A Simpler Version

The Belmont Mausoleum, in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, is a near replica of the Chapel of Saint Hubert; the original in Amboise, France—the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Murphy Family mausoleum in the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California, was designed with the Chapel of Saint Hubert as the inspiration.  While many of the more elaborate elements of the original do not appear in the Murphy mausoleum, such as the lintel sculpture, gargoyles, and tracery, it is easy to see that the basic design of the original exists in this tomb.

The mausoleum was designed in 1921 as the final resting place for San Francisco dry goods merchant Daniel T. Murphy (1863-1919). Murphy played a major role in the development of California.

Instead of the sculpture in the pointed arch above the door depicting King Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany kneeling in deference to the Madonna and Child, this sculpture only has two kneeling angels paying homage to Mary and the Christ child.

The two-door opening in the Belmont Mausoleum and the original chapel is cut down to one door in this simplified design.  Here the arch is supported by columns instead of resting above the lintel.  This is called an “order.”  Here the term order is used to refer to an arched molding supported in columns which was a common architectural device used during the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

The gable on the front of the chapel features a trefoil, three-lobed form, but in this version is in not within a roundel, a small circular frame.

The balustrade above the arch is ornamented with pointed arches and tracery, far less decorative than in the original design of Saint Hubert’s Chapel.

Comparing these two mausoleums is like playing those find-what’s-different games in the back of children’s magazines.  While they definitely have differences it is easy to see that the basic design and inspiration for both tombs are the same–one a replica and one based on the original.

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French Gothic

Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (1858-1908)

Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933)

The Belmont Mausoleum, in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, is a near replica of the Chapel of Saint Hubert; the original is in Amboise, France, and is the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci.

Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont commissioned the architectural firm of Hunt and Hunt to build the tomb after the death of her second husband Oliver Belmont in 1908.  The mausoleum was completed in 1913 and is a masterpiece of late-fifteenth-century French Gothic architecture.

The front façade displays two intricately carved sculptures.  The lintel—or horizontal block above the door—features a sculpture depicting the legend of Saint Hubert from which the chapel is named.  According to the legend, while hunting Hubert saw a stag with a crucifix between his anthers.  After the vision, Hubert converted to Christianity.  Because of his humane treatment of the animals he hunted, Saint Hubert became the patron saint of hunters.  That was particularly fitting for a focal point for the Belmont Mausoleum because of the Belmont family’s association with horse racing—the Belmont Racetrack and the world-famous Belmont Stakes, the oldest prize in the Triple Crown.

The sculpture in the pointed arch above the door depicts a scene with King Charles VIII and his wife, Anne of Brittany, kneeling in deference to the Madonna and Child.

The chapel has many architectural features that were common to Gothic design:

Gargoyles—The spouts that were designed to divert rainwater away from the building were often elaborately designed to look like grotesque animals and human forms known as gargoyles.  These figures became popular in France during the Middle Ages, though they can be found in other countries during that time, as well.

Hood molding—If you look above the scene of the stag, there is a three-sided molding, also known as a drip molding.

Pinnacles—These ornamented structures are usually pointed and are found on the corners of the Saint Hubert Chapel.  They are often found on the buttresses of Gothic buildings.

Stepped buttresses—in the chapel, the stepped buttresses can be seen of the front of the building’s sides.  These are a mass of masonry built against a wall to give the building additional support and strength.  The buttresses on the chapel are stepped, meaning in this case, the buttress has a wider segment, then on top of that is a smaller one, and still one more smaller buttress on top of that.  Topping the buttress is a gargoyle.

Trefoil window—In the middle of the gable on the front of the chapel is a roundel, a small circular frame.  Inside the roundel is a trefoil—three-lobed form—in this case, a window.

Spire—The tall oxidized copper structure tapering up from the roof is a steeple or a spire.

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The seemingly plain light gray granite Cuneo family mausoleum is a stunning example of Neo-classical architecture.  The pedimented porch is a key aspect of Neo-classical door design.  The porch features polished granite Ionic columns.  The entablature, the horizontal structure above the capitals, is plain as is the pediment.

The pedimented porch frames the elaborate bronze door.  The arched window above the door is called a fanlight or a transom light.  One each side of the fanlight is a wreath symbolizing memory and victory over death.

The door itself is imbued with symbolism from top to bottom.  The top half of the door has crosses with passionflowers on the cross.  The passionflower was so named by Spanish Christian missionaries because they identified parts of the flower with the passion of Jesus Christ.

