Memorial Day 2020

Figure 1. Patterson monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

In honor of Memorial Day I bring to you a monument commemorating two of our nation’s soldiers (figure 1). Of course, you know I wouldn’t put it up if I didn’t think there was something quite interesting about the monument. The first clue to its interest is that it lies in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

There is no more significant burial site for Confederates than Hollywood Cemetery. There are thousands of ordinary Confederate soldiers here, and in addition one finds the graves of J. E. B. Stuart, George Pickett, and Jefferson Finis Davis, among many others. This is not promising for a Memorial Day post, because after all, Confederates fought against the Union. They also have their own memorial day. However, it is not impossible to find Union soldiers who died in battle, or in captivity, or after having moved to Richmond after the war. So perhaps it is fitting to celebrate Memorial Day after all with a Union soldier’s grave unexpectedly in Hollywood.

Figure 2. Patterson monument. Detail: die. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

But no, our monument commemorates two Confederate soldiers. Both were killed at the Battle of McDowell in the Shenandoah Valley, at which Stonewall Jackson helped fend off the 1862 Federal advance upon Richmond. Jackson was tasked with beating back a flanking movement meant to come at Richmond from the west, via the Shenandoah. The main thrust, under the equivocally competent General McClellan, was coming up toward Richmond from Yorktown. The campaign was a dismal failure, you may recall.

The anagraphic data:

IN MEMORY OF
CAPTAIN
JAS. W. PATTERSON,
Co. D, 12th Ga. Regt.
A native Virginian.
He fell at McDowell
May 8th, 1862,
Aged 39 years.
——
LIEUT. J. K. GOLDWIRE,
Co. D, 12th Ga. Regt.
Fell at McDowell
May 8th, 1862.

Uh oh! They died in battle, and so were presumably unrepentant Confederates. It looks worse and worse for me. A bit o’ research shows Patterson enrolled a company of men in Georgia and his company joined others in Richmond to form the 12th Georgia Regiment on 14 June 1861. He is listed as having been in Company I, not D as this monument claims. He was commissioned a captain over the company he raised. Company I of the 12th was badly mauled in the battle at McDowell; they lost 35, with 140 more wounded. You can see a photograph of Patterson here, and it is strange to think that Patterson, like me, studied at Brown University.

John K. Goldwire (listed in the roster of the unit as John R. Goldwire, and elsewhere as John William King Goldwire) enlisted as a private the same day Patterson did. He was made a first sergeant in 1861 and was elected second lieutenant pf company I on the day and battlefield on which he died.

The monument is made of granite, which makes it probable that the obelisk was erected two decades or more after the war, when that material became common. It is reasonable to think that it might have been raised on one of the war’s anniversaries; the 25th, for example, fell during the later 1880s.

Swords are common in military funerary iconography through the nineteenth century. Sometimes they are crossed, which may mean that the soldier in question died in battle, as it does for the Confederates in figures 3-5.

When hung, there seems to be a prima facie indication that the soldier died in retirement. This is the case on the obelisk of General Alexander Macomb, America’s onetime top general, who died in 1841 (figure 6), and also on the 1886 obelisk of Major Louis Bossieux in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, VA. (figure 8); but the hung sword can also signify death in battle as on the 1847 Botts monument, also in Shockoe Hill (figure 7).

Sometimes the sword is shown in the grasp of a soldier dead in battle, as with the fantastic monument for Brigadier General W.H. Stevens (figure 9), a former Confederate who died with U.S. Forces in Vera Cruz Mexico in 1867.

Figure 9. W. H. Stevens monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

In a liminal space is the Pegram brothers’ monument in Hollywood Cemetery (figure 10). On it are two crossed swords, which are not technically hanging but are in an upright position as though they were. And both Pegrams, a Confederate General and Colonel, died in battle, a few months apart, in 1865.

Figure 10. Pegram monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

There are, as one might expect, close parallels between customs in the South and in the North. Figures 11-15 illustrate versions of the hung sword motif, including a ‘sword laid down to rest’ variant in figures 14 and 15. Many other examples could be adduced.

The drapery on the Patterson obelisk qua drapery is not uncommon. Though I will not offer many comparanda here, it is worth pointing to the roughly contemporary Gray monument in Hollywood only a hundred meters or so from the Patterson monument. Its exquisite carving of the folds of the cloth, caught in afternoon sunlight, is a treat you deserve for reading this far (figure 16).

Figure 16 Gray monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

Of all the comparative evidence I’ve shown, the closest, it turns out, is Macomb’s 1841 obelisk (figure 6). But beyond the presence of drapery and a hung sword, is a third similarity, only noticeable at close range and stunningly unexpected. It puts the Patterson monument head and shoulders above most monuments to Confederate soldiers (and statesmen) in Hollywood. I’ve artificially colored it in figure 17.

Yep, the drapery is an American flag on a Confederate monument. And that makes sense, both because it was probably erected long after the immediate fires of the war had burned low in the survivors (such as those who commissioned the Patterson monument), and because it is a quintessentially American monument in that it looks past partisanship to find common ground (figure 19). This was the best aspect of the age of reconciliation, and it will be welcome again when President Trump is decades in our rear view mirror. This attitude, which not all who survive conflict manage to achieve, is worth remembering on this and every Memorial Day.

Figure 18. “All enmity forgotten.” Photo: American Press Association. Library of Congress call number: LOT 14043-2, no. 1003 [P&P]. Public domain.

Iambs flowing from the Fawcett

Figure 1. Wood monument front face. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

John Wood and his wife Jane have an ordinary looking monument in Washington, D.C.’s Glenwood Cemetery (figure 1). They get some points for working out their ages in days months, and years, as well as specifying places of birth and death:

JOHN BRUCE WOOD
Born Nov. 15, 1831 at Akron, Ohio
Died Feb. 24, 1905 at Boise City Idaho
Aged 73 years 3 months 9 days.
JANE ELIZA WRIGHT
HIS WIFE
Born Feb. 26, 1831 at Alexandria, Va.
Died March 29, 1915 at Washington, D.C.
Aged 84 years 1 month 3 days.

But on the rear face of the monument we discover that someone (Jane, the longer-lived, is a fair guess) went to the trouble of having eight lines of text incised (figure 2).


Figure 2. Wood monument rear face. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The text is a shortened version of John Fawcett’s 1782 hymn, Blest be the tie that binds:

Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne, We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes our aims are one, Our comforts and our cares.

We share our mutual woes, Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part, It gives us inward pain,
But we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again.

