Glass Angel

In David Robinson’s book, Saving Graces, mourning figures from some of the most famous cemeteries in Europe depict sculptures of beautiful, young, and voluptuous women often wearing revealing clothing as they mourn the dead. These sepulchral figures are not only found as sculptures in Victorian cemeteries but also memorialized in the less often seen stained glass windows that adorn many elaborate mausoleums.  The figures are often referred to as weepers and are intended to represent mourning and sorrow.  Since ancient times, women have been the ones in our families and in our society, who showed grief and shed tears over those lost to death. Like the women in ancient times, these sculptures are depicted as standing over the graves in sorrow.

In this example from the from the Wettengel family mausoleum in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the “weeper” is depicted as an angel in stained glass, with her head titled as she casts her eyes upwards, holding a sprig of white flowers—as if she is going to gently lay it on the grave.  The act of placing the flower is a recurring funerary motif which is designed to remind the viewer that life is short. The color white is loaded with symbolism representing humility, innocence, purity, reverence, spirituality, and youthfulness.

However, unlike her European counterparts, the Victorian weeper was usually not voluptuous but often portrayed as androgynous and dressed modestly in a diaphanous gown loosely fitted and flowing beyond her feet.  According to Victorian Cemetery Art by Edmund V. Gillon Jr., published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1972, “Sepulchral sculpture, with its prone effigies and kneeling weepers, had flowered in the past, but only for the rich and powerful.”

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