When the Bostonian Brahmin, Amos Binney, died in Rome in 1847, his wife Mary Ann fulfilled a promise she made to him before his death–she would return his body to his beloved homeland. Mary Ann commissioned Thomas Crawford, an impressive young sculptor who was gaining an international reputation, to create Binney’s sepulcher, a Neoclassical masterpiece, for his final resting place in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This monument was sculpted from white Italian marble. When it was erected, it was polished white and shimmering. Age, weather, and acid rain has degraded the soft marble, but the magnificence of the scuptures still remain, though many of the details of the sculptures are eroding, pitted and stained.
On the face of the monument shown in the photo above are four symbols:
- The Laurel Wreath: from ancient Roman times, the laurel wreath represented victory. In funerary art, it symbolizes victory over death through immortality.
- Drape: the drape can be seen as a conceit, that is that it hides the contents, but reveals the shape of what is underneath. Or, it can be representative of the veil between the two realms–earth and heaven.
- Inverted Torch: symbolizes how even after death, the fire of the soul lives on in the next life.
- The Soul Ascending to Heaven: this motif was common in European funerary sculpture. Typically, this figure would be nude, however, to assuage Victorian sensibilities in America, the body of the male, is draped, even though, the masculine frame is still visible. Symbolically, this scupture represents Amos Binney’s soul ascending to Heaven immediately after his death.
On this side of the monument, the design mimics the other side, except, the laurel wreath is completely hidden by the drapery, with the inverted torches peaking out. A grieving woman, head cloaked and bent in sorrow. The mourner is draped in a diaphanous gown that clings to her figure. In this niche, the draped figure is clearly meant to be the mourning widow, Mary Ann Binney. She clutches an urn, which symbolically represents the death of her loved one. On her upper arm, barely visible and corroded by weather, is a sea shell. The sea shell represents the Baptism of Christ and marks her as a Christian Pilgrim.
For a full and beautiful description of the history of this monument, check out Lauretta Dimmick’s article, “Thomas Crawford’s Monument for Amos Binney in Mount Auburn Cemtery: A Work of Rare Merit” in the Association for Gravestone Studies journal, MARKERS IX, pages 158 thorugh 195.