For typographical purposes short verses in the original have been doubled up so that four-verse stanzas are disguised as couplets. The capital letters at mid-line show the breaks. Here is our poem as Fawcett intended it, with the two final stanzas in italics.

Blest bé the tíe that bínds
Our héarts in Chrístian lóve,
The féllowshíp of kíndred mínds
Is líke to thát abóve.

Befóre our Fáther’s thróne,
We póur our árdent práyers;
Our féars, our hópes our áims are óne,
Our cómforts ánd our cáres.

We sháre our mútual wóes,
Our mútual búrdens béar,
And óften fór each óther flóws
The sýmpathízing téar.

When wé asúnder párt,
It gíves us ínward páin,
But wé shall stíll be jóined in héart,
And hópe to méet agáin.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives
and waits to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
and sin, we shall be free;
and perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

As you can see, each stanza consists of two iambic trimeters followed by a tetrameter, and finished by another trimeter. It’s hard to see any reason but the practical one for truncating the hymn at the fourth stanza, although those four stanzas get the point across perfectly well. The poor service of darker granite as a medium for longer texts is quite visible here. The letters are still sharp, but the low contrast and speckled surface make reading the inscription a chore.

The image of Fawcett at the head of this post is from Wikimedia Commons and is from the National Library of Wales.

High-Velocity Culture Change

Review and discussion essay.

[I wrote this essay in the early stages of a battle for the soul of an educational institution I once worked for and cared deeply about. It was published in a blog the faculty opposition set up with all of the appurtenances of an academic journal (anonymous review, editorial board, etc). These battles are now ancient history, and few of the dramatis personae are still there. I reprint it here with names suppressed because I have no interest in pursuing old grudges; the essay may be of some use to those fighting similar battles, because the pathology in higher ed administration delineated here is hardly a thing of the past. I am very proud of this essay, both as a review and a polemic, and people at the time told me it was well written.]

High-Velocity Culture Change.  A Handbook for Managers, by Price Pritchett and Ron Pound (2007: Pritchett), 48 pp. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-944002-13-1.

I. Review.

This volume, published in the heady days just before the recent depression [of 2008-09], is a manual for managers faced with merger integration and major organizational change.  When one company has been taken over by another, it may be necessary to forcibly realign it with the procedures and values of the new management. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that this volume has much in common with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Pritchett and Pound, whose bread is buttered by consulting and facilitating corporate culture change, understandably focus on the process, describe it with élan, and, naturally, aren’t skeptical about it.  Culture change—the faster, the better—is assumed to be a good thing, and the human toll—which they acknowledge—is thus a necessary evil in a good cause.

This seems to me to bespeak a typical problem in using consultants. They come in for a day (so to speak), are not affectively tied to the existing culture or mission, and offer recommendations from the narrow viewpoint of their specialty.  This may result in advice that is excellent from one restricted point of view (solvency, perhaps), but quite poor or even unconscionable from another.  Our authors, of necessity caring no more about any one mission or culture than another (their business being just to dismantle them quickly), offer their methods like sharp knives to anyone able to afford them.  What the client does with the knife—well, that’s not their problem.

To avoid overstating the case, I will stipulate that there are, among the 32 page-long aphoristic pieces of advice offered here, a minority that are uncontroversial and inoffensive. Indeed, if you can live with yourself while doing hurtful things, this book may describe effective modes of social engineering, at least in a corporate environment.

I have given this booklet the close reading needed for a review because it was issued to chairs and other program heads at a “leadership seminar” held on 6 March in [name in original deleted] University’s [name in original deleted] Ballroom. When I read it in the knowledge that it had been given to the people who supervise our work I was indignantly angry for three reasons.  1)  I perceive this book to be poisonous and inhuman;  2) this book assumes a corporate context alien to academia, even though universities are admittedly organized as corporations and have boards to which the administration answers;  3) this book, and the principles and methods it espouses, may be taken to reflect, even if indirectly, the opinions, aspirations, and proposed methods of some part of [name in original deleted]’s administration in dealing with the change they think required by the strategic plan.  They wouldn’t have spent the money to hand it out otherwise!  At the very least, it must reflect thinking about how chairs and program heads should deal with faculty and staff, and even that is very problematic.

The booklet assumes the organization faces an existential threat, but does not specify or define it.  The management asserts that the organization is in imminent danger of going under, so the end of corporate survival justifies the means recommended by the authors.  But the draconian advice offered here might seem like a tempting apple to some managers even if they are not facing immediate extinction.  It offers a quick, expedient way to force new organizational behaviors in line with management’s vision, allowing the managers to (as British colonial administrators reputedly said) “never apologize, never explain.”  And really, explaining in detail, justifying, and compromising is a bore and gets in the way of the next promotion.  So the booklet authorizes the managers to invent a crisis.

“If your work group is already shaken up, you can take advantage of that situation.  Otherwise, you must fracture the old culture yourself.  That’s how you create the opening for change.  If there isn’t a crisis already, management has to create one.” (6, my italics)  Plato (Republic 3.414e-415c) would have called this strategy the ‘noble lie.’  In his case, in order to realign people’s loyalties from their families to the republic, he proposed telling all the children the noble lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος) that they had no parents, substituting the republic.

But our authors are no Platos, and a manufactured crisis is a big lie.  If the big lie doesn’t bother you because you’ve persuaded yourself you’re on the side of the angels, there is still the following practical problem.  When your lie is detected, Mr. Manager, even if the truth behind it may be hard to know, we will naturally employ the old Roman legal principle falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus: if you are found lying in one case, we’re entitled to assume that you are lying in all cases.  We will assume that you will directly lie—or do so less directly, through mental reservation—to avoid opposition, justifying your ideas, and compromise. Like all self-respecting people, we will despise you for lying to us, and your ability to get us to follow you will be reduced. This is why transparency and simple honesty remain the best policies, and why this book is fundamentally ethically compromised.

The obvious question of whether management is following a good course is sidestepped by the booklet’s surprising assumption that management can see into the future. “A quick scan of the future tells us, for example, that the organization’s very survival depends on speed.” (4, my italics)  The managers are romantically envisioned as supermen (and women) who have a mystic intuitive knowledge about the future denied to the rest of us.  By sheer force of will they will lead the organization, and they must not be soft or humane.  Nowhere is it assumed that time-consuming mathematical projections, introspection, or ethical reasoning have been taken into consideration, speed being of the essence.

