The 1995 Colbert monument in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., features an intriguing sculpture in cast bronze upon a modest architectural framework in red granite (figure 1). Two well shaped but overgrown holly bushes frame the image.
The free-standing bronze sculpture features a nude female figure which apparently emerges from earth or stone. The bronze is one of an edition of six from the talented hand of Jay Hall Carpenter, copyrighted in 1995 (figure 3), and is unsurprisingly titled Emerging Woman.
The architectural framework upon which the sculpture stands reads “1 Corinthians 15: 51-52”. Fans of Handel’s Messiah will quickly recognize the passage, which is presumably the key, or at least a key to interpreting the sculpture.
51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
The passage goes on in subsequent verses to express a metaphor for the Christian promise of immortality: belief in Christ is equivalent to doffing the old clothing of mortality and donning the new of incorruptible immortality.
The figure of the woman, with closed eyes, may be envisioned as standing for the soul of the deceased; it emerges from the heavy earth from which its former body had been made (cf. ashes to ashes, dust to dust). So Paul’s metaphor of changing clothes is here represented by a further metaphor of escaping from an earthy, earthly prison.
Carpenter, whose work is well known in the National Cathedral and even on the grounds of the University of Maryland, where I work, gives the lie to the claim that monumental art is dead. But then again, he’s the exception that proves the rule: you will look long and hard before you find another classically trained sculptor in this country who can escape the banality of literal realism.