Welcome to a new year and a short piece on how part of one of my blog posts became part of a youtube film.
I have to say that, after a cursory glance, that ‘Look it’s behind you! The Chaldon Doom painting’’is undoubtedly my most popular post with 4,205 views since it’s publication in 2018. It was a post about what may the oldest wall painting in England which is on the back wall of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chaldon, Surrey. This is an out of the way place as there’s no real village there. But the church is very picturesque and popular as a destination for walkers especialluy during the summer when there is cake and tea on sale on Sunday afternoons.
The actual title of the painting is the Purgatorial Ladder and was painted in order to instruct the congregation to live a righteous life. After death they were either destined for heaven or hell depending on if they had lived a righteous life. It’s an impressive piece and I did wonder how it might have felt when praying or listening to a sermon with the painting and its angels and demons behind you.
A man called,Richard Gandon from a film company called Eyedears contacted me last year as he’d created an animated explanation of the Chaldon Doom and posted it on youtube. He asked for permission to use my introduction from my blog post on the painting with accreditation. It is a short and accessible explanation of the painting’s elements such as the Seven Deadly Sins and well worth a look at.
You never know what little gems you might find in a country churchyard and I discovered one while exploring in Staplehurst. All Saints has a commanding hilltop position and looks down on pretty half-timbered houses. Since 1100 it has stood on this site and has several ancient features such as the remain s of an anchorite’s cell..
The churchyard was far larger than I expected and led to a more modern section at the back of the church. But as I explored the older part of the churchyard I turned around and came face to face with this unusual symbol on a white headstone.
It’s dedicated to Alice Stone, wife of James Stone of Sheerness. There is no date of birth recorded but she died on 5 February 1787 aged 27. Alice may have died in childbirth which was a frequent cause of death for women in past eras or maybe she was a victim of an epidemic. We’ll never know. However, there is some barely legible lettering above the inscription which I have been unable to sufficiently enhance in order to read it so this may well warrant a second visit.
The scene at the top of the tombstone is almost like a miniature Doom painting. My interpretation of it is that it’s Judgement Day and the deceased has awoken from their eternal slumber. They appear to be in a burial chamber and lying on a ledge or on a shelf within a vault. They have partly cast off their burial clothes and appear to be slightly decayed. Ribs are visible and the head appears skull-like.
But where are they destined to go next? What will be their fate?
There’s only the choice of two final destinations for them – Heaven or Hell which are depicted on either side of the figure.
On the right hand side is a magnificently winged demon, or The Devil himself, standing over a grinning skeleton whose crown has fallen from his head. The crown is a very significant symbol in that it can indicate the passage from the earthly life into the divine and I have written it about in a previous Symbol of the Month. The demonic figure appears to be holding what looks like a besom or maybe it is a three pronged fork or even a large arrow. Although there are no flames, here the Devil is triumphant in his domain.
On the left-hand side, an angel appears to be floating within clouds while blowing a large trumpet in the direction of the newly awoken deceased. Underneath the angel is a brick house with an entrance or a small narrow gateway (I have to say the entrance does resemble a fireplace). I interpret this as being a depiction of God’s House and there are numerous references to it within the Bible such as Matthew 7:13-15:
‘Enter through the narrow gate,
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
And many enter through it’
And also in Genesis 28: 16-17:
‘When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
It was difficult to find a specific Biblical verse that mentioned the Devil and Hell but I did find a reference in Matthew 10:28 :
‘And fear not them which kill the body,
But are not able to kill the soul:
But rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’
(King James Version)
I am not a particularly religious person but the parishioners of All Saints at the time would have recognised the quotations.
The scene would have been a prompt to the passing viewer or mourner to live their lives in a righteous manner or face the alternative for eternity. It’s very dramatic and, as Alice died at an early age, this reminder would have very pertinent at a time when the average life expectancy was far lower.
So far I have not been able to find out more about Alice or James but for now she rests within part of the quintessential English country churchyard. She’s amongst ancient stones, some protected or obscured by mosses and lichens, and the bright wildflowers of late Spring. However, I would like to know more about her and what may have inspired the little scene on her headstone.
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.