Friday, August 16, 2013

Comfortably numb...

        "Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word 
        'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express
        the glory of being alone.”
This quote, from the German-American theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), seems quite relevant for life at the moment. The month of August in France, here at least, has lived up to its reputation for leaving towns and cities deserted of many of their normal inhabitants over the holiday period, abandoning them to the throngs of tourists. I think almost everyone I'm close to, my children included, has gone off. I've been left holding the fort, along with several bunches of keys for house-keeping purposes and have suitably busied myself. Plants have been duly watered, letterboxes emptied, shutters opened and closed, dogs walked and fish fed... I was slightly dreading this weird state of seclusion, but in fact it has proved to be quite interesting. I experienced the different aspects that Colette describes; "There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall."
Fortunately I never reached the head-banging stage, and I did end up finding a strange kind of calm and sanctuary. The hours of solitude were rather heavy at times but led to a certain freedom, far more activity and the desire at least for creativity. This process was reinforced by the untimely demise of the television so I was deprived of that easy-option comfort zone and was spurred further and faster along a solitary and unfamiliar path, with my eyes and ears open to other possibilities. It turned out to be a great experience all round, in fact! 

I've had a similar experience with this blog. How can anything have tens of thousands of views and yet seem to hold so little or merely fleeting interest for visitors that almost none want to comment or 'share'? Wow, that's alot of clicking on... and off again! Well, I went from feeling very cyber-lonely, to virtual freaky-weird and now am just comfortably numb to any lingering feelings of loneliness. After all, it's the electronic version of a personal scrap book, not Facebook, even if I had been hoping to come across birds of a feather when I started up. Perhaps I don't belong to any identifiable flock of anything or am a dodo, or have simply been plucked of all feathers. Maybe I've been feathered and tarred as a cyber pariah! Oh well. Either way, I am grateful I haven't attracted any negative attention, and so I can go about my blog business undeterred. This has liberated me from that feeling of emptiness, of lacking something, or missing out and has freed me up again to notice the wealth of beautiful things that are invariably overlooked if you're constantly looking at your feet, peering in the mirror or gazing at your navel. Actually, it is useful to look down sometimes; that's how I came across this Painted Lady butterfly earlier today. Unfortunately it was as dead as a dodo, along with the dragonfly who thoughtfully chose to expire on my doorstep a few years ago.
All this can only be treasure to a roving magpie eye that has rediscovered its focus.
Anyway, this was a great excuse to include the Pink Floyd track with that fantastic guitar solo! This version was put up by OfficialPinkFloyd ( Comfortably numb.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Weeping Victorian Angels...

Walking around Victorian cemeteries you are often surrounded by the somber, saddened faces of angels, who watch over the final resting place of mortals. 

Indeed, the word 'cemetery' is derived from the Greek koimeterion meaning 'dormitory', while 'angel' comes from the Greek for 'celestial being' , above and beyond earthly existence. 

Acting as Man's guardian, a spiritual intermediary between Heaven and Earth, it is no surprise that the symbol of the angel is a common feature of many cemeteries, especially those of the Victorian era. Unprecedented numbers of deaths from the early 19th century fired a desperate need to find solace through the hope of Eternal life.

 A concern for extensive mourning, ostentatious funerals and lavish cemetery statuary and architecture gave a certain meaning to death, and became a social norm at a time when death was a part of everyday life, largely irrespective of class or wealth. 

Weeping angels, with their melancholic yet sober air, were deemed suitable for the adornment of many Victorian tombs. As the heavenly messengers of God, angels would bear tidings to those humans who needed to listen. In cemetery symbolism the figure of an angel could convey many images to those eager to read. 

However, the portrayal of angels in statuary was not the only popular choice in the representation of spiritual concerns. The newly-established cemeteries of the mid-19th century abound with messages that could be easily understood by a public already steeped in a tradition for the symbolic. 

I think that I covered most of the main aspects of death, mourning and cemetery function and symbolism in the post Highgate Cemetery - A tribute to-Life, Death and Nature. I wanted to reserve an exploration of the meaning of headstone and statuary symbols for this post based on my visit to two of Birmingham's cemeteries - those of Yardley and Warstone.  

It was the search for beautiful, eerie statues of angels that drew me to these cemeteries. Warstone, the older of the two, is situated in Birmingham's old Jewellery Quarter in Hockley, where many of my relatives worked in its heyday. Yardley is a large cemetery still operating today, unlike Warstone. It is divided into sections, the Victorian part being the oldest, of course.

