The Portals

The doors to mausoleums are often imbued with symbolism.  In fact, the door itself represent a portal.  Portals come in many forms—a door, a window, even your eyes and your mouth are considered portals.  Many superstitions about death concern portals, many of which come from the Victorian Age, some of which still exist today.

The eyes, for instance, are considered the windows to the soul. Victorians believed the eyes were powerful, almost magical, even in death. When a person died therefore, the body had to be removed from the home feet first (most people died at home in the 19th Century). In that way, the eyes of the deceased could not look back and lure a live person to follow the dead through the passageway to death.

The Victorians also believed that as you passed by a cemetery that you needed to hold your breath. The fear was that if one opened one’s mouth, that a spirit from the dead residing in the cemetery would enter your body through the portal—the open mouth.

Another superstition had to do with the mirrors in the home. After a death, the family very quickly covered the mirrors. It was believed that mirrors were false portals in a sense. The Victorians believed that the spirit of the dead could enter a mirror and become trapped in the mirror. If the spirit did so, it would not be able to complete its trip through the passageway from the Earthly realm to the Heavenly realm, or in some cases, to warmer climes.

The door as a motif in funerary art symbolizes mystery.  The door is the portal from the Earthly realm to the next. In Christianity, the door is usually viewed with hope, charity, and faith.  The next life in the hereafter will be better than the one experienced here on Earth.

Two doors, pictured here are of markedly different styles but are imbued with similar symbolism.  Both mausoleum doors are from cemeteries in Barre, Vermont.

The top door is from the Hope Cemetery.  The morning figure’s eyes are closed and her head is bent in sorrow with her hands clasped.  This mourning figure is designed in clean, simple lines, reminiscent of the sculptures of the 30s and 40s.  Two symbols adorn the door—pine cones and leaves and laurel leaves.  As is the case with many plants that are adopted by Christians it’s their characteristics that define what they symbolize.  Pine leaves are evergreen, which mean they stay green during the winter.  So, in this way, pine leaves came to symbolize immortality of the soul.   The pine cone carries the seed of the tree, so it symbolizes fertility.

Growing up the side next to the morning figure are laurel leaves.  In funerary art, laurel is often represented in the form of a wreath which dates back 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.  In funerary art the laurel wreath is often seen as a symbol of victory over death.

The other mausoleum door is from the Elmwood Cemetery.  With her other hand the mourning figure is lifting part of her garment uncovering part of her face.  The veil represents the partition that exists between the Earthly realm and the Heavenly one–between life and death.  Again, this door has two main symbols—pine cones and leaves and laurel leaves.  The bottom of this door has one additional symbol nestled in with the laurel branches—the Easter lily. The Easter 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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