“It’s time for tough love. Caring harder.  Caring enough to take the company through the tough, unpopular struggle of culture change so it can survive.” (8)  The manager, who may well care no more than to be seen to act decisively in the short run so as to position herself for a quick move to a more lucrative job higher up or somewhere else, is cast as the protagonist in a Kulturkampf and her adversaries are the counterrevolutionaries who defend the bad old corporate culture.  Elsewhere in the booklet humans in the organization with differing opinions of where it should go and how it should behave are reductively glossed as “whiners, complainers, and ‘squeaky wheels’.” (12)  All of this is rhetorical morale boosting to persuade the manager that he is on the side of the angels and makes the human cost bearable emotionally by demonizing the opposition.  This is the rhetoric of wartime.

High-velocity culture change requires collaboration, and here it is the authors wheel out the naked apparatus of social engineering:  carrots for those who line up correctly and applying the stick to those who resist change. (12)  “Don’t contaminate the reward system by giving to everybody whether they’re deserving or not.  People may feel “entitled” to raises, promotions, perks, appreciation, attention, etc., but now is the time to destroy the entitlement mind set.  Put all rewards out of the reach of those people who don’t contribute to the new culture.” (12)  Read that again:  merit doesn’t count, or rather, it has conveniently been redefined to conformity with the new order.  This is of course problematic for a place of learning like [name in original deleted], where what constitutes merit is objectively established from centuries of best practices, and can be easily controlled by looking at other institutions.

Culture change through social engineering has been tried and failed spectacularly.  Have the authors never heard of Pruitt Igoe?  With all the best intentions in the world, that great modernist project to make people better by imposing a new scientifically planned environment on them ended up having to be dynamited to the ground, doomed as it was by human fallibility and insufficient resources.  And it is nothing short of a revolution the authors seek here.

“A culture revolution calls for liberation of the people.” (18) Such a ‘year-zero’ revolution seemed good to The Chairman and it seems good to the authors, too.  In a very offensive passage, those persons who might have other ideas about where the organization might go and how are reductively objectified as “bureaucracy.” (18)  Such human beings, or rather, the ‘bureaucracy,’ constitutes “a formidable adversary—sneaky, well positioned, self-righteous, skilled at justifying its existence.”  It is “the Bill of Rights for your old corporate culture.” (18)

The Bill of Rights metaphor, deployed contemptuously, is telling:  The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, are monumental and essential protections of human freedom.  The metaphor is clear:  the new man of the future (that’s you, Mr. Manager), led by his superhuman vision of an inherently unknowable future, is cast in the role of unilaterally destroying fundamental protections for his (sneaky, entitled, etc.) inferiors. The choice of metaphor once again reveals the superman mentality.  Even Satan (in Shaw’s Man and Superman, Act 3) knows better:  “beware of the pursuit of the superhuman:  it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the human.”

Someone must get hurt in culture change.  In fact, the simile invoked is of “walking through a war zone.”  It is a war (as we saw above), and you, Ms. Manager, will see “misery.  Wreckage. Trauma. And casualties.”   And let’s remember that those casualties are human beings with expectations, feelings, and perhaps a family to feed.  So how many casualties?  The authors think that “a good 20% will buy into the culture change immediately.”  These are the collaborators who scent opportunity amidst the general fear and confusion.  50% will be “undecided,” and “30% will be anti-change, pure and simple, and that attitude isn’t likely to go away.” (22)

The authors once again use the soothing balm of reductive language to demonize the human beings who act upon a competing vision:  “anti-change, pure and simple.”  But taking a firm line against some proposed change is no more “anti-change, pure and simple” than being vegetarian makes one ‘anti-food, pure and simple.’  There are defensible, non-negotiable principles (religious ones, at [name in original deleted], and loyalty to the long and successful academic tradition) which some kinds of change might disfigure or eviscerate. Indeed, those principles might actually supersede mere survival, though we’d hope it would never come to that.

But to demonize opposition makes it easier for managers to “. . . get rid of them.  If you can’t release them, at least remove them from the mainstream.”  There is no room for compassion here, only heartless expediency:  “Casualties cause fear.  But that’s better than complacency.  At least fear ratchets up the emotional energy, and you can use that to fuel the change effort . . . . Be willing to sacrifice those people whose attitude and behavior could sabotage the culture change.  Better to lose them than to put the whole company’s survival at risk.”  (all quotations in this paragraph, 22)  So quick battlefield executions of up to 30% of the troops is justified by the end of “survival.”

Start with a bang!  “Early moves must be bold, dramatic, totally out of character so far as the old culture is concerned.  It only makes it harder if you try to ease into things.  Determine your best point of attack, and go cold turkey.  Never waver.”  (24)  ‘Cold turkey’ is another revealing metaphor.  Cold turkey from what?  Not drugs, surely.  Pity?  Compunction? Humility?  Decency?  Those would seem to be what the authors want our manager to forsake.

Machiavelli (The Prince §8) likewise recommended to “those who have obtained a principality by wickedness” to get the executions over with early:  “… it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits.”  Machiavelli was evidently clear about rewarding collaborators, too.

The ultimate metric of success—and moral of the story, if you will—are “dollar signs.”  “It’s a language everyone understands.”  Work satisfaction and even employee health is expendable.  “Morale craters.  Attitudes sour.  Trust evaporates quicker than an early morning fog. Stress levels hit all-time highs.”  Given the negative impact on health by stress, this seems an unconscionable result of culture change.  “. . . fire nonperformers and offload anti-change people,” we are urged, “. . . bring in a new breed.”  “New hires, since they haven’t been nesting in the existing trees, are willing to hack down the cultural forest.” (all quotations in this paragraph, 32, italics in the original)

What are people who embrace the management but have tender emotions toward the organization’s existing culture?  Traitors.  “You’re better off with aloyalty to the culture, because it needs to be a moving target, constantly changing to keep up with the outside world.” (36)  Loyalty will cause people to make economically inexpedient moves to benefit what they admire.  Most professors I know work harder and longer than any conceivable compensation or reward they might get;  the academic profession (as opposed to the small fraction of it represented by teaching in classrooms as a specified duty), at least, is founded upon an uncompensated labor of love that stems from loyalty to the ideas of sharing knowledge and helping form good, useful citizens.

In the end, “significant culture change should start to occur in weeks or months.  Not years.  Start out fast and keep trying to pick up speed.  Leave skid marks.” (44)  No room here for discernment, deliberation, recognition of false starts, learning new things that might cast doubt upon the chosen course.

