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

 

 

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Ancient stones and new beginnings – a Spring saunter through St Nicholas churchyard, Sevenoaks

 

 

Another view of St Nicholas with a war memorial in the foreground.
©Carole Tyrrell

On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home.    St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home.  It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and  opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark.   One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?

The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270.  It replaces an earlier church.  The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450.  There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains.  In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt.  The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.

But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me.  Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori.  A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.

The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials.  It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.

Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones.  Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.

A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.

The spreading horse chestnut is now into full leaf burst.
©Carole Tyrrell

A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard.  I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from.  There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown.  On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.

The closed part of the churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation.  Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.

The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass.    Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.

 

Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them.  More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.

There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.

The epitaph reads:

To the Memory

of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman

to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset

He died by an unfortunate fall from

Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.

His loss was greatly lamented

and by none more than

by his Lord and Master

to whom he was a most just and faithful servant

This sad accident happened

on the first day of July in

the year of our Lord 1723

 

 

 

With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone.  I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.

Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless.  I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References and further reading

https://www.sevenoakssociety.co.uk/upper-high-street-west/255-st-nicholas-church

https://www.stnicholas-sevenoaks.org/

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.

Symbol of the Month   – The Cadaver tomb

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds.  These medieval tombs  were an extremely visual  way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.

It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having  admired its magnificent hammerbeam with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.

I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.

Another full length from the feet up of Benet’s cadaver tomb with the modesty cloth.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb.  This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’.  This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death.  Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:

‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’

This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’.  This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the gisant of the deceased as they were when alive and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse.  This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.

Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s.  St Pauls’ cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne.  Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe and particularly in Italy, France. Germany and the Netherlands.

But who was John Benet?

According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors.  He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade.  This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life.  Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….

John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town  which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted.   It originally lay in his own private chapel.  This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling  which was restored in 1968.   You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling.  Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration.  The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:

’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services.  It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved.  The letter ‘S’  which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’

The restored ceiling of what once was the ceiling of John Benet’s private chapel.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.

There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’  Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.

The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.

Now there’s an  interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen.  It may have been created in the  nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops.  This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving would also confirm this.

Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read.  In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’.  Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:

‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

 A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated has obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory.  Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see.  I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.

The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern

This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal.   The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’

It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate.   But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck.  So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see.    I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

References and further reading: 

St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.

Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973

https://flickeringlamps.com/2015/01/03/a-most-macabre-tomb-in-lincoln-cathedral/

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