Symbol of the Month – The Final Curtain

Full view of the impressive Raikes headstone, West Norwood Cemetery/
©Carole Tyrrell

The theatre is dark, the audience and backstage staff have all gone home or off to the pub and the final curtain has been brought down. The end of a show, the end of the evening and, in funerary symbolism, the end of a life.

This fine example is from West Norwood Cemetery where it commemorates the Raikes family.  Theatre was in their blood and so the sculpture of a theatrical curtain is very appropriate.

But curtains and draperies have always been associated with death and remembrance.  There is the old saying which is sometimes quoted on headstones and memorials that the deceased has ‘gone beyond the veil’.  An urn on top of a memorial will often have a sculpted piece of cloth draped across it which indicates the division between the living world and the realm of the dead.

In the 19th century and also well into the 20th century drapes were hung over mirrors with curtains and blinds drawn down at windows during the period of mourning. It was as if they were hiding death from the world or containing it within the family. On the Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery website they mention mirrors being covered with black crepe fabric in order to prevent the deceased’s spirit being trapped in the looking glass.

Parted curtains on a headstone to display a downturned dove and epitaph in the centre, Nunhead Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

Curtains also feature on headstones where they are depicted as parted in order to display a meaningful symbol or to draw attention to an epitaph that takes centre stage.  This example comes from Nunhead Cemetery where the curtains are parted to display a downturned dove which is a symbol of The Holy Ghost.

However the Raikes one is very obviously a theatrical curtain and it’s beautifully detailed.  They were powerful players in that flamboyant world and the curtain is a direct reference to this. For example, in 1889, they had Sir Edward Elgar and his new wife, Caroline, as guests in their house, Northlands in College Road, Dulwich.  This was just prior to his Salut D’Amour being performed at the Crystal Palace.

But the family home had a secret in its basement. This was where Charles Raikes (1879-1945) had constructed his own private theatre.  He lived there with his mother, Vera, (1858-1942) and two sons, Raymond and Roynon, from his former marriage. Roynon’s wife, Greta, and their daughter Gretha were also part of the household. Charles lived and breathed theatre and he was ahead of his time when he converted a large billiard room into the Northlands Private Theatre. Nowadays it would be a lavish home cinema with comfy seats and popcorn on tap with his own home movies onscreen.  He extended his pride and joy by removing a couple of inconvenient bay windows and then converting a coal cellar and wine cellar into dressing rooms. He was a talented scenic artist and stage carpenter and from 1924 – 1939 the Theatre put on nearly 23 productions a year to an invited audience. This was made up of the Raikes’ friends and relations and the actors and actresses friends as well. The lavish after show parties were renowned.

Charles’ sons continued the links to the entertainment world.  Raymond (1910-1998) became a professional actor in the 1930’s and played Laertes to Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet at Stratford upon Avon.

Raymond Raikes taken in 1945
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

However he eventually became a BBC producer, director and broadcaster. He won several awards over a long career which included pioneering the use of stereo sound in radio drama.  In 1975 he retired and is known as one of the three greatest radio drama producers. Roynon became a professional photographer specialising in theatre pictures and also as a stills photographer for the BBC. Greta, his wife, became a theatrical costumier and drama teacher and her daughter, Gretha, in turn became a speech and drama teacher. In a 1997 Dulwich Society article she was also credited with being the curator of the archives of the Northlands Private Theatre.

View of the curtains and the quote from the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, Raikes headstone, West Norwood cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

The quotation below the curtain is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  It comes from the 21st, 22nd  or 23rd stanza depending on which version you read.   This is the verse in full and is taken from the 1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald

Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best

That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

And one by one crept silently to Rest.

 

He saw them as a selection of quatrains or Rubaiyats that had been attributed to the Persian poet who was also known as the Astronomer Poet of Persia.  Although Fitzgerald’s translation was initially unsuccessful, by the 1880’s, it had become immensely popular.  It has influenced many creative people over the years including the Pre-Raphaelites and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also a fan and mentions ‘wise Omar’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray.   Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, H P Lovecraft and Daphne Du Maurier are amongst many who may have borrowed a line a s a book title or used an Omar like figure within their works.  Interpretations of the Rubaiyat can be very free and as a result the quatrains can change their wording.  The underlying message of the Rubaiyat appears to be Seize the Day or Carpe Diem in Latin.  There are also several references to drinking with the implication that once drinking is over so is life.   But this particular line seems appropriate for its use on a headstone.

