Headstone symbolism
October 11, 2021 10:09 AM   Subscribe

What is the significance or meaning of the mouthless face and aureole (?) on these 18th-century headstones? Pictures can be found in this folder.

The cemetery is located in New Salem, MA (in the western part of the state, near the Quabbin Reservoir). Several headstones in this cemetery, all from the late 18th century, had this face at the top. All had the same sort of almond-shaped eyes, a narrow nose, and no visible mouth. The majority of them had the wavy lines you see there surrounding them, though some had other geometric shapes, mottos, or grapevines surrounding the face instead.

The art style is striking and not one that I associate with that time and place, which is why it piqued my interest.
posted by Johnny Assay to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just found this article and it references these http://thehouseofmaps.com/wp/the-old-stones-of-new-salem/
posted by brilliantine at 10:13 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Pretty sure the background shapes signify wings, as in angels.
posted by rikschell at 10:18 AM on October 11


I don't remember that much about this subject, but your question gives me the opportunity to recommend one of my most-favorite-to-recommend books, James Deetz's In Small Things Forgotten, which contains a chapter or two on how to read the symbols on old tombstones. You might find your answer there.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:48 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]


I'd also say they're crudely rendered angels, and the lines symbolise wings. You can find lots of other examples with a similar face design, where the wings are included in more detail. There are also early American gravestones with winged death's-heads, but the face is usually more obviously skull-shaped in those.
posted by pipeski at 10:51 AM on October 11


Best answer: Those look to me like the sort of thing you see a lot of in very old New England graveyards. It does look weirdly modern, but a lot of carvings from that era look weirdly modern. A friend who studies that style of gravestone carving recently called them "much more like something out of an abstract expressionist painting than what we think of as the religious artwork of old-fashioned white colonials."

It's possible that some of the consistent facial details you're seeing come down to "the local guy who carved tombstones liked to carve faces like that." (The artist in the post I linked to had a different style, but equally idiosyncratic.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:54 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


The City of Boston has an interesting guide to the iconography of the period. What I've seen here and elsewhere suggest that the "winged death's-head" and later "winged cherub" represent the flight of the deceased's soul to heaven.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:04 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Previously on Metafilter: Through LunaCommons, you can view the Farber Gravestones Collection, a treasure trove of photographs of mostly pre-1800 American gravestones.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:21 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Deetz and Dethlefson wrote some of the first big papers on this, but yes, like folks have said above. This is likely the same local carver or apprentice who did this idiosyncratic style variant of the cherub period. D&D might class it as their 'Medusa' style, but it's folk art, so it doesn't have to clearly fit the categories.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:21 AM on October 11


Doesn't address the more general question about this broad style but -- If you have access to the graveyard, you could look at the back of the gravestones, low to the ground. In one case I know of (I have no idea how common this was) the local carver signed his work, so his surname might be written in a sort of inconspicuous place on the stone. It might give you something further to search with, see if there is any local history research on this person's carvings.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:58 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Soul effigies, but that striking abstract/folk primitive style is from New Salem's Felton family of carvers:

The soul effigy highlights the first great transformation in colonial funerary iconography —the shift from death's head to soul effigy. Since this stylistic change closely followed the Great Awakening, 1730-1740, it has become traditional to ascribe the shift to that major religious revival.[...]

Bold, evocative images populate the graveyards of New Salem and adjoining towns of central Massachusetts (Map 1) [...] with varying degrees of certainty, all can now be attributed to members of the Felton family of New Salem. (Robert Drinkwater, Markers #4, p. 169)
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:06 PM on October 11 [12 favorites]


Response by poster: I'm fascinated by the fact that this seems to have been the work of a small group of iconoclastic 18th century dudes — maybe even just one.

... a lot of carvings from that era look weirdly modern.

Honestly, it wasn't that they reminded me of something "weirdly modern". They reminded me of some kind of cross between traditional African masks and contemporary First Nations art, which seemed equally strange in the context; and that's why I was motivated to ask the question.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:44 PM on October 15 [1 favorite]


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