, it is the national symbol of Ireland and also appears on Guinness cans and bottles.
But this musical instrument has an ancient tradition and images of harps have been found in wall paintings in France dating from 15,000 BC. They also appear on Ancient Egyptian wall paintings from 3000 B.C.
In fact, it’s one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and was originally developed from the hunting bow. In this image the harp being played still resembles the hunting bow as it doesn’t yet have the pillar attached. This didn’t appear until the Middle Ages and was added to support additional strings. The earliest known image of a harp is a Pictish carving on an 8th century stone cross.
‘Harps played an important part in Irish aristocratic life. Harpists were required to able to evoke three different emotions in their audience. Laughter, tears and sleep.’ Alison Vardy (the last emotion being very appropriate for a cemetery)
The harp is associated with St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a Roman martyr who is reputed to have sung to God at her wedding and also as she lay dying after being beheaded. You can read more about her life here; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Cecilia.
St Cecilia’s feast day is 22 November but her association with music didn’t begin until the 15th century. She was then depicted as playing at an organ or either holding an organ or organ pipes.
The harp also appears as an instrument of healing in the Old Testament. In Samuel verses 16-23, David plays the harp for Saul in order to drive out the evil spirit that afflicts him. Harps are also mentioned in Genesis and Chronicles.
When I first saw this monument in Brompton Cemetery I thought that it had to be dedicated to an Irishman. But it is in fact on the grave of a Welshman, Henry Brinley Richards (1817-1865), who was born in Carmarthen.
He was originally destined for a medical career but music was his real calling. However, he didn’t play the harp as, instead, he played the piano. He was discovered after winning a prize for his arrangement of a traditional song, ‘The Ash Grove’, at the 1834 Eisteddford in Cardiff. This really opened doors for Henry as he was able to study at the Royal Academy of Music under the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle. Henry won two scholarships while studying at the Academy and after graduation he taught piano there. He travelled to Paris and met Chopin and he has over 250 compositions listed in the British Museum catalogues of printed music. But his most famous piece of music is ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ from 1862. Henry never lost his Welsh connections. Pencerdd Towy is his bardic name and not, as I originally thought, another Welsh town. Bardic names were pseudonyms and part of the 19th century medieval revival. I did research bardic names but I have to admit that I was none the wiser. And the meaning of the harp that sits so resplendently on top of the monument? It’s the national instrument of Wales which I didn’t know until I began researching this post.
The other example is from the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich. This is a non-denominational cemetery and rises in tiers above the city. It’s an interesting group of symbols and is dedicated to a woman, Sarah Russell nee O’Brien (1869-1899) and there may be an Irish reference with the harp and her maiden name. She died young, aged 30, in Kansas City, USA. Sarah was born into a performing family as her father, Archibald O’Brien, and siblings were all equestrians. I found the family living in Leeds in the 1881 Census and they must have really stood out amongst their respectable, aspiring middle class neighbours. Equestrian was listed as their occupation. She married into another family connected with animals as her husband, William, was part owner of a zoo. One of her sisters, Irma O’Brien, wrote the epitaph:
‘To my dear sister Sarah Russell,
‘Soeur bien aimee reposee en paix’
which translates as:
‘Beloved sister rest in peace.’
On this monument note that the harp has no strings and so cannot be played. This indicates that the music of life has ended. There are also other variants in which a string on the harp is broken which again means that it can no longer be played. The music has been stilled by death. The cloth, nicely detailed to simulate lace with the holes, indicates the curtain between the world of the living and the dead. However, the broken column is said to denote a life cut short. I have always understood this to mean that the backbone of the family, the support of the family, had died and this is usually on a man’s grave. But maybe Sarah was the support of the family after all. For me, it’s the unstrung harp that is the most poignant symbol of the group.
So the harp can have several associations; a musical instrument, a symbol of national pride, a representation of life and death and also with angels. However, according to J C Cooper, it can also be viewed as the ladder leading to the next world with the harpist being Death – an interesting allusion. There is also a link with the Celtic God of Fire, Dagda, who calls up the seasons and whose playing originally brought about the change of the seasons and made them appear in the correct order. This is the harp as an instrument of power particularly with Dagda. This is very different from pensive angels in a heavenly harp choir. However, it’s good to understand the contrasts in how it is used and how it’s perceived in other cultures.
I hope that you all stay well and safe in these unprecedented times.