  • Then ten petals represent the ten faithful disciples.  The two apostles who were not considered were St. Peter, the denier, and Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.
  • The filaments that circle the center of the flower represent Christ’s crown of thorns.
  • The curled filaments represent the whips used in flagellation of Christ.
  • The white color was equated with Christ’s innocence.
  • The styles symbolize the nails.

Behind the crossbars are rays of light.  The bottom has crossed palm fronds.  The palm frond is an ancient symbol of victory, dating back to Roman times when victors were presented with palm fronds. The palm fronds were also laid in the path of Jesus as He entered Jerusalem. So, for many Christians, the palm represents righteousness, resurrection, and martyrdom, symbolizing the spiritual victory over death associated with the Easter story.

In the panels just below the crosses are winged hourglasses surrounded by a laurel garland.   The winged hourglass is a reminder in bronze that life is short, and that time is fleeting, every minute of every day brings one closer and closer to death.  Again, the laurel wreath symbolizes victory over death. The laurel wreath dates to Roman times when soldiers wore them as triumphal signs of glory.  The laurel was also believed to wash away the soldier’s guilt from injuring or killing any of his opponents.

The bottom panel of the bronze door are modernized version of the winged cherub’s heads, which have a fluid, almost art nouveau style. The winged cherub was a symbol that became popular in the 18th Century.  Winged cherubs replaced the stark and morbid flying death’s heads from our Puritan forefathers.  The cherubs have a childlike countenance of innocence.  The iconography represents the flight of the soul from the body upward to Heaven and the hope of the resurrection.

Joseph Cuneo was born March 12, 1834, in Genoa, Italy, and died September 21, 1902— 68 years old.  His wife, Mary, was born in 1849 and she passed away in 1909.  The door to their tomb is flanked by statuary—the Madonna on the left of the entrance and Joseph holding baby Jesus on the right.  Sitting on the pediment is an angel holding a trumpet and looking perfectly bored.

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The Last Supper















The monument for Monsignor Connelly in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California, pays tribute to the priest with a reproduction in stone of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous masterpiece of “The Last Supper.”

Da Vinci began the work in Milan in 1495.  It was a time in Da Vinci’s lifetime when he had earned a reputation of not being able to finish a work for which he received a commission.  Da Vinci needed this commission and he needed to complete it to redeem his much-sullied reputation.

The work he completed is a depiction of Jesus’s last meal with his disciples.  During that meal he revealed that one of the 12 would betray him.  He also instructed the disciples to drink the wine and eat the bread in remembrance of Him—which became the basis for the Eucharist.  This event in the Bible is so important that all four of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—write about it.

The work itself is a nod to Da Vinci’s love of order and symmetry.  The painting was laid out on a horizontal line with Jesus in the middle of the design—side to side and bottom to top. In addition to that, the painting is well balanced, with six of the disciples on one side of Jesus and six on the other—everything perfectly in balance and harmony.  The painting is imbued with symbolism as well, much of it well known and much of it speculative.  Judas, for instance, is the disciple who is shown next to a split container of salt.  Spilled salt, like many symbols, has more than one meaning and, thus, open for interpretation.  Consequently, the spilled salt could symbolize bad luck, or a lack of faith, or that Jesus was and is the salt of the Earth.  Judas was also the disciple who betrayed Jesus—was the salt Da Vinci’s way of revealing that?

Unfortunately, Da Vinci, while in complete control of his composition skills, was not a master fresco painter.  Because of that, Da Vinci experimented by painting on dry plaster whereas an experienced fresco painter would have applied the paint directly on wet plaster.  His experiment has not passed the test of time—his original is badly damaged, with paint flaking off.  Many attempts have been made to restore the iconic painting but it continues to deteriorate.  DaVinci’s Last Supper is one of the most reproduced works of art in history—including reproductions that were made shortly after the original was completed.  Hopefully, those reproductions, as well as the one in stone in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, will help Da Vinci’s original live on.

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The Victorian Era





Oct. 13, 1881

Aged 15 Years, 8 Months

& 13 Days

Ninetta “Nettie” was the daughter of William Perry “Willis” (November 23, 1833—January 21, 1888) and Martha B. Chisolm (September 28, 1842-May 5, 1887) and was buried on the family’s raised plot in the famed Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.  The white marble sculpture atop her monument sits on a pillow wearing an eye-let lace dressing gown with her head bowed and hands folded in contemplative prayer—clearly a sculptural depiction of the young 15-year girl buried beneath.

The monument itself is a paean to Victorian design—overwrought with symbolism and sentimentality.  The pillow is tasseled, the flower boughs carved into the side panels, and the elaborate wreath of lilies on the front of the marker are all part of the profusion of funerary symbolism that exploded during the Victorian era.