II. Discussion.

I think it is fundamentally misguided to use this book in an academic environment, its inhuman methods aside.  Faculty 1) are trained to think critically and can scent lies and false information;  2) can point to a successful culture that has spanned nearly a millennium;  3) share governance with the administration;  4) are often protected by tenure.  We can’t be easily (or at least cheaply) gotten rid of as corporate personnel can, and bad behavior that disempowers us may cause us to withdraw our capital (which the administration needs to fuel the academic enterprise) and invest it somewhere else more satisfying.  Administrators can do little without faculty’s willing collaboration, and the latter have extra-organizational access to sanctions in the form of publicity and exposure of administrative bad behavior–see for example the recent fight over health benefits at Penn State.

It’s a worrying enough sign of possible ethical disarray in our administration that it endorses this book by paying for and distributing copies of it.  But to hand this book out to (for example) department chairs also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of academic culture.  Except sometimes in professional schools, chairs, normally drawn from the faculty, complete their terms and return to the ranks; this important check on abuse of power, which goes back to the Roman republic, ensures that those who behave as recommended by this book will face appropriate sanctions from their peers when they get thrown back in the hopper after their term.  Abuse of power is politically and socially suicidal even if somehow condoned by the administration.

Though I am unaware of it having been said yet, I do look for deprecation of the seriousness of handing this booklet out in a confession that the volume had been issued on the basis of its useful-seeming title alone without adequate scrutiny of the contents.  Just the problem with ‘high-velocity culture change’:  the unsuitability of this booklet to guide any kind of culture change at an institution like [name in original deleted] is pretty clear (as I hope to have shown) to anyone who has the basic moral and ethical alertness we aim to instill in our undergraduates.  And who is willing to take the time to examine the moral implications of our use of the knives we’ve bought.

We actually damage our brand, I think, by administratively endorsing a booklet like this in the way I’ve described above.  The disjuncture between our words (“Our culture is Jesuit, Catholic, and academic”) and deeds (endorsing this book) runs the risk of making the culture of the university seem like window dressing, or worse, a cover.  It attracts customers, but the implication is that it is to be eschewed or engineered into an eviscerated, glossy, insubstantial form by administrators who find it impractical or inconvenient when faced with hard financial times–just when we need the ethical and moral skills embodied in our culture to be at their sharpest.

People make mistakes, of course, and I, at least, do not much care to go after those who chose and distributed this booklet.  It is merely a symptom of moral indecision at [name in original deleted].  I do think that if the Jesuit, Catholic, academic mission is to count for much at all at [name in original deleted], our administration must unreservedly, decisively, and most of all publicly condemn and disavow the inhuman principles at the center of this book and promise to avoid their use in any aspect of culture change here whatsoever.

What Robert E. Lee Can Learn from Mussolini

When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
(Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn)

Amongst the Grecian urns in Rome’s Capitoline Museums stands the ancient equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a noble, somber monument that once commanded the public square outside the museum (figure 1).

Figure 1. Marcus Aurelius Statue. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: R. A. Frantz. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

A potent symbol of their past, the Italians honor it on their 50-eurocent coin. Once upon a time, Rome’s bronze statues numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. The sad fact is that Roman bronzes in comparable condition can now be counted on one hand. What a loss.

Many fell prey to metal scavengers thanks to indifferent or ineffective authorities: only late could scraps of antiquity save themselves by granting luster to a king. Marcus escaped the flames because of his timely conversion to Christianity: wrongly identified as Constantine I, he passed dangerous centuries buttressing the papal regime at the Lateran Palace.

Figure 2. C. Ferreri. Regisole. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Ideology played its part: the Regisole (figure 2), a similar statue in Pavia, had nearly reached the safe haven of a gentler age when it was wrecked by Jacobins offended by its supposed glorification of monarchy in 1796.

The Jacobins are not the only zealots who have brought monuments to human civilization crashing down, but if they teach us anything, it is that a cause we cherish too much may lure us into breaking the humane rule (taken for granted by Keats) that art and monuments are to be preserved despite our politics against the day when the world will have gone on to ‘other woe than ours.’

A good example of this is a bronze eagle from the Reich Chancellery (figure 3) I saw on public display in the Imperial War Museum in London. It bears the small stamped phrase, Im Shicksalsjahr 1938 (“In the fateful year 1938”).

Figure 3. Reichs Chancellery Eagle Inscription. Imperial War Museum, London. Photo: author.

Punctured by battle damage, this eagle had hung over Hitler’s head and now bears witness to the broad support for his government that extended even to foundry workers. Such details are important, and monuments—artifacts that inform us about an earlier age—can be valuable without being subjected to the unreasonable criterion that they be masterworks.

monuments . . . can be valuable without being subjected to the unreasonable criterion that they be masterworks

One of my teachers once said, and rightly so, that we must try to fit into the shoes of the people we study so as to understand them sympathetically. Artifacts help, and a sympathetic understanding is hardly on a slippery slope toward admiration or imitation. No one in her right mind will think that the British endorse Nazism by displaying that Reich Chancellery eagle, or that we do by exhibiting canisters of Zyklon B in the US Holocaust Museum, or for that matter that we as a society somehow endorse racism or slavery by suffering Confederate statues to remain in our public spaces.

Figure 4. Zyklon B. From Auschwitz, not the US Holocaust Museum collection. Photo: Michael Hanke. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

But it is conceivable that in a generation all major public Confederate monuments will have been destroyed. That would be a disastrous loss for urban studies, art history, Southern social history, and the study of racism in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates sees this more clearly than most: “I don’t know if I want to forget that, at some point, somebody was crazy enough to have a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest. That’s a statement about what society was. That shouldn’t be forgotten.”

(Click on the link below to go to page 2 of this post.)

Decalog

In Glenwood Cemetery there is this crazy marble tombstone that presents an exhilarating challenge to decipher (figure 1). On its front it’s got two tall columns of equal size which are filled with crabbed, densely arranged text in letters 7-8 mm high, about 300 words, I estimate. That makes this one of the longest texts on a private tombstone in the country, if not the world. And that makes it correspondingly important.

The problem is that not one of those words is legible because the marble is badly weathered and what’s more, it has a dank crust of dirt and lichen. The amount of weathering and the use of marble point to a date before about 1890, and my gut says more like 1870 +/- 20 years. I think part of the weathering comes from past attempts at cleaning, or taking rubbings of the text.

