Sepulchral Art of Charleston A Guide to Funerary Iconography in the Holy City
By James A. Molnar Death was pervasive in colonial America, from risks posed by animals and natives living in the vast wilderness beyond garrison walls to mysterious pox, plagues, and pestilential illnesses floating invisibly through the air. Coupled with the dangers inherent in an unknown land—treacherous terrain, cruel winters, and ignominious neighbors—death could come without a moment’s notice. Life in colonial Charles Towne was no different. The earliest settlers originally landed on Albemarle Pointe several miles up the Ashley River from the peninsula known as Oyster Point. There they endured privation, pestilence, and Indian violence to not only survive, but thrive. While many of the early Charles Towne settlers were poor immigrants or indentured servants, others
The name and dates on this headstone in the eastern graveyard of St. Philip’s Church have been worn down by time and weather. However, its hourglass and the skull and crossbones are still visible today, remnants of Puritan iconography. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
were members of the English gentry, younger sons seeking opportunity and fortune in America. Among this group, there was a distinct gravitas derived specifically from Anglicanism and British aristocratic ideals. Many of them brought with them a strong desire to perpetuate those ideals—or, in the case of the newly-minted planter elites, to emulate British civility. As these wealthy families established the planter class, they continued the British tradition of designing funerary monuments that not only identified the deceased, but also recognized them formally for their wealth, social standing, and military or political achievements. As attitudes towards mortality shifted from the Puritanical views of ever-lurking death and the dangers of sinful behavior towards the more socially enlightened views of the eighteenth century’s Great Awakening, the colonists’ ceremonial practices, death announcements, and tombstone engraving changed accordingly. “Remember you must die” In Charleston, a city struck with epidemics of malaria in 1684 and 1685, numerous smallpox outbreaks, and yellow fever epidemics in 1699, 1706, 1712, 1728, 1732, and 1739, untold thousands of residents were wiped out by disease in just fifty-five years. The 1732 yellow-fever epidemic in particular almost shut down the city, forcing city leaders to ban the tolling of church bells due to the enormous number of funerals. Faced daily with the prospect of their own demise, Charlestonians’ thoughts and attitudes towards death were invariably affected. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery.” Charlestonians recognized this need, and though it was a religiously diverse city with views of heavenly attainment differing among the various congregations, all shared the same common belief: that death brought about a metamorphosis, and the cemetery or other burial location was merely a resting place for the earthly vessel. Charlestonian sensibilities and the desire to
The tympanum (the arch atop the headstone) of Reverend William Hutson’s headstone, located in the churchyard of the Circular Congregational Church, incorporates several different traditions of funerary iconography. The portrait flanked by cherubs is typical of the mid-eighteenth-century style, while the skull and hourglass upon which the cherubs recline are reflective of seventeenth-century Puritan iconography. A native of England, Hutson served as minister of the Circular Church from 1757 until his death in 1761. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
own mortality. A common gravestone inscription was “Memento Mori,” Latin for “remember you must die,” a reminder that one must be ever mindful of Death lingering around them. Some early artwork conveyed this with painted representations of death arriving at a house with a coffin on his shoulder. One of the first artistic responses to the quick shrouding and entombment typical of the time before embalming became commonplace was the rise of various representations that immortalized the dead, while allowing for the concealment of the corpse itself. The death mask was one of the earliest effigies, and in the fifteenth century, these “faces” would be displayed on the coffin and at the church. Later, other recurring motifs would appear on tombs and tombstones, including carvings of skulls with empty eye sockets, crossed bones, and menacing skeletons. The image of a skull held considerable symbolism. Frequently found in Charleston graveyards and on headstones, the skull was a holdover from English
impress motivated the funerary practices of these early lowcountry members of society. Social functions and conventions were important, and the adherence to a particular type of social more dictated that the wealthy emulate the practices of their fellow members of society, even if the prices were costly. According to the proprietors of the John Stevens Shop of Newport, Rhode Island, a New England carver in existence since 1705, the typical cost of a finely-crafted custom slate gravestone in 1727 was approximately £18. With standard inflation, the cost in 2010 dollars would be a sum in excess of $30,000. The tympanum of Thomas Pool’s headstone, located in the western graveyard of St. Philip’s Church, While funerals served a is practically filled by the reclining figure of a skeleton. His skull rests upon a winged hourglass, a dual purpose, with both social visual reminder of death’s power over time. The thirty-seven-year-old Pool died in 1754, in a shipand religious underpinnings, wreck in Charleston Harbor. The words etched above the skeleton—“Yesterday for me and to Day for these community rituals also thee”—are meant not for Pool, but as a reminder of mortality for those living souls he left behind. reminded survivors of their From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society. Fall 2010 21
At left and lower right: The wealth of rich detail on Mary Quincy’s headstone in St. Philip’s churchyard offers a unique look at contrasting attitudes towards death. As on Thomas Pool’s headstone, the tympanum features a reclining skeleton preventing a winged hourglass from taking flight, likely a representation of Mary’s abbreviated life (she was only twelve when she died). Yet the anchor held by the reclining child was traditionally considered an emblem of hope, and the grapevine a reminder of the resurrection. Mary’s father, Samuel, was a minister, perhaps torn between his paternal grief and his professional faith in life after death. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Below: David Stoddard’s 1769 headstone in the Circular Congregational Churchyard. The marker is unique in that it combines a skull and crossbones with a winged soul effigy. Stoddard was a Boston-born merchant, and the stone was likely carved by Boston carver John Homer. Image courtesy of the author.