 The higher number of the angels in Yardley cemetery show how these figures had become a 'fashionable' staple in cemeteries in the latter part of the 19th century; Warstone had comparatively few. 

Although the angels named in the Bible are male - Gabriel, Michael and Raphael - and the others are largely gender-neutral, we assume that they are masculine too. And yet the vast majority of cemetery statuary angels are essentially beautiful, young females. 

Gabriel, Michael and Raphael are but three of seven Archangels, alongside Uriel, Raguel, Sariel and Remiel, that make up one of the nine 'choirs' of angels. Indeed, angels from the religious scripts of the different faiths follow a (varying) hierarchical order of three 'spheres' divided into the above-mentioned Choirs. The Seraphim, Cherubim and Ophanim are the choirs acting as heavenly counselors in the First Sphere while the Dominiums, Virtues and Powers serve as Heavenly governors in the Second Sphere. The Third Sphere is inhabited by the choirs of Principalities, Archangels and Angels working as the soldiers and messengers. The angels that seem 'familiar' to us today, just as they were in Victorian times, come from the lowest group of the nine choirs of angels - those acting as envoys to Mankind.

Most of the Victorian angels that guard over the graves of the dead carry symbolic objects that bear their own message. In this manner, angels are seen to clutch trumpets, ready to blow on the Day of Judgment and herald the Resurrection. 

Likewise, scripture books are held open to indicate a relevant passage or to note down the names of the deceased in the Book of Life, for admittance to Heaven. Those generally deemed worthy of passage to Heaven were, of course, innocent children, whose purity was indicated by the Arum (Calla) lilies held by the angel ready to escort the child in question.

 The expression borne by most angels appears to be one of sad resignation. 

Some, however, do seem to be rather haughty...

Figures calmly weep, although representations of uncontrolled sobbing exist too, generally to show that the cruel loss was unexpected and appear all the more poignant for this. 

Generally however, angels present a reassuring, albeit mournful, form. With or without wings, these angels do not hover, but generally stand over the graves from a certain height, often standing on a pedestal, or rock. 

This image of sanctuary and eternal hope would be further emphasized by the symbol of an anchor and chain to demonstrate the stability and security offered by the anchor of Man's soul - faith in God.

 Occasionally, angels seem to resemble fairies, with wings ready to flutter...

Today, many graves and their adornments have deteriorated through the ravages of time, adverse weather conditions and the abundant foliage growing in unkempt, overgrown cemeteries.

 Others have been the target of vandalism, as headstones have been knocked over, and parts of the statues broken off. It would appear that the more expressive the grave originally was, the more it has attracted negative attention from hooligans. 

The tombstones of children in particular, seem to have fallen victim to the worst of this destruction, and the result is pitiful. The cruel loss of a beloved child over a hundred years ago seems even more tragic today through these heartless acts of hooliganism.

Numerous angels have been left in a sorry state, with limbs lost and heads lying on the ground or the whole tombstone lain flat on the grave plot, no longer able to cast their protective gaze over their wards. 

Presumably this particular type of cemetery statue, with its sentimentality often bordering on the maudlin is simply too tempting a target for some people. And yet it shouldn't be forgotten that even the sickliest display of sentimentality is based on real human emotion and suffering and should be respected as such.

Naturally, not all graves display angelic forms. Other symbols were standard fare in funerary tendencies - going from the simplest forms of religious expression to the more complex. Contrary to our belief today that old cemeteries are merely depressing, run-down sites, if we looked beyond the sad state of neglected, vandalised plots another dimension would reveal itself.

The Victorians strove to believe in the triumph of life over death, and fed this hope with their lavish funerals and cemetery art. Their apparent obsession with death sprang, in part at least, from obligation in a time of high mortality and from their attachment to life and the loved ones who made up their lives.

In this manner, Victorian cemeteries overflow with symbolic references to eternity, resurrection, reunification, love, devotion and innocence. That is not to say that mentions of the tragic or cruel twists of fate do not exist since we may come across references to the nature of the individual's life and death, in almost curious, quirky detail, but these are demonstrations of the idiosyncratic, not purely the negative.

As to be expected, there are many direct religious symbols - variations of the cross being the most common. The basic Latin cross symbolizes suffering and triumph over death and has been the emblem of Christian faith for centuries. Its crucifix form represents the union of divinity - with the vertical line, and the world - with the horizontal. 

These are frequently set upon the three Calvary steps that symbolize Faith, Hope and Love or Charity. Celtic crosses, initially of pagan origin, refer to renewal, fertility and eternity through the image of the 'halo' form surrounding the intersection of the cross and the interlaced knotwork that decorates the stonework. 

