Wednesday, September 29, 2010

America's Oldest Art Galleries

The New England Primer:

In the burying place may see,
Graves shorter there than I,
From death's arrest no age is free,
Young children too must die.
My God may such an awful sight, Awakening be to me!
Oh! that by early grace I might
For death prepared be.
There is a word for the appreciation that some have for final resting places which is not morbid: taphophilia. Cemeteries offer many reasons to stop, consider and remember, one of which is that, in New England, they served as colonial America's earliest form of public art displays. The ornate carvings on tombstones were the first works of sculpture by European hands on our shores, a skill that was transported from England, particularly.

The earliest colonial American graves were marked with whatever rocks and wood happened to be nearby. When survival was paramount, initially, little effort was made to create lasting remembrances of those laid to rest. But as colonial settlements became more established, in the later 17th century, and those skilled in the art of sculpting and engraving became more numerous, tombstones became a vehicle for creative expression that some have viewed as America's first art galleries.

It is believed that one particular tombstone served as the inspiration for that of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Elizabeth Pain (d. 1704) was a settler who was laid to rest in King's Chapel Burying Ground in Boston. There was no scandal attached to her life, but Hawthorne writes as if describing Pain's marker, upon which some today still see an 'A' engraved, p. 238:

And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:

"On a field, sable, the letter A, gules."

New England gravestones today are famous for their intricate and often mysterious symbolic carvings. The folk art on the headstones themselves has even spawned a new art form: gravestone rubbings. By affixing paper to the designs on a tombstone, and using charcoal or crayon, one may replicate the images below and take away copy of the memorial. As historical, genealogical and artistic interest in early American gravestones grew in the late 19th century, gravestone rubbings became a fad. Photography serves a similar purpose today, documenting the names, dates, and images associated with people otherwise to-be-forgotten. Gravestone rubbings may still be done at some locations, but there are often rules to be followed to prevent damage to these monuments. As a boy, I recall making my own gravestone rubbings at the Old Burying Point Cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts. Much credit for generating the early interest in American gravestones goes to "Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951) ... an historian, photographer and author. Her book" Gravestones of Early New England And the Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800, "published in 1927, was the first to treat early American gravemarkers as art objects, the country's oldest sculpture." She was the the mother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Esther Forbes. Having spent her days exploring the local cemeteries around her, Harriette took great pains to research, document and explain the significance of colonial tombstones. Of particular interest is her research into the symbolism of the carvings, p. 114:

The thoughts suggested by the carving of the gravestones can be divided roughly into five classes:

I. A recognition of the flight of time.
II. The certainty of death and warnings to the living.
III. The occupation of the deceased or his station in life.
IV. The Christian life.
V. The resurrection of the body and the activities of the redeemed soul.

To give examples of each, the flight of time is most often represented by an hour-glass. Also employed were figures of Father Time, sometimes holding a scythe or an hour-glass. The certainty of death is represented prominently by a skull and crossbones, or variations thereof. The crowing cock (Matthew 26.75), lines from The New England Primer ('In Adam's fall/We sinned all'), and coffins all served as images to warn the living of impending death and the reckoning to follow. Military symbols and coats-of-arms denoted a person's station in life. "A very humble symbol, conceived in quite a different spirit from the coat-of-arms, military trappings, or even the minister's gown, is the scallop shell emblematic of our earthy pilgrimage. The scallop shell, abounding on the shores of the eastern seas, was use by the Pilgrims for cup, spoon, and dish; later it symbolized for them their crusade and was even adopted on their coat armor, an honorable and dignified device" (p. 120). The Christian life was often symbolized by the grapevine. "When bunches of grapes are combined with ears of corn, they symbolize the blood and body of Christ. Other vines besides the grapevine were employed. Sometimes a bird was placed in the vine, which, they tell us, signifies the soul partaking of celestial food...The dove, which may be the bird on at least some of our gravestones, is typical of Christian constancy and devotion. A squirrel cracking a nut is said to be a symbol of religious meditation" (p. 121). Mermaids were sometimes used, which are harder to explain. The trumpet and the rising soon speak to us as symbols of the resurrection. Likewise employed were images of the world, moon, and stars, the redeemed spirit emerging from a tomb or "making heavenly music," as well as the peacock. In one case, we can see a mother stepping out of her tomb holding her baby in her arms, an image of hope.

Many a tombstone tourist has been inspired to take a closer look at the gravestone symbols and the messages they convey. What is it that the person entombed, or his gravestone engraver, has to say to us even now? What can we take away from a tour of those old Puritan cemeteries besides a remembrance of that hearty generation that served the Lord and endured so much? The New England Primer, quoted at the beginning of this post, gives us a clue. Consider that you are made of clay and dust, and to the dust you shall return. Thomas Watson wrote: "O meditate on death! It is reported of Zeleucus, that the first piece of household stuff he brought to Babylon, was a tombstone: think often of your tombstone. The meditation on death would work these admirable effects...There is no stronger antidote, saith [Augustine], than frequent meditation upon death... " (A Christian on the Mount, p. 60). While walking through a cemetery, one might recall the words of the Book of Common Prayer funeral collect, "
In the midst of life we are in death." Or we might hearken to the words of Martin Luther: "We say, 'In the midst of life we die.' God answers, 'Nay, in the midst of death we live'" (quoted by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 384).

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