tradition, brought to the colonies by early settlers. Puritan preachers warned parishioners that the perils of sin in temporal society would condemn them to an eternity wrought with misery in the afterlife. Thus skulls, skeletons, crossed bones, and other variations on this theme were pervasive reminders, particularly in the earliest seventeenth-century stones. Skulls were frequently carved with a glaring or laughing face, taunting the viewer with his or her own mortality. However, the earliest iconography was very plain, lifeless, emotionless skulls, with sunken or blank eyes. The hourglass was also commonly seen, as it represented the transience of earthly bodies and lives on earth. Occasionally headstones would display the motif of death in skeleton form, tipping over an hourglass that has little of its sands remaining, a sardonic grin carved into the very face of the skull who has cheated the decedent out of life. In the Heart of St. Philip’s A variation on the skeleton and hourglass motif can be found on the gravestone of Mary Quincy, who died in 1742 and was interred in Saint Philip’s churchyard. The stones at Saint Philip’s feature a wide variety of artistic 22 Carologue
motifs, dating back to Charleston’s earliest history. On Quincy’s gravestone, the skeleton is reclining onto a winged hourglass that is trying to take flight. In its hand, the skeleton holds a palm sprouting from the ground. As palms were used to represent victory, certainly this is death’s way of saying he is claiming victory over Mary Quincy’s soul in the tug-of-war between earth and the afterlife. Also buried at Saint Philip’s is Thomas Pool, who died in 1729 and whose headstone reflects another twist to this same motif. It depicts a reclining skeleton, lazily resting his head atop an hourglass. Beneath is the inscription, “Yesterday for me and to Day for thee”—a reminder of ever-present death. The headstone of the Reverend John Lambert in St. Philip’s shows an example of the earliest-known winged death’s head, which incorporated the motif of the dead flying away to heaven, yet also combined the terrifyingly dark, empty eyes within it. Most importantly, the winged death’s head is believed to represent how swiftly—and Above: Lydia Dart was just nine months old when she died, the daughter of prominent lawyer and merchant John Dart and his wife, Hannah. The Dart family’s graves date from the 1720s through the 1740s and are among the oldest in the Circular Congregational Churchyard. Little Lydia Dart died in 1735 and was followed just thirteen months later by her infant sister Mary. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Above and right: Elizabeth Simmons’s headstone can also be found in the Circular Congregational Churchyard. It is a fine example of colonial portraiture, featuring a detailed bust of the deceased flanked by weeping mourners. Unlike most other headstones, the Simmons stone was signed by the carver, Boston’s Henry Emmes, across the top of the tympanum. Simmons died in 1740, at the age of thirty-five. Images courtesy of the author.
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hollow eyes and jagged teeth of its bony predecessors, Mould observed. The Great Awakening’s focus on salvation as opposed to the Puritan doctrine of predestination eased the artistic constraints earlier gravestone carvers must have experienced. Interestingly, one may see the last vestiges of this on the marker of David Stoddard, located in the Circular Congregation Churchyard, which features both a cherubic The side-by-side headstones for Christopher Peronneau and his younger sister Sarah, located in the eastern St. Philip’s Churchyard, feature twin soul effigies. Unlike most soul effigies on nearby monuments, winged-head as well as the the Peronneau children’s images have necks, rather than simply a head flanked by wings. Christopher foreboding image of a died in 1743 at the age of three weeks, while Sarah was just two years old at her death in 1747. skull and crossbones From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society. above it. This particular piece is unique in its blend suddenly—death may arrive. For Christians, the skull of imagery: though art had been a symbol of death since medieval times; with the addition of wings, it signified a resurrection of the spirit. The symbol of the winged skull conveys in didactic as well as figurative terms the concept of metamorphosis; with its desiccated skull, hollow eyes, and a cruel glare, it is the ultimate embodiment of mortality. An Iconographic Shift The Great Awakening of the 1730s was likely the cause of the shift from such macabre iconography to the more optimistic, angelic carvings displayed on tombstones of the mid- and late-eighteenth century. The transformation in Puritan thought and sensibilities, especially as the Great Awakening’s effects so strongly resonated through New England, may have been the catalyst for less foreboding iconography. The great cultural upheaval caused by the awakening likely perpetuated the move towards more carvings of angels, specifically cherubs. The evolution from skulls to the “soul effigy,” wrote David Mould in Historic Gravestone Art of Charleston, revealed itself in images “often carved with pudgy cherubic cheeks and expressively bright eyes, resembled disembodied angels and usually symbolized the spirit winging its way toward heaven after being separated from the mortal body.” It was thought that cherubs were the only heavenly souls visible to living humans, thus their importance in funerary art. The growth of religious tolerance as well as the shift in stone carvers’ artistic taste prefaced the arrival of the winged soul on tombstones. These winged souls presented the features of a living person rather than the haunting
