Symbol of the Month – Old Father Time

Old Father Time on an almost horizontal headstone, Pluckley, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

Ah, the perils of searching for symbols in old churchyards. I had to almost lie horizontally on the ground to take a photo of this one in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Pluckley, Kent.  I was a little nervous that the headstone would fall on top of me but what a headline that would have made!

At the time I had no idea what it represented and just thought it looked interesting.  In fact it wasn’t until much later when I’d had a chance to look at it properly that I realised the identity of the figure in the carving.  I then wished that I’d also taken a photo of the epitaph.

It is in fact a depiction of Old Father Time.  It’s a lovely example. As you can see he’s sitting with one hand holding a fearsome looking scythe with a bent and gnarled stem and the elbow of his other hand is resting on an hourglass.  He is a very old man with a white beard, large angel wings on his back and is flanked on either side by two angel heads.  What better symbol for a life that had ended?

So far I have only discovered a few other examples.  There is a 17th century version on a tombstone in a Hendon churchyard and a huge, modern one again resting on an hourglass within Warzaw’s Powarzski cemetery.  I can’t show them in this blog as one is on a stock images library and so not royalty free and I am awaiting permission to use the other image.  However I found this one on Wikipedia but its location is not given.

Old Father Time and a grieving widow. An unknown Irish memorial.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

We traditionally associate Old Father Time with the New Year celebrations. He is the representation of the outgoing Old Year welcoming in the New Year which is usually portrayed as a smiling baby.  But Father Time has also been described as a gentler version of the Grim Reaper as they share the same accoutrements of a scythe and hourglass.

He is considered to be the personification of age and is related to the ancient Greek god Chronos and also the Roman god Saturn. Father Time’s ageing, worn out body is a reminder that time ultimately devours all things and that none can escape.  The grains of sand in the hourglass count out not only his life but all lives.  Although he has a long, white beard, a sign of age, it has been interpreted as a reclamation of purity and innocence.  But, as the hourglass can be inverted, so can a new generation, the New Year, restore the source of physical vitality. However, time is not always destructive as it can also offer serenity and wisdom.

Cronos, from which chronology derives, was the ancient Greeks word for Time and the Romans knew him as Saturn. According to Wikipedia:

The ancient Greeks themselves began to confuse chronos, their word for time, with the agricultural god, Cronus, who had the attribute of a harvester’s sickle.  The Romans equated Cronos with Saturn, who also had a sickle and was treated as an old man, often with a crutch. The wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions.’

 The Roman Chronos was originally an Italian corn god known as the Sower and a big festival known as the Saturnalia was held to celebrate the harvest.   So there is a link between these ancient gods and Father Time in that they both symbolically harvest, or cut down the mature crops, to make way for the Spring’s new growth.

Father Time appears throughout many cultures and also in art, books and sculpture amongst others.  In one of Hogarth’s later work, The Bathos, he appears lying down surrounded by his familiar objects, all now broken.

The Bathos by William Hogarth in which Old Father Time lies surrounded by his broken symbols.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons.

But in St Nicholas’ churchyard  Old Father Time keeps an eternal watch over a life that has ended,  resting on a still crisply carved hourglass.  It is full, the scythe has harvested and so the endless cycle of life continues.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

©Carole Tyrrell


Symbol of the Month: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may as Death is always waiting

At last the endless sorting out of boxes is over after the move.  I’ve found some money I’d forgotten about, family photos and a lot of books. The Cancer r Research charity shop in the High Street is groaning under the weight of my donations and I have recycled a lot of stuff.

And now down to the important things in life – shadowsflyaway!   I didn’t have an internet connection for a few weeks which was probably a good thing as it made me concentrate on emptying boxes and organising rooms.

But let’s begin with Symbol of the Month!

This month’s symbol comes from a post on Facebook’s Folk Horror Revival page and I was intrigued enough to make this one Symbol of the Month.  I would describe it as a memento mori which is Latin for ‘Remember you must die.’

