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:
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.
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 11) 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.)
On the other hand, in Brescia, Italy, Venus is in the garb (including the wings) of Victory (figures 12, 13). This type was created 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.
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 14) 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.
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 15). The figure is an image of one panel of a plaster cast that was taken of the spiral frieze.
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.