Though it has suffered some damage over the years, George Hesket’s 1747 headstone in the Circular Congregational Churchyard is another excellent example of early portraiture. A native of Boston, Hesket’s image is complete with fashionable top coat, vest, and scarf. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
and theology may have been evolving, death’s triumph was unmistakable. The Artists Behind the Chisel The next notable iconographic shift was the evolution from carving angelic or soul figures into the tympanum (the arch atop the headstone) to creating portraits of the dead or their mourners. Among historians, some questions exist as to whether or not this portraiture carving practice originated in New England or in Charleston. This dilemma was addressed by Diana Williams Combs in Early Gravestone Art in Georgia and South Carolina, in which she examined the Charlestonto-Boston connection: The first funerary portraits … seem to have been cut by New England carvers not for a local market but for a far more cosmopolitan community like Charleston. New England artisans were responding as entrepreneurs to the distinctive taste and cultural ideals of a southern clientele whose sense of earthly importance was accentuated by their regional prestige and burgeoning wealth. Charleston’s emulation of European art and culture is uniquely reflected in its imperious funeral portraits.
The moneyed elite, who wished to propagate images of their wealth, viewed it as fitting tribute to their social prominence to have their portraits carved into their headstones. Even without the decedent present to carve, the rise in oil painting provided a portrait from which the artisan could chisel the figure. Sometimes this resulted in a temporary headstone being placed for several years, until the final product was carved. One excellent example of a very early portraiture is the George Hesket portrait in the tympanum of his gravestone, located in the Circular Congregation Churchyard. The earliest of Charleston’s graveyard markers were the product of a handful of New England stone carvers. Boston carvers such as Henry Emmes and William Codner were the most notable artisans of their craft, and evidence of their work can be found throughout Charleston’s churchyards. Though it was extremely uncommon for stone carvers to sign their work, the portrait on Elizabeth Simmons’ headstone at the Circular Congregation Churchyard does feature Emmes’s signature, as well as the name of his home city, atop the tympanum. Though both Emmes and Codner have notable pieces here in Charleston, there are none to be found by them in New England that compare to their
In the western cemetery of St. Philip’s Church, an unusual double headstone from the eighteenth century marks the graves of Frances Prue and her infant son Thomas. Frances Prue is represented by a portrait, while Thomas is immortalized with a soul effigy. The faces of the two images bear remarkable similarities, suggesting a concerted attempt by the carver to capture their familial bond, if not their accurate images. Thomas Prue died in infancy in 1747, and his mother followed more than two decades later. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
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The present-day Circular Congregational Church sits on land once occupied by the meeting house that gives Meeting Street its name, a congregation formed in the 1680s by English Congregationalists, French Huguenots, and Scots Presbyterians. Its churchyard is the oldest surviving burial ground in Charleston, home to graves that date back to 1695. Recently, the church partnered with the Historic Charleston Foundation to restore the cemetery. From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
work in South Carolina. Thomas Walker was another major figure in the art of stone carving during early America. These artisans and their apprentices sometimes even traveled to Charleston and set up workshops, as was the case with both John Bull and George Allen, Jr., who came to Charleston from Rhode Island. Their form of high art came to exemplify Victorian sensibilities through the urns, willows, and images of mourners that can still be seen today, etched on the slate stones erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If “death is the mother of beauty,” it stands to reason that there is more to these carvings than mere skulls with wings or flying hourglasses, marking the passage of time as their sands drain away. Metaphorically chiseling away at these sepulchers, in Charleston one finds a city rich with history, culture, architecture, and a deeply imbued sense of social consciousness. Pervasive throughout all aspects of the city are the strong religious underpinnings which derived from the tolerance that was expressed and embraced from the very earliest days of the Lords Proprietors’ settlement. Known as the Holy City for its abundant churches, with their great spires that rise above the rooftops of the historic peninsula, there is a strong sense that many of those who walked the earth before us are trying to tell the story behind this city from the graveyards of those very churches. This is the story embodied, etched, and embedded in the sepulchral monuments that dot the cemeteries of some of our nation’s oldest churches. ◆
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James A. Molnar is a graduate of Rutgers University and Villanova University and is currently finishing his Master’s thesis from Wake Forest University. He is the cofounder of www.CharlestonGraveyards. com, and lives in Charleston.