Tombstone from St Peter’s Church Falstone ,Northumberland
©Stephen Sebastian Murray

It’s a carving on a tombstone featuring a skeleton and a woman or girl facing the viewer. She is holding three flowers in one hand.  In this photo, although the skeleton almost seems to be rising from the ground, he is actually holding a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other.  This can be seen more clearly in the clipping from Northumberland’s Hidden History by Stan Beckensall which another reader on the strand of the post kindly attached.

Clipping on headstone from Falstone churchyard, Northumberland. taken from Northumberland’s Hidden History by Stan Beckensall used without permission.

She is wearing a tightly belted dress, perhaps fashionable in her time, and seems carefree despite having Death standing next to her in all his glory. I had the impression that this might have been on the grave of a young girl due to her dress and the flowers.

They reminded me of roses and I immediately thought of the famous phrase, ‘Gather ye rosebuds while you may’ which is a quotation from a poem by Robert Herrick, a 16th century poet.

The poem is entitled: To the Virgins to make much of time and the quotation comes from the first verse:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

   Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

   Tomorrow will be dying.

So this little scene could be saying Enjoy life while you can as death will soon be here.’   It sounds a little depressing but life was shorter in earlier times. In the 19th century, for example, the average life of a working man was until their late 40’s and women often died in childbirth.  I wander around cemeteries a lot as you can imagine and there are many monuments and memorials to wives and often children who have died young as a result.  On the other hand it can be seen as uplifting in that it encourages the onlooker to enjoy life to the fullest.

Sadly I don’t know who’s buried here but she or he was obviously much missed to have such an impressive scene carved on their tombstone.

© text Carole Tyrrell photos use  with permission.

11 symbols for the price of one! – The Anne St John memorial, The Lytton Chapel, St Mary’s Church, Knebworth


St Mary's church Knebwoth, view from the House. © Carole Tyrrell
St Mary’s church Knebwoth, view from the House.
© Carole Tyrrell

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.

The Anne St John wall memorial, Lytton Chapel, Knebworth in it's entirety. One of the most fascinating examples of iconography I've ever seen. ©Carole Tyrrell
The Anne St John wall memorial, Lytton Chapel, Knebworth in it’s entirety. One of the most fascinating examples of iconography I’ve ever seen.
©Carole Tyrrell

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:

Anne St John wall memorial. The mace and the spade are meant to symbolise power and the humble labourer but Death levels them all. ©Carole Tyrrell
Anne St John wall memorial. The mace and the spade are meant to symbolise power and the humble labourer but Death levels them all.
©Carole Tyrrell

Top panel:

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.

Detail of side panel of Anne St John wall memorial. Note vase of broken, dying flowers in vase at top with open Bible at Daniel chapter 10 with the hourglass and scythe at bottom. ©Carole Tyrrell
Detail of side panel of Anne St John wall memorial. Note vase of broken, dying flowers in vase at top with open Bible at Daniel chapter 10 with the hourglass and scythe at bottom.
©Carole Tyrrell

Left hand side panel.:

Vase of broken or drooping flowers:   According to Howgate, this signifies ‘the brief transience of life before 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:

Detail of side panel of Anne St John memorial. Note thread of life on spool with Hand of God about to cut it and the slightly ajar coffin waiting below. ©Carole Tyrrell
Detail of side panel of Anne St John memorial. Note thread of life on spool with Hand of God about to cut it and the slightly ajar coffin waiting below.
©Carole Tyrrell

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

Ann St John wall memorial. This is at the bottom of the memorial and depicts the resurrected dead on teh Day of Judgement. One of the shapes has their hands joined in prayer. ©Carole Tyrrell
Ann St John wall memorial. This is at the bottom of the memorial and depicts the resurrected dead on teh Day of Judgement. One of the shapes has their hands joined in prayer.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


Remembrance of the Dead (based on a talk given at St Mary and St Thomas church on Sunday 5th October 2008 – Michael E. Howgate M.Sc

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thams & Hudson, 1978

How to Read Symbols, Clare Gibson, Herbert Press, 2009

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004