Sunday, 11 January 2009

Mourners in Stone - Graveyard Sculpture

When wandering through cemeteries in Germany or Austria that date back to the 19th and early 20th century, one cannot fail to observe that most of the figurative sculptures are anonymous mourning women or equally sad looking (guardian) angels who look decidedly female as well.

These mourning women, human or angelic, are of course personifications of Sorrow or Grief and in consequence to the iconographic tradition of personifications or allegories such as Spes (Hope), Fortitudo (Courage) etc., they are also portrayed as women.

But then, I think, there might be another and much older tradition to which the gender of the sculpted mourners also alludes: it is the tradition of the mourning women who bewailed the deceased in the ceremonial rites. While in Germany these rites are no longer practiced, and haven't for quite a few centuries, the concept of the lamenting women is still very much present in our cultural memory.

The mourning women bemoan the dead in place of the remaining family and - at the same time, and cast in iron and sculptued in stone - remember the dead throughout all time. The sculptures are thusly memory binding monuments and, simultaneously, ritual devices that support the remaining family members in their grief.

There is, sadly, no proof for this thesis, I just think that it is a tempting and fascinating aspect of 19th century grave-sculpture. Just a few (of my) photos, taken from sculptures at the Munich Old Southern Cemetery, and the Vienna Central Cemetery shall illustrate this idea:

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