Happy New Year with another version of the Handshake symbol.

Hello all – I think I can just about get away with still wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Well, here we are in another lockdown and so I won’t be poking about in churchyards or cemeteries for a while.

So I took the opportunity to look through my photos from last year just before the first lockdown when I could still be out and about in local churchyards and cemeteries which I haven’t previously posted.

The above headstone is from All Saints in Frindsbury near Strood. The church perches on top of a hill looking down on the town and its churchyard was recommended to me by an old friend. There were some spectacular views of the River Medway down below as its sapphire stream glinted in the Spring sunshine.. When I got there, the trimming of the long grass around the memorials had literally stopped in mid cut and I had to be careful where I walked. I didn’t want to trip over kerb stones hidden in the long grass.

I found this and, although the shaking hands motif is usually associated with a man and wife saying goodbye, here it looks as though a mother and son are saying goodbye. The hands are those of a man and a woman and, although, the father has been added on at the bottom, the son was the first to be buried there. William Masters died young at only 20 and his mother died 22 years later.

In the shaking hands, the deceased is traditionally holding the hand of the living as they part. It can mean goodbye or the deceased guiding the living into eternal life later. It is usually associated with marriage with the visible cuffs delineating them. The frilly hand on the right hand side is a woman and the left hand one is the man with the plainer, more formal cuff.

It was an interesting churchyard and was also in the middle of two cemeteries – the East and the West. These were mainly 19th and 20th century burials but a bright Spring carpet of primroses and foaming white Blackthorn blossom made them appear colourful and bright.

I will be discussing one of the more enigmatic symbols that I found in All Saints in the next blog.

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Symbol of the Month – The Winged Soul

A lovely example from St Peter & St Paul, Shoreham, Kent.
©Carole Tyrrell

The skull and crossbones. One of the central motifs of 18th century Memento Mori and intended to be a stark and macabre  reminder of the viewer’s inevitable destination.  This would be all that would remain of you after death.

However it wasn’t a very comforting message to either the loved ones left behind or to the living.

But fashions and tastes change, even in funerary symbolism, and the skull and crossbones had served their purpose.

Instead they were replaced by the winged soul. This consisted of a small child’s head flanked by a pair of wings or a garland of leaves.  They have the faces of babies with big, round eyes, plump cheeks and pouting lips and resemble Renaissance putti which are child-like.  Putti represent the sacred cherub as they are known in England.

The winged soul may have been intended to be a more comforting image as the wings represented the soul of the deceased ascending to heaven.  This could also give hope of a resurrection to those left behind.  According to headstone symbols:

‘In the USA the winged soul is known as a soul effigy.’

It was immensely popular and in my explorations of medieval Kent churches and their churchyards I found many examples. In fact, in one or two churchyards they outnumbered the skull and crossbones symbol. They mainly had one winged soul on a headstone but there were sometimes  two or three clustered together as in these examples:

They can also appear in several combinations with other classic memento mori symbols as here:

In addition, every mason seemed to have his own interpretation of feathers as they can be carved as typical fluffy feathers, resemble broad leaves or be very stylised.

With wings in general they are an important symbol of spirituality.  They express the possibility of flying and rising upwards to heaven.  For example, in the Hindu faith, they are:

the expression of freedom to leave earthly things behind…..to reach Paradise.’

New Acropolis

 

However, as the full flowering of the Victorian language of death in the 19th century began to appear the emblems of memento mori were retired. Although a couple, such as the hourglass and ouroboros, were revived.   But I did find two modern examples of the winged soul in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford, Kent.

I had always previously thought of the winged soul as being a more general symbol and just a decorative feature.  I called them winged cherub heads or death heads and never considered that they might have had a specific meaning or purpose.  It was exciting to see so many variations and interpretations sometimes within the same churchyard.  But it depended on the skills of the mason as to how well they were carved and whether they were 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional.

But as a message of comfort it is one of the most poignant in memento mori. The other central motifs emphasise time running out, think about your life now and this is all that will be left. The winged soul suggests an eternal life and a more uplifting message.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://headstonesymbols.co.uk/headstone-meanings-and-symbols/deathheads/

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

https://www.boston.gov/departments/parks-and-recreation/iconography-gravestones-burying-grounds

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funerary_art_in_Puritan_New_England

https://library.acropolis.org/the-symbolism-of-wings/

http://www.speel.me.uk/gp/wingedcherubhead.htm

https://gravelyspeaking.com/2012/12/29/winged-cherubs-head/

https://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/fsca/fsca11.htm

 

 

Symbol of the Month – And With The Morn Those Angel Faces Smile

 

This is the other version which is sited on the main road through the cemetery. The epitaph was difficult to read as worn but it was also to much missed children. ©Carole Tyrrell
This is the first one that I saw on a guided tour of Beckenham Cemetery.  The Foster family monument which is sited on the main road through the cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

The line that led me on my quest to find out the origin of this symbol. ''And with the morn Those Angel Faces Smile.'. ;©Carole Tyrrell
The line that led me on my quest to find out the origin of this symbol. ”And with the morn Those Angel Faces Smile.’. ;©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Cardinal Newman as John Newman eventually became after his conversion to Catholicism. This celebrated portrait is by Sir John Everett Millais. In the public domain in UK - from the National Portrait Gallery wkipedia
Cardinal Newman as John Newman eventually became after his conversion to Catholicism.
This celebrated portrait is by Sir John Everett Millais.
In the public domain in UK – from the National Portrait Gallery wkipedia

 

‘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 Pace monument in Beckenham Cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell
The Pace monument in Beckenham Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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.

The epitaph on the Page monument. It's dedicated to the 2 daughters of Henry and Elizabeth Page., Lilian died in 1888 and Gr ace in 1903 and at the same age. ©Carole Tyrrell
The epitaph on the Page monument. It’s dedicated to the 2 daughters of Henry and Elizabeth Page., Lilian died in 1888 and Gr ace in 1903 and at the same age.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

This is the one in Highgate East dedicated to Alfred Hack and dated 1956.

This is a much smaller version on a tombstone in Highgate East Cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell
This is a much smaller version on a tombstone in Highgate East Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

'Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon' by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA 1786-1787. . This is in public domain wilki creative commons
‘Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA 1786-1787. . This is in public domain wiki creative commons

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.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3668066/The-story-behind-the-hymn.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead,_Kindly_Light

http://www.thebeautybag.net/videos/angel-faces-smile/

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/reynolds-a-childs-portrait-in-different-views-angels-heads-n00182

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister,  2006, Gibbs Smith