We’re left to trying to deduce the text from a few indirect clues such as formatting and the relative sizes of the paragraphs. Luckily, a series of double-height, deeply cut Roman numerals is mostly legible. These run from I through IV in the first column, and V through X in the second. This is a huge clue, of course. Ten Commandments? Bill of Rights?

The smart money in the nineteenth century would be on the Decalog, and at this point we have to try to see if the inferential evidence of the paragraphing by Roman numerals corresponds to that of the Ten Commandments or that of the Bill of Rights. I used the King James Version, which would have prevailed, I think, when the monument was built; the Bill of Rights has one authoritative text.

So I took my photograph and annotated it, marking the lines of text under each paragraph (figure 2). I traced the Roman numerals in red and drew a blue line through each line of text I could see. I put the tallies in blue beside each paragraph. I also wrote in each paragraph the word count of the corresponding Commandment (in purple) and amendment in the Bill of Rights (in gold). Don’t worry, I’ve tabulated the results (table 1).

You’ll already have seen that I’m comparing apples and oranges, line counts vs. word counts. in order to find a common denominator I decided to reduce both benchmark measures to the percentage each paragraph, or Commandment, or Amendment has compared to the whole relevant text. Using the lines of text on the stone is a crude proxy for word counts, and I suppose they might be off by 10% owing to partial lines and irregularities in the formatting. Still, better than nothing. These figures, too, are in table 1.

Table 1. Paragraph lengths on the Glenwood Cemetery monument in figure 1 versus the length of the correspondingly numbered amendment of the Bill of Rights and commandment of the Ten Commandments. Table: author.

There are areas of strong agreement with the Commandments, while there is a very poor match for the Bill of Rights. The smart money seems to be right betting on religion over politics in the later nineteenth century. Particularly telling is the quick series of paragraphs in the sequence VII – VIII – IX which correspond to three short commandments.

Yet paragraph VI, on the righthand column of the stone, has 5 lines of text and 9% of all lines on the stone, whereas the sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” has but four words and 1.30% of the total words in the KJV Ten Commandments. Paragraphs II, III, IV, and V are also problematic, but VI stands out like a sore thumb. The commandment is a simple four word sentence, “Thou shalt not kill,” as against a 5-line paragraph under the numeral VI on the stone.

In despair, I summoned forth my best reading glasses and had a close look at the text on the monument. I annotated my photographs with text where I thought I could make it out. My method was bad, because I went to the inscription with the text (KJV) in hand, whereas the right way to do it would be to puzzle out letters and then have a look at the text. This was a non-starter, since I am unable to read a single character on the stone with any confidence at all. In the following two image galleries (figures 3-6) I offer my original photos of details of several paragraphs alongside my annotated versions of the same photos. You can judge how badly I succumbed to confirmation bias for yourself.

In paragraph III I’m pretty sure I see “sabbath” with its s, bb, and th, and many other words appear to be recognizable once you know what you’re looking for. I warned you about my bad method, but it’s like looking at the text with blurry vision: the shape of some letters, and especially of some common words is sometimes distinctive enough to determine them.

The short paragraphs VII, VIII, and IX appear to match the corresponding Commandments well in length and text. The beginning of the three paragraphs appear to have the same word, whatever it is; I think it is shaped like ‘Thou,’ but see my remarks on method above. See, too, that the same shape appears to begin the line of text immediately above the paragraph numeral VII. More on this in a second.

The bottom of column 1 must have been covered by earth for a long time: two lines of text are substantially less weathered than the rest. I appear to see a ‘not’ toward the center-left of the final line; sadly, KJV has no ‘not’ in Commandment IV. There are some ‘nor’s, but the rest does not appear to match. It’s worth noting that lawnmowers have clipped a few millimeters from the side of the stone: we’ll have lost as much as a letter or two at the beginning of the last two lines. The comments section exists for you to correct me or add what you see that I missed.

Despite my atrocious method, I am convinced that the stonecutter put the entire Ten Commandments onto this tombstone, but I am not convinced that it was done without some substantial errors or deliberate changes. I suspect, for example, that the line directly above the Roman numeral VII says “Thou shalt not kill,” the sixth Commandment. If I’m right, the Roman numeral VI ought to have fallen directly above this line, so that we would have a very quick series of VI / line / VII / line / VIII / line / IX / line, in agreement with the Ten Commandments. As you see, VI falls 5 lines above (figure 2).

Even if we can fix paragraph VI this way, we would end up adding four more lines to paragraph V, which makes the fit with the corresponding Commandment even worse (see table 1). In fact, there are some pretty notable discrepancies in the length of paragraphs II, III, IV and V with the corresponding commandments on the stone. If the VI was transposed by a blunder from where it belongs, I suppose other numerals might have been as well.

I suppose it is just possible that the cutter (or the person who arranged the text for the cutter to follow) read the Bible of another confession, which might also affect the sequence and length of the Commandments on the stone. The Pedia of Wiki lists the versions and the order in which the Commandments are listed according to different faith groups (table 2). Pay no attention to the length of the texts quoted in the table; they’ve been truncated.

Table 2. Wikipedia Ten Commandments page. Table of numbering of commandments by confessional group. KJV follows group R. Catholics are group C. Lutherans are group L.

Our cutter was not a Catholic: his Commandment I is too short; he would seem not to have been a Lutheran, either. At any rate, I cannot make the pattern of paragraph lengths flick into sharp correspondence with the earlier Commandments by trying any of the alternate numbering schemes listed in table 2.

Which brings me to a question I think we need to ask before we go any further: who puts the entire text of the Ten Commandments onto his or her tombstone? Not even Charlton Heston did that. Aside from one example (with truncated texts) in a Holocaust memorial in the Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey, I find none of these at private gravesites on the interwebs.

Modern monument companies can bang out Ten-Commandment monuments effortlessly thanks to machine and laser cutting on granite (or even casting them in resin), rendering them commonplace and valueless as objects of art (figure 9).

Figure 9. Design Toscano Company, Ten Commandments garden monument, $99.95. “Celebrate the text that has withstood the test of time-the words Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Our faux stone tablet is both historic and inspiring, and makes a defining statement in your home or garden. Cast in quality designer resin exclusively for Design Toscano, the scripture is written in English on one side and an ancient Hebrew dialect on the other. Sand can be placed in the base for extra ballast. 21″Wx5″Dx18″H. 12 lbs.” I rely on a fair use justification for the use of this image which belongs to the Design Toscano Company.

The cheapness of the modern Ten Commandment monuments makes them irresistible to some religious partisans desiring to labor a point, such as Alabama’s luckless former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.

