Field Guide

Victorian Cemetery Art

The large amounts of space in the Victorian cemetery were to revolutionize cemetery art, and permit the use of sculpture in a way that the crowded churchyard had never allowed. Sepulchral sculpture, with its prone effigies and kneeling weepers, had flowered in the past, but only for the rich and powerful. Now, for the first time, the average man could have the sort of tomb formerly reserved for emperors.

Whether it was England's Victoria (who was known to like large monuments) or the material wealth of the Victorians that set the tone for such displays is not known. The Victorians, with their great sense of the personal, felt that individual achievement should be recognized. It did not seem right to them that a child should have the same stone as a war veteran, or that the minister and the ship captain should lie, as they do today, under nearly identical markers. The question then became: What symbolism should be used to distinguish such different types of grief?

Artists in the Renaissance had used a standard iconography, such as that set forth in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia. A triangle at the time meant God, a phoenix resurrection, and so on; everyone knew and immediately recognized such symbols. By the nineteenth century, however, recognition of such symbolism was breaking down (the sheath of wheat for someone old; the broken golden bowl; the lamb for innocence and resurrection), and there were other instances in which the artist-craftsman was thrown back on his own resources. Thus an open Bible (sometimes with the text of the last sermon preached) became a symbol for a minister, or a fire helmet for a fireman. One man is represented by the whiskers that earned him abuse--ship captains by models of their ships, surprisingly detailed. A stone in the shape of a church strikes us as clever, as does a gate just ajar. But sometimes the symbols are superbly personal; a favorite gardening hat for a gardner; a chair with a book on it for someone who was a great reader.

A large variety of such symbols can be found in Victorian cemeteries: Angels--or human figures caught in some lingering, meditative moment. Sculptors and stonecutters found many ways (including Greek and Roman poses) to represent angelic draperies and forms. Children--a poignantly large group. Logs, trunks of trees, baskets of flowers, lodge emblems, dogs guarding their master's graves, lions, eagles and doves....

None of these symbols, however, were meant to be literal. We see the literal because we have forgotten the symbolic meaning. But to their first viewers and to their creators, the symbolic meaning was immediately apparent.

One advantage of cemetery art is its permanency. Hundreds of architectural landmarks have been destroyed, but cemetery art tends to remain very much as its creators intended it.

Taken from Victorian Cemetery Art by Edmund V. Gillon Jr., published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1972.