Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Dying Fascination, Part 2

Where do we go to find art?  In Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh has a wonderful display of paintings and sculptures.  Anne and I find natural art on almost every golf course we visit--trees, flowers, the art of design.  Cemeteries, church or kirk graveyards, bone factories seem to be one of the least likely spots to go chasing art, but  there is much that is artistic in the graveyards, especially in Scotland.  I’ve already shown examples in the last entry of one artsy aspect of the graveyards: the patterns of stones and light. The next aspect to examine is the art on the stones themselves, the carvings.  The weathered stone carvings catch attention as we wander among the graves, but the meaning behind the symbols gives substance to the stone mason’s art.
The first category of carvings to explore are the Emblems of Mortality (Willsher, p. 38).  Here is where I’ll go back to my misconceptions about the skull and crossbones.  Instead of symbols referring to death by plague, the gruesome image simply says that this person is dead, as we all shall be.  It is one of the symbols of mortality; symbols which remind us that death is a natural part of life which will come to us all as it has with this soul.  Skull and crossbones is not the only image to remind us of our mortality, we’ve seen several others in the kirkyards of Scotland and England.  Here are some examples of the carvings categorized as emblems of mortality:
Grave Digger’s Tools, such as the spade and turf-cutter (Muthill Old Church and Tower graves, Perthshire);
the Deid Bell rung to give notice of funerals seen in these twin grave slabs at the ruined St Peter’s Kirk near Duffus, Morayshire; 
Winged Skulls are usually found on tombs from the 17th century, but this elaborate winged skull (University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England) is obviously much later;
the Skeleton, the ultimate image of the death that comes to us all, like the one Anne sat next to in the Elgin Cathedral;
the Hourglass which indicates time is passing or, as seen in this grave slab in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, has past; 
Weapons of Death, such as the dart or arrow (St Magnus Cathedral); 
and the Coffin as our final resting place (Elgin Cathedral, Elgin, Morayshire). This slab like many others displays multiple symbols of mortality; in this example, skull and crossbones, grave-digger tools, deid bell, hour glass, and the coffin. 
A second category of carvings on the stones refer to Emblems of Immortality (Willsher, p. 42).  These images seem to be less prevalent than mortality images, as if the living were more concerned with the inevitability of their own death rather than life forever after for the departed.  One image of immortality that is quite easy to find is the Winged Soul or Cherub, as opposed to the less common winged skull. The first example is from Muthill Old Church and the second more elaborate carving is from Balfron Village Church, Scotland.

The other symbol often found is the Scallop Shell, a common object carried by pilgrims, which could also just be pretty decoration.  At the Burford Parish Church, England, we found this unusual combination of mortality symbol (the skull) and the immortality symbol (the scallop shell).
It is more common to see the kind of scallop shell decoration we saw in the Dull Churchyard.
Other symbols of immortality that we’ve found include:
The Angus Dei, or figure of a lamb bearing a cross or flag which is said to represent the Passion of Christ, and the Phoenix, the mythical bird which rises out of its own ashes, which is a strong image of rebirth (both seen in the churchyard of the St Columba’s Episcopal Church in Crieff, Perthshire).

The Dove which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit was very popular in the 19th century.  It is unusual, though, to find a carving of a dove on a memorial (Kinfauns graveyard near Perth).
The Wheel-head or Celtic Cross representing the eternal circle of life is both the symbol of hope and very artistic. This nice example is in the graveyard at St Peter’s Church in Haysham, England, near Lancaster.  
The third category of carvings to discuss in this entry are carvings of symbolic scenes, especially Biblical scenes.  Betty Willsher in Understanding Scottish Graveyards (2006) mentions three specific scenes to look for--Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and the Sower and the Reaper.  In all the graveyards we searched on this trip (and looking at photos from past trips) I could find only two Adam and Eve stones, one at the Church of the Holy Rude cemetery in Stirling and the other at St Madeos Church near Perth.  

Other examples of this story and other scenes will have to wait for future trips.  
There is one more category of grave stone carving to explore, but that will have to wait for the next entry.   