“Reason not the need,” says Lear, but consideration of Roy Moore may put us in mind of the de Tocqueville who noted that

“here and there, in the midst of American society, you meet with men, full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time, strange sects arise, which endeavour to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 2, Chapter XII, New York: Edward Walker Pub., 1847, p. 142-43.

If, as I suspect, we have a version of the Ten Commandments that has been altered in an idiosyncratic way we may well have someone using their grave to eternally grind a doctrinal axe. Certainly the cost of inscribing the entire Decalog on this stone was nontrivial even in nineteenth century labor costs; the monetary investment may be another indicator of a more personal investment.

Figure 10. Unknown monument with Ten Commandments. Rear face. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Strangely, there does not appear to be any place on the stone’s front where a name or other anagraphic data of the deceased was recorded. There are no evident companion stones which might inform this one. The rear of the stone, which faces away from the nearby road, appears to have two inscribed lines of text, no more legible than the front (figures 10-11).

Figure 11. Unknown monument with Ten Commandments. Rear face with inscription. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Whether this stone was the product of a ravening religious fanatic or was merely a crazily overzealous version of the religious sentiments ubiquitous on nineteenth-century funerary monuments, it’s a valuable witness of American funerary art and is among the most astounding things I’ve ever seen in an American cemetery. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the cemetery literature, either, so its interest is matched by its rarity.

In case you wish to puzzle out the stone yourself, dear reader, the following gallery links to images of the front (figure 12) and back (figure 13) at full resolution with no enhancements.

SKESHAKAH

Figure 1. Bresnahan monument. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. Photo: author.

I came across the Bresnahan monument (figure 1) while doing some research today. The monument does not stand out for good or for ill as an example of the rustic faced style, a sort of menhir standing in Arlington National Cemetery. The surname at an angle in a cleared surface like a bumper sticker slapped on carelessly isn’t what I would do, but it’s actually common enough.

Yet I wore out a pair of reading glasses trying to read the silly name in its crazy rustic log font. I get it, that the log font complements the rustic face of the stone, but the name is so long that the letters must be packed together, and the little twiggy serifs and other bric-a-brac-y ornamentation of the letters tend to elide the space separating the letters, making it hard to read them, and they also tend to make the letters read as sort of generic squarish ovals (figure 2).

Figure 2. Bresnahan monument. Detail: typography of name. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. Photo: author.

Once one thinks it through this far, one can deduce the story: Bresnahan, or “SKESHAKAH” as I shall ever think of him, was sold on the rustic package by the monument contractor. But to make these ornate letters work at all, they have to be of a size that the cutter can visibly form the little twigs and lopped branches. The naturally low contrast of granite compounds the problem.

It evidently became apparent that the long name Skeshakah needed to be tilted, since 9 characters would not fit at the required size horizontally on the desired stone. Even then the letters had to be squished together, lest the angle of the name become so steep that it pass over into complete illegibility. This combines about 10 different errors of typesetting and design.

Thank God the daughter had her name inscribed below! It was my rosetta stone to avoid burning through another pair of glasses. Her inscription also shows how the long name on the stone diminishes to invisibility when written across it, though she (or her commemorators) at least used a high contrast black paint in the letters.

Addendum.

Here is the Simpson monument in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia (figure 3). You can see that Simpson has made almost all of the same choices as Bresnahan but the letters are more distinctly carved, the deep cuts around the letters provide much-needed contrast, and the spacing is better. It’s still a typographical disaster, but better. The subtle curve of the ground line of the inscription is interesting, too.

Figure 3. Simpson monument. Presbyterian Cemetery, Wilkes Street cemetery complex, Alexandria, Virginia. Photo: author.

Barshaba

Figure 1. Culpepper monument. Episcopal Cemetery, Elizabeth City, N.C. Photo: author.

The wonderful Culpepper monument (figure 1) rewards a second look. It is among the older monuments in the relocated Episcopal Cemetery in Elizabeth City, N.C. It’s a small cemetery, but if you are a taphophile visiting the Outer Banks, it is worth the hour drive to see it (and see New Hollywood Cemetery while you’re there).

The anagraphic inscription:

CHARLES HENRY
Son of
Henry & Barshaba
CULPEPPER.
Died March 15. 1858
Aged 10 months
& 26 days.

The name Barshaba is as rare as anything you will find. A search at Ancestry dot com turns up 118 occurrences in census records, peaking in records dating to the 1850s. Some of these will be duplicates, of course, as the same person is recorded in one census after another. Still, we never find more than 30 in the same decade. The greatest number lived at the time of the census in North Carolina (10), followed by Virginia (8) and Georgia (8). If I’m not mistaken, the name is probably taken from Barsabbas, the early Christian contender for the apostleship opened up by Judas’ demise. Beavis and Butthead would be immensely pleased that Barshaba’s family name was Butt.

An aside:—

As I have noted elsewhere, there is no trusting census and other official records for names, as the records were compiled by careless and disinterested workers who took in information by ear and double-checked nothing. So we find Barshaba as “B.” in 1850, living (and, I suspect, working) in a hotel in Elizabeth City under the Sanderlin family; she is “Bashba” Culpepper in 1860; Culpepper died between 1860 and 1863 when we find “Bathsheba” married to Maxey Sanderlin, alongside whom she had lived in the Sanderlin hotel; in 1870 a careful worker recorded “Barsheba” Sanderlin in the census; “Barsheba” again in 1880; “B. Sanderlin” in 1900; as a mother-in-law she lived in Norfolk, VA in 1910 where she is now “Barsheba Sutherland” (!); and at her death, on 19 November 1915 (in Norfolk, of “senility”) she was “Basheba.” A North Carolina drawl probably accounts for several of the errors; assimilation to the more famous Bathsheba for others.

Figure 2. Culpepper monument. Detail: angel in lunette. Episcopal Cemetery, Elizabeth City, N.C. Photo: author.

To return to the Culpepper monument the angel in the lunette (figure 2) is wonderful with her crisply carved wings, her curling locks, delicate fingers, and her textured lower gown scooped out with a round-tipped chisel.

Figure 3. Culpepper monument. Detail: poem. Episcopal Cemetery, Elizabeth City, N.C. Photo: author.

But it is naturally the poem that arrests our attention, even though it is a commonplace (figure 3):

To thée the chíld was ónly lént,
While mórtal ít was thíne:
The chíld tho’ déad is yét alíve,
And líves for éver míne.

