Slight Variations on a Theme: The Door


The door as a motif in funerary art symbolizes mystery.  The door is the pathway from the earthly realm to the next.  In all five examples from mausoleum doors, a mourning figure waits at the door.  In some cases her hand is close to door, almost as if she is hesitating to pass through.  In another case, the mourning figure holds a laurel wreath–the traditional symbol of victory over death.  In one case, she hold an Easter lily, the symbol of resurrection.  In Christianity, however, the door is usually viewed with hope, charity, and faith.  The next life will be better.




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Sacred Heart


In the late Seventeenth Century, a humble French nun, Marguerite Marie Alacoque (1747 to 1790), had a vision of a conversation with Jesus Christ. In her vision, Jesus reminded the young woman of her vow, given upon a sick bed from rheumatic fever, that she would devote her life to the Church. Marguerite had forsaken the vow in her early 20s.   She, with the encouragement of her Mother had entered society with the notion of becoming married. Jesus revealed Himself to her and admonished her for forgetting her vow. Marguerite decided then to enter the convent with the intension of becoming a nun.

Later, after Marguerite had entered the convent, she again had a vision of Jesus, this time He revealed His heart to her as the most important communication link between Him and the faithful and made it known to her that she should dedicate her life to His sacred heart. In Marguerite’s visions, which occurred over the period of two years (1773 to 1775), she described the heart of Jesus. His heart was topped with flame surmounted with a cross. The body of the heart had a vine of thorns wrapped around the center. Upon seeing this vision, she knew then she would dedicate her life to the sacred heart of Jesus Christ.

Sister Marguerite Marie Alacoque shared her vision with others but was at first rebuffed. But slowly her vision was recognized by the Catholic Church as real. Not long after her death, the Bishop of Marseille, dedicated his church and diocese to the Sacred Heart when the plague was raging in that area of France. Miraculously the region was spared. Soon the Sacred Heart was adopted by Catholics as a symbol of piety and charm.

In 1864, Sister Marguerite Marie was beatified. For those non-Catholics reading this blog, that simply means that the Church recognized her as being blessed. The most significant part of this recognition is beatification is the third step in being canonized or recognized as a Saint. Pope Pius, in his encyclical, Miserentissimus Redemptor, stated that Jesus Christ had shown himself to Sister Marguerite Marie. In 1920, The Church recognized her as a Saint.

Today the symbol of the sacred heart is a popular and universally recognized. It is a widely practiced devotion in the Catholic Church and is symbolic of the compassion that Christ has for humanity and His suffering on behalf of saints and sinners alike. The devotion is so popular, in fact, that The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly referred to as Sacré-Cœur is named for it. The Basilica was built on Montmartre, the highest point in the City.

The sacred heart itself combines several symbols: flame represents the divine light of the Word of God, the thorns represent the way of Christ’s death and His suffering, and the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. Often the sacred heart is represented without the cross atop of the heart. This symbol is commonly found in cemeteries, especially Catholic cemeteries—in stone and in glass.



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The Legend of St. George


Montrose Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Montrose Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

This metal applique to a gravestone in the Montrose Cemetery at Chicago, Illinois, depicts St. George, one of the most popular saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in glorious victory over the dragon. In this case, the dragon represents Satan.

In the legend of St. George, a dragon situated himself at the head of the source of water for a village. Every day the villagers had to distract the dragon with an offering—sometimes a sheep, sometimes a maiden. The maiden was chosen by drawing lots. When the King’s daughter was chosen, the King begged for her release and substitution but to no avail. St. George appeared, proclaimed his Christianity by making the sign of the cross before he went to battle the dragon. When St. George heroically slayed the dragon, the villagers rejected Roman gods and professed their belief in Christ.

Saint George Killing the Dragon painted by Catalonian artist Bernat Martorell circa 1434

Saint George Killing the Dragon painted by Catalonian artist Bernat Martorell circa 1434

In early representations of this icon, there is often a maiden in the background watching the victorious St. George. In those paintings, the maiden represents the wife of Diocletian, who converted to Christianity, when her husband tortured and eventually had St. George beheaded for not renouncing Christianity and paying tribute to the Roman gods.

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Tiffany and Company, Part II

Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky

Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky

Tiffany and Company is well known for design and exquisite workmanship. That same workmanship can be seen in the memorial vase commissioned for Fanny Short Butler (1864-1930) in the Cave Hill Cemetery at Louisville, Kentucky.  Delicately carved Easter lilies adorn the sides of the vase.

The lily, as a funerary symbol, has many meanings including purity, innocence, virginity, heavenly bliss, majestic beauty, and Christ’s resurrection.  Christians believe that the trumpet-shaped blossoms announce the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Easter lily has long been associated with the Christian religion, commonly referred to as “White-Robed Apostles of Christ.” Early Christians believed that lilies sprouted where Jesus Christ’s sweat fell to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane.

White has typically been a color associated with virtues of purity and innocence.  Often the lily can be found on the grave of a child, the epitome of purity and innocence.

The white lily is also associated with virginity and marriage, in particular relationship to women.  On one hand, the lily represents virginity and innocence, which is an appropriate symbol for a young unmarried woman.  On the other hand, it is symbolic of majestic beauty and marriage, which makes it an appropriate symbol for all married women regardless of their age.


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Tiffany and Company

Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois


JUNE 14 1842 – July 1 1924


NOV 29 1842 – Aug 23 1922


Started as a stationery and fancy goods store in New York City in 1837, Tiffany’s became known for creating high-end silverware, glassware, and, of course, jewelry. It became the premier purveyor of that special gift that comes in a light blue box often given on bended knee.

But Tiffany’s also created funerary monuments. One example of their work can be found in the Forest Home Cemetery at Forest Park, Illinois. The commission was created for Edmund and Ellen Cummings. Edmund Cummings served in the Civil War, serving under General Ulysses Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman. After the war Cummings moved to Chicago where he founded a highly successful real estate company. In 1889, he and his brother founded an electric streetcar line, the Cicero & Proviso Street Railway Company.


The bas-relief angel carved into the soaring Celtic cross marks the graves of Edmund Cummings and his wife, Ellen. The monument is a testament to Edmund’s success as a Chicago businessman. This Art Deco design with the angel standing on a wheel may be a reference to Ezekiel’s vision described in the Bible:

The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:15 – 16)

And when I looked, there were four wheels by the cherubim, one wheel by one cherub and another wheel by each other cherub . . . (Ezekiel 10:9)


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She Weeps

Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

This statue in the Bohemian National Cemetery at Chicago, Illinois, is replete with rich symbolism. The mourning figure tenderly wipes her eye with the corner of the funeral pall in a sign of grief. She gently leans against a broken column in sorrowful resignation. The column represents a noble life cut short and the drapery represents a shroud symbolizing death and sorrow. The drapery can also be a motif that represents a veil that separates the Earth and Heaven.  In her other hand she holds a wreath which can be traced back to ancient Roman times representing victory.  In funerary art, it symbolizes victory over death through immortality.

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The Hand of God

Maplewood Cemetery, Anderson, Indiana

Maplewood Cemetery, Anderson, Indiana


DIED DEC. 21, 1869


69 Y. 10 M. 7D.

The rounded-top white marble gravestone of N. G. Lewis depicts the hand of God holding a broken chain. The broken link of chain represents a life that has ended. This symbolism dates back to medieval times when people believed that the soul could be held to the body by a golden chain. Once the chain was broken, the soul took flight and rose from the body leaving Earth and ascended to Heaven. Here there are three links in the chain which represents the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


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