Today we look at two splendid monuments with the common iconographic theme of the harvest. The two couples commemorated were close contemporaries, doing most of their living in the central quarters of the nineteenth century.
In Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston we find the sizable, if somewhat weathered, monument of the Bishops (figure 1). Their monument has the basic shape of an altar, and fittingly, the inscription on it is in a gothic font. If you get a whiff of high church Episcopalianism, well, so do I. The taste and means of the Bishops or their commemorators is immediately apparent thanks both to the monument’s ambitious art program with its gorgeous sheaf of wheat and the costliness we may infer from the cemetery’s attractive, well maintained landscaping and low density burials.
In Baltimore Cemetery, by contrast, we find a couple anonymously commemorated by their children (figure 2). The cheek-by-jowl burial arrangements in that cemetery, together with the monument’s mishmash of shapes and forms point to lower middle class or top proletarian origins of the couple. This would agree with the majority of the modest monuments in Baltimore Cemetery. The Bishops’ peers would certainly have chosen Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore’s answer to Mount Auburn. Needless to say, the Baltimore monument is the more interesting of the two.
The Bishops’ cutters have placed upon their altar a massively carved sheaf of wheat wrapped with a cord made of twisted stalks. It has been laid upon the tomb in the satchel in which it was collected. Wheat carries the notion of being a gift of God, and it can bear eucharistic connotations, but here it points to a ripe harvest, either ripe from the advanced age of the deceased, or more likely because their good lives and works have been like seeds that have now come to fruition as the dead go to their richly deserved reward. The motto on the monument shows this was foremost in the mind of the commemorators: THE HARVEST IS RIPE; ITS FRUITS ARE GATHERED.
The Bishop monument is otherwise simple with clean moldings articulating the basic form of an altar upon its base. The sheaf of wheat is not common in monumental (so to speak) markers, but you do see it. The Bishop monument, for example, has a close parallel in the altar-form Aldrich monument in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (figure 3).
They’re so similar, in fact, that I believe they represent a type, though I’d be happier if I could find a third. You can see another view of the Aldrich monument here, at Gravely Speaking. They’re not close replicas, however: the Aldrich monument’s wheat sheaf is differently proportioned and rises higher above the altar top and it lacks the cloth under the wheat.
How different is the Baltimore monument! It exhibits a true Victorian interest in showy bric-a-brac (figure 2). My photograph does a fair job of showing how the designer played with receding depths of the monument to create stark light and shadow effects on a sunny day that attracts the eye.
The Baltimore monument is divided into three parts horizontally and three vertically. The vertical arrangement is clear in the bright white marble bearing the more expensively cut artwork above, the cheaper, slightly pinkish or rusty marble in the center with the anagraphic inscription, and the functional base below. I do wonder of the three sockets on the front of the base once held a metallic feature giving the names of the deceased.
Horizontally, the two outer modules are topped with segmented arches having ovolo moldings below the cornice; these arches are notionally supported by complicated brackets like heavy furniture legs.
Under the right arch (figure 4) is a raised plaque roughly in the form of wide, fat ‘M’ on which the word ‘Father’ has been left in low relief. The font appears to me to be gothic-inspired. Above and connected to the ‘M’ is a small medallion bearing the Masonic compass, square, and G, with the three links of the Odd Fellows below. In the deeply recessed space above the ‘M’ and below the arch is carved a laurel branch. More on that in a bit.
The left module (figure 5) is analogous to the right except that its inscription is ‘Mother’ (same font), it has a palm frond instead of laurel branch, and its medallion appears to bear generic floral ornamentation.
The third and central module (figure 6) notionally rises behind and above the others, terminating in another segmented arch which is shallower and lacks the complication of the ovolos. Its profile has a baroque feel, and the arch has atop it a trefoil. It serves mostly to frame and serve as a backdrop for a giant sheaf of wheat which, as on the Bishop monument, is gathered with a cord of braided stalks. Wheat is a masonic symbol, but the presence of that sickle with the sheaf seems to indicate that the primary symbolism is the same as on the Boston monument. A small shoot climbs the sheaf, perhaps with the notion of new life from the old.
Father died at 68, mother at 66 (figure 7). The font recording their anagraphic data has been carefully chosen for legibility but contrasts with that used in their modules above.
The reader will already have realized that the Baltimore monument uses the laurel (figure 4) and the palm (figure 5) to advance a claim that the couple was victorious in the struggle to live a good life. I’ve written about the biblical and classical roots of this symbolism, with case studies and comparative evidence, here.
I’m interested in a species of monument in which drapery is used to suggest “bringing down the curtain” with death or, more frequently in a Christian context, “revelation.” Let’s have a look in my next post!
Appendix. Other images of ‘the harvest.’
Figures 7-9 are nearly identical, and this is no surprise, as they are all cast from the same mold to make zinc “white bronze” monuments. What changes there are reflect the aging of the mold between 1883 and 1905.
The catalog of white bronze monuments created by the Monumental Bronze Company. You can see that their catalog offers the very sheaf on these three monuments, which makes sense, since MBC was the major player in this field from the 1870s to the early twentieth century. Recall that the image is an etching, not a photograph, if you note minor differences.
The Wilkerson monument (figure 11), besides listing the manifold misfortunes of Alfred B. and Mary A., who had 4 children predecease them, two as infants and two as adults, has a workmanlike version of the harvest sheaf, which has been fussily tied with a ribbon.
The 1872 Wiessner monument in Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery has a sheaf of wheat that appears to have been cut down and inset into a receiving niche in the wall of the monument. the sheaf appears originally to have been carved to stand upright, as the way it sits obviously defies gravity. There are actually four identical sheafs, one on each cardinal side of the monument, so I imagine they were ordered as a group from some central provider and cut on site. They’re about a meter across.