The Victorian Era lasted from about 1832 until Queen Victoria’s death in 1903.  The era was an eclectic period in the decorative arts with several styles—Gothic, Tudor, Neoclassical—vying for dominance.  The period was marked by ornamentation.  This was true in architecture, furniture, and funerary arts.  In cemeteries gravestones became taller, ornamented, and sentimental.

In Victorian times, flowers took on significance as a way to send coded messages; this was known as floriography from the Latin combining flora—“goddess of flowers” and graphein—“writing”.  Each flower had a meaning that was conveyed to the viewer or receiver of the flower or bouquet of flowers—the lily of the valley represented humility, the coral rose represented desire and passion, the white lily represented purity, the Easter lily represented the Resurrection, and so on.

Ninetta’s gravestone was erected at nearly the height of the Victorian Era and displays the high ornamentation that characterized that time period.  Her gravestone is festooned with flowers, ornamentation, and the sentimental vision of a young girl in quiet prayer and contemplation.

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Memorial for a Man of the Church




APRIL 15, 1860.


DIED FEB. 2, 1904.

R. I. P.

The marker for the Rev. Kirby in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California, is a Celtic cross.  The two main symbols on the staff of the cross are the chalice and the lamb.

The chalice is a symbol of the Holy sacraments and is flanked by grapes and wheat—symbols of the Eucharist—the blood and body of Jesus Christ.  This also speaks to the profession of the deceased because the chalice is a “tool of his trade” so to speak.

There are many gravestone symbols that seem to be ubiquitous—the lamb is one of them. Walk into nearly any American graveyard and you will find tiny little lambs marking the graves of mostly children. The lamb symbols come in many sizes and positions—often sleeping. The lamb is the symbol of the Lord, the Good Shepherd. It also represents innocence, likely the reason why this motif usually adorns the tombstones of infants and young children. Most often the lamb is lying down, often asleep and sometimes with a cross behind the lamb.

The letters IHS are what is referred to as a “Christogram.”  The three letters represent Jesus Christ as they are the first three letters of His name in Greek.  But, through the years various other meaning have been assigned to the letters:

in hoc salus: there is safety in this

in hoc signo: by this sign

Jesus hominum salvtor: Jesus, Savior of Mankind

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Their Little Angel




A friend of mine recently shared with me that her first husband passed away when she was 23.  Her husband was 24 and their daughter was only a year old.  It was a very tough for her emotionally, financially, and she felt alone.  She’d just lost her husband and now had to go on to raise their daughter by herself.  And, she had to attend to the funeral arrangements even as she dealt with waves of grief.

She told me that she took a long time to decide on the headstone.  While she was at the monument company, she also overheard a man picking out a headstone for his wife of 60 years.  Both experiences, like all experiences when someone is picking out a gravestone for a loved one, is deeply personal and fraught with emotion.  It is, after all, one of the last things you can do for your loved one.  Not only that, but it will be a reminder not only to you but to all who gaze upon the gravestone and think about the person buried beneath it.

So, when I saw the kneeling angel that marks the grave of 13-year old Alice May Parker, I can’t help but think of the anguish her parents had when their daughter passed away.  She died of typhoid fever and must have suffered with the fever for a few days before she died.  I am sure they were by her bedside attending to her and hoping for the best results.  Then the end came.  The grief of a parent for a child is overwhelming.

When looking at gravestones, there is always room for interpretation.  Elisabeth L. Roark wrote an article about angels titled, “Embodying Immortality: Angels in America’s Rural Garden Cemeteries, 1850—1900”, pages 56 – 111, 2007 edition of Markers, XXIV, in which she categorized the eight most commonly found types of graveyard angels—grouped by the task they performed: soul-bearing; praying; decorating and guarding; pointing; recording; trumpeting; sword-bearing (archangel Michael); and child angels.

The winged protectors served to watch over the “soul while living, removed occasions of sin and provided protection when danger threatened, interceded on their charges’ behalf, attended at death, eased the transition to the next world, conducted the soul to Heaven, and looked after the grave site and the deceased’s remains until resurrection.”

These were busy angels. In addition to those duties, the praying angels served as an intercessor conveying messages from their charges to Heaven. These angels usually are looking upward toward the Heavens, hands clasped together in prayer, sometimes coupled with emblems of faith, such as, anchors and crosses, often clad in toga-like clothing.

But when I look at Alice May Parker’s monument in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., I wonder if her parents, George and Sofia Parker, saw their little girl in that angel, to me the angel looks to be about the same age as Alice May when she died.   I wonder if her parents made the choice to mark her grave with an angel, not as a messenger from God, but as a memorial to their little angel.

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