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Dying Fascination

Before we left on our latest Scotland adventure, September and October, I wrote that one of my preoccupations on the trip would be to visit bone factories (aka graveyards) in Scotland looking for interesting stone carving on gravestones.  Over the six week trip I dragged Anne tombstone hunting in Edinburgh, Peebles, Pitlochry, Muthill, Comrie, Stirling, Perth, Dufftown, Elgin, Duffus, Dunfermline, Amulree, Meigle, Kirkwall (Orkney), St Andrews, several others in Scotland and England, and Dull.  Yes, there is an actual village in Scotland named Dull, and the church there and pictish standing stone were anything but dull.  In our visits to the cemeteries and church or kirk graveyards I discovered much more than I thought I would.  With the help of three credible resources (Understanding Scottish Graveyards by Willsher, A Scottish Graveyard Miscellany by Brown, and How to Read a Church by Taylor) I’ll share some of my findings.
First, graveyards are fascinating on several levels.  Artistically cemeteries and graveyards can be a photographer’s wonderland of designs and patterns.  Without getting into the details of the stones and carvings, the patterns of shapes and light can let the imagination loose.  I like the lines and arrangements of stones as well the way stones fit into backgrounds.  Here are several examples of patterns we’ve found in graveyards in Scotland:

This interesting line of tombstones is in front of the Stratford-Upon-Avon Parish Church.

At Tullich Kirk near Ballater the stone crosses blend into the background stone building,

and at the parish church in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire the crosses dominate.
Several places we’ve found that toppled stones create striking images, such as these at Muthill,

and this toppled cross at Coull Kirk (Aberdeenshire),

and the leaning cross at Dull.

Another pattern that appears as you wander through the grave stones is the interplay of vegetation and the stones.  Over the years ivies and mosses, as well as larger plants, have grown over, around, and on top of the stone monuments.  At the Orphir Round Kirk on Mainland Orkney in the far north we saw these grave markers being swallowed by the bushes, 

while at Mortlach Church in Dufftown a tombstone seems to slice through a bush. 

At Dunphail Church on the way to Forres from Grantown-on-Spey the grave marker wears a quite bushy coiffure, 

and the coffin-shaped tomb at Wroxton, England, has a mop do which would make any Beatle proud. 
In the graves of the ruined St Peter’s Kirk near Duffus the moss is replacing the writing on one stone.
Another aspect of church graveyards I find interesting is the historical element beyond the graves themselves.  For instance, in the Peebles parish churchyard is an example of a Scottish Watchtower.  

A watchtower is a tall structure built so that curators could keep a watch over the fresh graves to thwart would-be grave robbers who liked to dig up freshly buried bodies to sell to doctors and universities for anatomical study.  Look into the history of Williams Burke and Hare, known as the West Port murderers, who found it lucrative to not only dig up recent graves, but to dispatch some of the living to provide fresh corpses.  To keep the newly departed safe in their graves some local cemeteries would use cast iron or iron and stone mortsafes to make it difficult to dig up a grave (Logierait near Pitlochry). 
Ancient history, as well, shows up in some kirkyards.  At Midmar Church in Aberdeenshire we saw a neolithic stone circle with the parish cemetery built around it.

On Fife at the Abernethy Church graveyard, next to one of the only two Irish-style round towers extant in Scotland, is a pictish carved stone monument dating back to about the 1100s.  

Now we come to the monuments and their carvings themselves.  I had seen the carvings on tombstones before and even photographed a few, but I really didn’t know what I was photographing.  For instance, I had read or been told (or just made it up and thought I’d read it or been told it) that a skull and crossbones (the pirate flag image) on a tombstone, like the one at Elgin Cathedral, indicated that the departed died of the plague.  

As horrible as the plague was, it sort of made sense.  Too bad it was completely wrong.  I’ll bring up the real meaning of the skull and crossbones later.  One of the first things I learned was about the style of crosses we were seeing.  The empty cross, one with no figure or decoration, symbolizes that an instrument of torture was defeated or that the victim’s soul has been released (Ripon Cathedral, England). 

The crucified Christ cross, of course, is a symbol of resurrection and hope.  Another sign of hope is the Easter cross, one garlanded with flowers (Logierait near Pitlochry).  

One of the most common crosses in Scottish graveyards is some form of Celtic cross or wheel-head cross (Dunphail Church and Fortingall).  

Here the circle is thought to represent the circle of eternity.  It also could simply be the result of the influence of the Celtic-revival period of mid to late-1800s.  Whatever the meaning, the Celtic-style crosses are some of the most beautiful in the churchyards.  
In the next entry, I’ll describe the decorations on the tombstones and their meanings.