It’s been taken from one of those handbooks of epitaphs that got circulated among undertakers and cemetery salespeople, and as something tried and true the versification is clear and workmanlike: two couplets, each of an iambic tetrameter followed by an iambic trimeter.

We see the same poem on the grave of Joseph H. Carney (1859-1862) in West Virginia’s Henry Fry Carney Cemetery, and again on the stone of William Riley Thaxton (1872-1872) in Thaxton Cemetery in West Virginia; and again on the marker of Sarah Jane Stepp (1853-1855) in the Stepp Cemetery in Grundy County, Missouri. These are all the examples I could find on the interwebs, but there were surely more, dating to the central nineteenth century.

The fonts are wonderful, a bold sans-serif font above, followed by a more delicate serifed font below. The poem is interestingly in different sized fonts (compare “To thee” with “While,” for example), depending upon how many letters the cutter had to fit into the line.

And finally, the cutter identified himself, T. M’Caffrey, Norfolk, wonderfully, in parentheses. It almost looks like he is getting credit for the poem!

Lyre, lyre, pants on fire

Figure 1. Weide monument. Prospect Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Prospect Hill’s slowly sinking Weiden monument has not held up well under the assault of the elements (figure 1). Erected in 1878, it is a product of the final decade when marble reigned supreme in the cemetery. Granite, hitherto an outlier, would begin a triumphant march to supremacy in the 1880s and by the 1890s granites of all hues predominated.

The anagraphic data:

GEORGE WEIDE.
BORN JAN. 28, 1835.
DIED JAN. 1, 1878.

Figure 2. Weide monument. Detail: harp with links. Prospect Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The dirty stone’s rather nice decorative cornices, ribbons, volutes and organic forms are not shown to good effect in my photograph (figure 1). If you look up George Weide in Find a grave dot com you’ll see a better photo taken when the stone was cleaner. Neat is the harp at the top with the three links of the Odd Fellows resting on the top of the cornice below it (figure 2).

Figure 3. Weide monument. Detail: poem. Prospect Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

But you know me! The poem is what caught my eye (figure 3). It’s hard to read, but let’s have a look:

AWAY FROM HOME AND ALL ALONE
WITH NO ONE TO CLOSE HIS EYES
NO ONE TO HEAR HIS DYING WORDS
BUT THOSE ABOVE THE SKIES

Let’s see if we can scan that:

AWÁY FROM HÓME AND ÁLL ALÓNE
WITH NÓ ONE TO CLÓSE HIS ÉYES
NÓ ONE TO HÉAR HIS DÝING WÓRDS
BUT THÓSE ABÓVE THE SKÍES

So, some long patches of iambs with an occasional extra beat thrown in (2, 3), on both occasions through the use of “no one.” Each one causes the verse to skip in three-quarter time for a moment. I am no expert on the substitutions possible in English verse, but I suspect this poet warn’t one, neither. I do note that the problem might be ameliorated by some simple measures (now with punctuation):

Awáy from hóme and áll alóne,      (4 iambs, note the internal rhyme)
With nóne to clóse his éyes;             (3 iambs)
Nóne to héar his dýing wórds,         (3.5 iambs or trochees)
But thóse abóve the skíes.                 (3 iambs)

The tantalizing description of Weide’s harrowing last moments, all alone and far from home, doesn’t offer us much. Soldier? Missionary?

Farewell Stithy!

Figure 1. Pleasant Stith Roach monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

Pleasant Stith Roach, too-soon-dead son of Pleasant, is commemorated by a great, interesting monument (figure 1).

The slab seems well cut, but the engraved text runs in a fascinating font that wavers between italic and Roman. I find it very handsome, actually, but the production seems vernacular, i.e., homemade.

IN . MEMORY
OF
PLEASENT STITH jr.
Second Son of
PLEASENT & ELIZA ANN
ROACH.
—————————————
Born March 3rd 1859.
Died Jan 8th 1874.
—————————————

You’ll have noticed the misspellings and the backward Z in Eliza. Online records confirm that officially it was Pleasant, not Pleasent.

The gem here is the poem at the bottom (figure 2), assuredly a one-off production of the family (and, as I think, cutter).

Figure 2. Roach monument. Detail: poem. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

Farewell Stithy thou hast left us
We thy loss most deeply feel
But tis God that hath bereft us
He . . . . . . . . . our sorrows bear.

This poem, incomplete because I refused to dig at the stone to get at letters, has lines alternating 8 and 7 beats, with caesuras after 3 or 4. Here it is with my punctuation and a conjecture for the missing text:

Fárewell, Stíthy, || thóu hast léft us; [8 4/4]
Wé thy lóss || most déeply féel. [7 3/4]
Bút tis Gód || that háth beréft us; [8 3/5]
Hé [helps ús] || our sórrows béar. [7 3/4]

It’s wonderful, actually, especially the “Stithy.” If I get to Hollywood again, maybe I’ll see if I can just press down the weeds a bit and get the missing letters . . . .

Done and done! 23 May 2020: here’s a photo with the weeds edged out of the way and the colors reduced to grayscale to assist legibility (figure 3):

Figure 3. Roach monument. Detail: entire poem. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

The last verse can now be confidently given as

He can all our sorrows heal.

So I was a fool not to see heal; once you so see that ‘l’, it’s obvious, and of course you have the double rhymes in the alternating verses. I think maybe I can do a little better with the scansion now, too:

Farewell, Stíthy, || thóu hast léft us; [8 4/4]
Wé thy lóss || most déeply féel. [7 3/4]
But tis Gód || that háth beréft us; [8 3/5]
Hé can áll || our sórrows héal. [7 3/4]

See, too, that the rhyme in the odd-numbered verses is a double one, both left-bereft and, of course, us-us. I’m sure there’s a technical tern for when the rhyming element spans more than one word, but we classicists don’t have to worry about rhyming poetry too much!

I’m loathe to place the caesura between the Nazgûl and his prey the relative pronoun and it’s verb, but the poet practically begs us to, for then we’d have a symmetry between verses 1 and 3 as strong as that between 2 and 4, thus:

Fárewell, Stíthy, || thóu hast léft us; [8 4/4]
Wé thy lóss || most déeply féel. [7 3/4]
Bút tis Gód that || háth beréft us; [8 4/4]
Hé can áll || our sórrows héal. [7 3/4]

But modest deliberate asymmetries can actually be the mark of a good poet, to keep the meter from being too jingly regular.

