You may remember the legendary story of Phidippides, the man who ran from Marathon, the site of the Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 BCE, over the 26-odd miles to Athens to deliver the good news. In the earliest version he stumbles into Athens at the end of his run and no sooner does he announce the victory (“Rejoice! We win!”: χαίρετε· νικῶμεν) than his heart bursts and he dies on the spot.
Phidippides thus becomes the first runner of a marathon, that is, an extremely hard race, and he is fittingly associated with victory. This proved a potent combination for at least one Christian seeking to commemorate a life well lived in front of his family mausoleum in Druid Ridge Cemetery, a mere 8 miles outside of Baltimore. Why should this have been?
Saint Paul (figure 0), seeking a metaphor for a Christian life well lived despite the difficulties of temptations and setbacks—not to mention the difficulties of spreading the word—had written (2 Timothy 4:7), “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” It’s what rhetoricians call a tricolon, a group of three statements in a crescendo of increasing significance. The first two members of the tricolon are folksy sports metaphors which just about anybody would have understood, and the third explicitly ties the idea of (winning) sports competitions to keeping faith.
Most other translations render ‘course’ as ‘race,’ which makes things even more explicit, and it is in that form that the middle member of the tricolon crescendo appears on countless tombstones to celebrate (or assert) that the deceased led a Christian life. It’s all very nineteenth-centurical. We also have the well known Pauline promise (1 Cor. 15:54) that “death is swallowed up in victory,” which again makes a connection between successful life as a Christian and winning.
Sometimes those with space to burn place the whole tricolon on their monument. Yet others assume that they can allude to it because once upon a time absolutely everybody could be counted on to know the original. This idea, of course, underlies the presence of laurels and the palm frond in funerary iconography. Either one, or both, of these classically derived symbols of victory form an allusive synecdoche for the tricolon. Recall, too, the motto of Admiral Nelson (Horatio, not Harriman) and various schools (in particular of USC, as my dad never tired of telling me), “palmam qui meruit ferat,” ‘let him who has deserved it carry off the palm.’
So, we have the palm on the Raine monument in Green Mount (figure 1), and the laurels offered over the tomb of Captain Sargent in Arlington (figure 2), and the overdetermined double whammy of both on the Velati mausoleum in Rock Creek (figure 3).
Here (figure 4), in an example taken almost, but not quite entirely, at random, is the connection made explicit in the splendid Marburg monument by Hans Schuler in Green Mount (Schuler also did the angel whose hand we see in figure 2).
The patriarch, William August Marburg (1814-1873), and a goodly number of his 10 offspring are buried in Green Mount. There on the plaque with their names (figure 5) are two sprigs of laurel, and in the left hand of Schuler’s figure is the palm (figure 4). “The true victory,” we are assured, “is a life well lived.”
One of the Marburg children was not buried in Green Mount with the rest. Theodore Marburg (1862-1946), an ambassador to Belgium, built a mausoleum at Druid Ridge (figure 6). More importantly, his son, Theodore jr., is buried there. Junior had volunteered in the Royal Flying Corps when he graduated from Oxford, and in so doing lost his U.S. citizenship. After the war he was reinstated, and brought back a Belgian baroness for a wife; yet he had also lost a leg and relocated out west for the sake of rehabilitation on a ranch. The baroness left him because she did not take to the west; and he widowed a second wife when he shot himself (badly) in 1922.
His father (one presumes) had him located in the family vault in Druid Ridge. But more importantly, he worked with our old friend Hans Schuler to create a special monument for junior. The statue was cast by the Roman Bronze Works in New York (figure 8), and Schuler dated the work to 1924 (figure 7).
The statue depicts Phidippides (figures 11, 12) and is labeled in archaic Attic Greek: ΦΕΙΔΙΠΠΙΔΕΣ ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΣ. In classical Attic we’d probably write Φειδιππίδης ὁ Ἀθηναῖος, “Phidippides the Athenian.”
As is clear in figures 9-10, the figure holds aloft the palm of victory. That is an imagined anecdotal detail from the historical story but also alludes to the deceased junior having led a well-lived life. See, incidentally, that Schuler’s Phidippides owes something to the pose of the dancing faun in figure 5 in my post, Aspirations.
In figure 12 we can see that Phidippides has dropped a sprig of laurel in order to clutch at his heart. Both of the major symbols of victory are thus present.
Symbolically, the Phidippides bears within it a constellation of interlocking ideas, Christian and classical: the notion of victory from the story of the historical/legendary Phidippides; the race (or ‘course’) from St. Paul, and also the first ‘marathon;’ the palm and laurels from conventional (classical) iconography for victory; and the notion of death as terminally punctuating the race of the well lived, faithful life. A grace note is that junior served in World War I on the winning side, a fact that is celebrated in the plaque on the statue: Theodore sr., like many fathers before him, takes whatever the record offers in order to make the most attractive presentation of his dead son’s short life. (figure 13).
The overwrought inscription is hard to read, both physically and because the text in the final 8 lines barely makes any sense (to me):
In loving memory of
Capt. Theodore Marburg
British Royal Flying Corps
and Air Force
November 27, 1893 – February 24, 1922
[Royal Flying Corps insignia]
Follow the Flag
Too long it has been absent from that
line in France where once again an
Attila has been stopped. And yet
though not visible to the eye, it is
and has been there from the beginning.
It is there in the hearts of those
fifty thousand American boys who saw
their duty clear and moved up to it.
You see Marburg jr. and the baroness in figure 14.
As a post scriptum, and thanks to the courtesy of the Harvard Museums, we can see another landmark constellation of the concepts of war (World War I), victory, death, the laurel, and the palm in John Singer Sargent’s famous 1922 mural, Death and Victory, for Harvard’s fallen WWI soldiers in the Widener (figure 15).
The caption to the mural is also worth recording here: “Happy those who with a glowing faith in one embrace clasped death and victory.” The reference to faith in connection with death and victory has, as we have seen, Pauline roots.