Although the shape of the Latin cross may appear more sober than that of the Celtic design, this is often compensated by ornate inscriptions and decorative reliefs that serve to embellish and give further meaning to the form.

Again, these usually have a direct Christian reference, as in the choice of a Christogram. The sacred monograms IHS or IHC, abbreviations of the name Jesus Christ in Greek, are often presented with the letter 'H' inscribed to form a cross. The accronym INRI, represents the first four letters of the title given to Jesus by Pontius Pilate; ' Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews'. 

Certain funerary symbols and architecture initially had little to do with Christianity but were soon adopted by Victorians, through the vagaries of fashion. The obelisk, an ancient Egyptian emblem of life and health, was incorporated into the norms of cemetery art, as was the symbol of the serpent swallowing its own tail to present life eternal. Symbolism could also be used to refer to a specific trade, association or membership to a fraternity such as the Freemasons.

Other symbols of Christianity also flourished, along with those associated with Faith in general. The dove was a recurrent image of purity and peace, and was an obvious choice for children's graves, as was the innocent lamb, symbol of Christ. The descending dove was a direct reference to the Holy Spirit and often appears diving towards the souls of those interred, or ascending to Heaven once its divine mission has been accomplished. 

Often present, though not here unfortunately, is the image of the all-seeing eye, set within a triangle, symbolises the Holy Trinity and the omniscience and omnipresence of God, who watches over us. 

The themes of hope, salvation, eternity, resurrection and love appear in many guises. Indeed, although these references were widely used in the past, the meaning of some may appear rather obscure to us today. Designs that we may consider to be purely aesthetic would, in fact, bear vital messages for our ancestors. The quaint butterflies that adorn stonework were selected to symbolise resurrection whilst the hearts we may come across were not just some sentimental demonstration of love, but the symbol of devotion and faith.

Likewise, decorative representations of the intricate petals, sepals, stigmata and tendrils of the Passion flower were used to recall Christ's suffering on the cross and not simply to look 'pretty'.

In the same manner, palm leaves would symbolize rebirth and the triumph of life over death through resurrection; crowns recalled the crown of everlasting life; sheaves of corn or wheat would herald renewal and abundance; ivy would portray the immortal; wreaths, the ever-green cycle of life; lilies reflected purity; roses, eternity and poppies eternal sleep. 

Leaving this world, the deceased would say farewell to their loved ones, and would join those who had gone before them. Clasped or shaking hands on family graves would symbolise this duality. If the sleeves of the two different hands denoted the two genders, it could be assumed that husband and wife were parting, or were finally going to be reunited in death.

 If there were no specific gender references, the hand image could be read as an earthly farewell. A hand pointing up was an obvious allusion to the ascension to Heaven, whilst a hand pointing down could that of divinity, reaching down for a soul. 

The Victorians were determined to display the strength of their religious convictions and the solace this provided them with, not to mention the social recognition their public devotion could afford them. They needed to believe in the eternal and to demonstrate this solid belief to themselves and the others. They had to do so in order to bolster themselves against the cruelest experiences of death in life, when they were subject to torturous moments of doubt and emotional anguish. Indeed, some losses were simply too hard to bear and the Divine plan could only be 'justified' with great difficulty. 

 The death of children, or a series of deaths in a family was a common event, but the suffering of the bereaved was no less vivid. The symbol of the hour-glass would act as a reminder of the transient nature of life which could suddenly be extinguished with little, or no warning. 

(From Highgate Cemetery)
Inverted torches and trees, along with broken columns and flowers would also demonstrate man's fleeting time on earth, a life cut short through untimely death.

Drapery would hang heavily from tombstones to represent sorrow and mourning, often in combination with urns or columns to symbolise the death of an older person or the demise of the pillar of the family. 

More poignant still, then as now, are the graves of infants with their empty chairs, overturned shoes, severed flower buds, winged cherubs and, of course, melancholic angels. 

The weather provided us with suitably atmospheric conditions on the day we went to visit the cemeteries. I managed to drag my son along, with the promise that it would be "just like seeing the weeping angels from Doctor Who".

It was drizzling at one stage, and in the Victorian section the tombstones and the paths threaded between them were covered in the strangest, slipperiest slime that I have ever encountered. Walking around was treacherous and was exactly like Doctor Who ectoplasm!

I loved it, all the more so because I was reading Wilkie Collin's novel (1859)TheWoman in White at the time...
                    "If I could only wake at her side when the angel's trumpet sounds and the graves give                      up their dead at the resurrection".