Siegesgöttin

Figure 1. Laughlin monument. Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo: author.

There are treasures upon treasures in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, but the monument of Margaret Laughlin is among the best (figure 1). Not for its grandeur, obviously; it’s modestly sized and the inscriptions are banal:

MARGARET LAUGHLIN
DIED
NOVEMBER 13, 1854
AGED 20 YEARS

BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART
FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD

That figure sculpted in low relief demands a second and third look, however. With our eyes accustomed to Christian imagery, we’re apt to see an angel writing the name of the deceased into the book of eternal life, which would be one more banality on top of the others. I’m pretty sure that’s the story the artist intended us to see in this conventional monument.

Yet the artist has carefully selected a famous classical statue as the model for his angel, and if we look attentively at the history of that model we discover that he has imbued this figure with a deeper layer of Christian symbolism. But before we go there, we need to consider that classical model.

Figure 2. Venus of Willendorf, c. 26,000 BCE. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Matthias Kabel. Wikimedia Commons.

While female nudes go back tens of thousands of years to the Venus of Willendorf (figure 2) and beyond, the rigorously realistic sculpted portrayal of the human body was a painfully won product of Greece of the seventh through the fourth centuries, B.C.E. The male nude starts as a stiff Frankenstein monster in the late seventh century and evolved into a quite satisfactory form by the end of the fifth.

The female nude started later, looking a bit boyish at first with female bits more or less tentatively added on (figure 6), because early attempts benefited from the technical advances won in the development of male nudes.

The Venus of Willendorf is conventionally named, for Venus as a personification of the human sex drive was thousands of years in the future. But when, as the Greeks report, Praxiteles created the first monumental stand-alone female nude in the fourth century B.C.E. in his Aphrodite of Cnidos (figure 7), he started an arms race, so to speak, with other talented artists all competing to find a cleverer pose or better depiction. Into this series, still in the fourth century, falls the so-called Venus of Capua (figure 9), by an unknown artist. The more famous Venus de Milo is another version of that type.

Looking at the Venus of Capua, which has restored arms that are only approximately correct, we see a female figure with a nude upper torso and drapery slung down from the left hip. She appears to be playing a missing violin, but it is in fact quite likely that she had in her left hand a military shield turned with the convex boss toward her. It rested on her left thigh, that leg raised to do so with the foot resting on what appears to have been a helmet. She seems to have been positioning the shield with her right hand so as to get an admiring look at herself in the polished metal (figure 10). The shield (and the helmet at her feet) would be that of Mars, her lover.

The human body is capable of a nearly infinite number of poses, but as we all know, some are more attractive to the eye than others, just as we are taught that certain symmetries and other features of the human face and body appear to be genetically coded to be attractive to us.

The feverish work of the Greek artists exploring the possibilities of human forms and poses that met these cultural and natural predilections resulted in a fair number that were so successful that they not only became popular but were even adapted in the creation of otherwise new works of art.

For example, there is the famous statue pair of Marcus Aurelius and his wife Faustina in the costumes of Mars and Venus, respectively (figure) which can be dated to the years 147-149 CE. The significance of the imperial couple (he still a prince) garbed as the gods is not something I want to pursue here, but you can see that she has been rendered in a pose directly influenced by the Venus of Capua. (On this sort of thing see Rachel Kousser’s book, “Mythological Group Portraits in Antonine Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology v. 111, (2007) pp. 673-691.)

Figure 11. M. Aurelius and Faustina as Mars and Venus, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Carole Raddato. CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, in Brescia, Italy, Venus is in the garb (including the wings) of Victory. Sometime in the first century, C.E., perhaps after the Emperor Vespasian came to power (69-79 C.E.). In fact, perhaps it celebrated his victory in usurping the throne in some way. It appears that the Victory was holding a shield and writing the name of (and perhaps other data about) a victor in warfare. The shield is like a spoil of war rededicated in the winner’s honor. Victory is commonly depicted with wings, not infrequently taking off or alighting. In this statue she has her feet on the ground, or more precisely, her left foot appears to float because what was beneath it has been lost (it was Mars’s helmet).

It is of course precisely the pose of the Venus of Capua type. Either the artist has created a Victory by putting wings onto the basic Venus of Capua type, or an existing statue of Venus was repurposed by having wings added. It was an obvious choice, with the shield which had been imagined as a mirror now serving as a piece of spoils. Whatever the genesis of the Brescia statue, its effect was to create a new statue type for Victory as an amalgamation of Venus’ pose with some of Victory’s attributes.

Figure 8. Column of Trajan, 113 C.E. Rome, Italy. Photo: szilas Wikimedia Commons.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, for we find the new Victory type used in bas relief on the Column of Trajan in Rome (figure 8) some 40-50 years after the Brescia statue appears to have been created, in 113 C.E. As you’ll recall, the column features a spiral winding 23 times around the column upon which the events of Trajan’s two Dacian wars are recorded.

Figure 9. Conrad Cichorius, Siegesgöttin und Traphäen. “Die Reliefs der Traianssäule”, Erster Tafelband: “Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges“, Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Wikimedia Commons.

The Victory is half way up the column on the south side, inscribing Trajan’s victory after the first of the two wars he fought against the Dacians (figure 9). The figure is an image of one panel of a plaster cast that was taken of the spiral frieze.

Figure 10. Laughlin monument. Detail: winged Victory. Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo: author.

Finally we come back to Margaret Laughlin’s monument. All of the elements are there: the winged goddess, the arms outstretched, the one knee raised, the downward cast of the head. As with the Victory on the Column of Trajan, the book/shield is propped on a little stand so that while the left hand holds the object up, the right hand is free to write upon it. This coincidence of pose is far too great to be accidental. The American artist knew the Victory from Trajan’s Column or from another replica of the type (one finds it on Roman coins, for example).

The American artist has adapted the type he found: we’ve seen that such adaptation in general is par for the course. So, for example, the left leg is made to cross over the right. You can see the instep of the foot pointed at us, only possible if it is the left foot brought over. So instead of being raised and resting on a helmet—and not bearing weight—it props its toes on the ground, again not bearing weight.

We have almost come to the end. The choice of the Victory type for the angel writing the name of the deceased into the book of life is very fitting, for part and parcel of the Christian way of imagining resurrection is, thanks to Saint Paul and others, as a victory. A victory over death, which arises from a victory over sin; a victory in the race (of life) well run. I do not see a palm branch or any laurels, but they would be the most typical markers of this constellation of ideas. I’ve written at some length about it here.