And so the curtain has bene brought down on the Raikes family but, as I took my photos, I thought I detected a faint smell of greasepaint and the appreciative sound of applause……

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

 https://aeon.co/ideas/how-the-rubaiyat-of-omar-khayyam-inspired

 sleepinggardens.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/fridays-funerarysymbols

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

schoolworkhelper.net

https://artofmourning.com/2010/11/14/symbolism-sunday-drapery/

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám Summary – eNotes.com

https://www.enotes.com/topics/rubaiyatomarkhayyam

https://dulwichsociety.com/2017-winter/1578-brief-encounter

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

www.suttonelms.org.uk/raymond-raikes.html

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

 

 

Symbol of the Month – The Six Pointed Star

Another view of the 6 pointed star,Brompton Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

This month’s symbol is one that I’ve always associated with the Jewish faith where it’s known as the Star of David. But when I spotted a prominent example in Brompton Cemetery which isn’t a Jewish Cemetery I wondered why it was on that particular monument.  But on a recent visit to St Mary’s church in Bury St Edmunds I saw a six pointes tar in the East window and read in the guidebook of its significance with Christianity.  The window was part of the 1844 restoration and is based on a  14th century example on the nearby Abbey Gate.

Six pointed star in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds
©Carole Tyrrell

According to St Mary’s guidebook the star is an important Christian symbol as:

‘Jesus was descended from David and is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles, the star of David is an important Christian symbol.’

This may account for the apparently Hebrew looking writing in the centre of a six pointed start dating from the 14th century on a window in Winchester cathedral.  Another one in the same building, dating from the same period on a choirstall canopy, was recorded by Pevsner.

 

6 pointed star from stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral
©https://www.simonarich.com – used without permissionThe six pointed star is a geometric shape and is formed from the intersection of two equilateral triangles.  At the centre of the intersection is a regular hexagon.  In Greek it’s known as a hexagram and in Latin it’s called a sexagram.

In Christianity it’s known as the Creator’s Star or the Star of Creation. The six points are alleged to represent the six days of the Creation and also the six attributes of God. These are:

  • Power
  • Wisdom
  • Majesty
  • Love
  • Mercy
  • Justice

But the six pointed star is a universal symbol.  No-one is quite sure where or when it first appeared bit it’s known and revered throughout both Eastern and Western religions and faiths.  For example, in Buddhism it has been found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and has been used as decoration on Masonic temples, In Freemasonry the star is seen as a representation of the male and female.  This is also an important element  in Hinduism as the combination of triangles are also seen as motifs of male and female and the star becomes an emblem of Creation and divine union.

 

There is a darker side to the six pointed star as, in Occultism, the star is a powerful symbol for conjuring up spirits and as a talisman.  In this the star is seen as representing the 4 elements:

 

  • Fire         –             upwards pointing triangle
  • Air           –             opposite upwards pointing triangle
  • Water     –             downwards pointing triangle
  • Earth      –             opposite triangle pointing downwards

 

But the Rastafarian faith also uses the Star of David or the Magen David as a central motif. Here it’s coloured either black or appears in the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold.   This is because the Rastafarians believe that their leader, the late King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was a divine being.  He’s always been considered as being directly related to King Solomon’s father, King David, and therefore to Jesus.  This is based on a visit by the Queen of Sheba to the Israelite king, Solomon, as recorded in the Book of Kings 1 Kings 10 1:13. Rastafarians believe that during the visit they slept together and a child was born.  This child led to a direct line of descendants to Haile Selassie.

Although the Star of David is now seen as almost exclusively Jewish it wasn’t always so.  It is reputed to have originated in ancient Arabic Kabbalistic texts in which it was known as the Seal of Solomon and became the Star of David in the 17th century.   The Jews of Eastern Europe in the 19th century adopted it as a representation of their faith and Hitler used it as a badge to identify Jews during the Second World War. Today it is on the national flag of modern day Israel.

But what does it mean in funerary terms and why is it in this particular monument?   I looked more closely at the first epitaph beneath it.

The epitaph underneath the 6 pointed star – note Thomas Bower died.
©Carole Tyrrell

It was dedicated to a Thomas Henry Bowyer Bower, the son of Captain Thomas Bowyer Bower whose epitaph is lower down. Thomas died young, aged 24, at Port Palmerston, Darwin, Australia. I’m not sure if he’s actually buried there but, perhaps in this context, the star has been placed there as a symbol of the spirit that survives death. Over the centuries people have used the stars to guide their way and I thought that maybe the star was placed here as an eternal light guiding the deceased through the darkness back home again. Note the quotation on the epitaph from Deuteronomy 32.12,

‘The Lord alone shall lead him’

This  may be a reference to the to North or Pole Star which is traditionally associated with Jesus.

There is a downward pointing dove placed over the star which is a symbol of the Holy Ghost, part of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

6 pointed star on the Bower monument, Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

 

In the King James version of the Bible in Luke 3:22 :

‘And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.’

 I wondered if the last words of this biblical verse referred to the father and son relationship.

My own interpretation of the star and the dove is that it may have been a final goodbye from a father to a son who died far from home and wanting him to know how much he was loved.

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated.

 

References and further reading:

www.religionfacts.com/six-point-star

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

http://www.gmct.com.au

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

http://religionfacts/six-point-star

http://star-of-david.blogspot.co.uk/2006/06/rastafarians.html

http://bbc.co.uk/religion/rastafari

http://symbolism.co/dove-symbolism.html

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

http://www.biblegateway.com