The Butterfield Celtic Cross

Roger Williams Butterfield

April 23, 1844 – July 17, 1920

Lenora Drake Butterfield

October 25, 1849 – October 30, 1920

In the north end of the Oakhill Cemetery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the Butterfield Celtic cross marking the graves of Roger Butterfield and many of his family members.

Roger Williams Butterfield was a prominent attorney in Grand Rapids, and the son of Reverend Isaac Butterfield, a well-known Baptist minister recognized for his rousing sermons.  Though the Reverend had urged his son, Roger, to follow in his ecclesiastical footsteps, the young Butterfield eschewed the clergy to pursue what became a successful career in the law.

After his death, the Butterfield family erected a Celtic cross to commemorate the family’s burial plot. The Celtic cross is one of the most easily identified and plentiful crosses found in American cemeteries. The Celtic cross is much like the Latin cross with a long stem and crossbeams toward the top third. But the feature that distinguishes it from other crosses is the circle, called a nimbus, that encompasses the intersection of the crossbeams.

The cross itself has a very long history that predates Christianity. The Celtic cross has pagan origins—some say representing the moon goddess. Others believe that the crossbeams of the cross symbolize the male while the circle represents the female. When Christianity spread throughout the Emerald Island, the Christians adopted the Celtic cross as their expression of the cross.

The Butterfield family commissioned Nellie Verne Walker to sculpt their monument.  As is common, the cross was created from one piece of stone—a rose-colored slab of granite.  The cross measures 20 feet in height, the tallest such cross in the Oakhill Cemetery.  The cross features three allegorical figures—Hope, Faith, and Charity, which Christian scholars refer to as the Theological Virtues as seeking to live a good and moral life.  The figures are inhabited in the cross meaning the figures are carved into the tapering shaft underneath the nimbus. 


The representation of Hope can be easily found in American cemeteries.  Hope is most often portrayed as a woman standing and leaning against an anchor.  The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol that has been found in early catacomb burials.  The anchor was used by early Christians as a disguised cross.  The anchor also served as a symbol of Christ and his anchoring influence in the lives of Christians.  Just as an anchor does not let a moored boat drift, the anchoring influence of Christ does not allow the Christian life to drift.


The figure often holds a cross in her hand as she looks upwards to the Heavens. The Cross symbolizes her Christian faith. Often, Faith is also depicted carrying a palm which represents victory over death.  Another symbol often seen in conjunction with the cross is the laurel wreath, which dates to Roman times when soldiers wore them as triumphal signs of glory.


Quite often in Renaissance paintings, the figure of Charity is depicted as a woman breast-feeding an infant.  However, in the more staid and modest Victorian era, Charity is shown in the process of pulling her garment to one side to reveal her breast.  The allegorical figure can also be found holding food for the hungry or clothes for the unclothed.  The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas, reckoned that Charity was the most excellent of the virtues because it united man to God and that the habit of charity extended to love for one’s neighbor, as well as to God.  In this depiction of Charity, the virtue holds a staff.

In the book, The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Thomas R. Dilley, published by Wayne University Press, 2014, page 182, Dilley writes, “The reverse side of the Butterfield cross is entirely covered with the Celtic knot patterns, symbolic of the intricate complexity of life.  The Butterfield monument sits atop two hewn boulders, consistent with the original placements of such crosses atop a mound of earth or small stepped pyramid of stone emblematic of the earth joined by the tapered shaft (world axis) to the sky, the latter symbolized by the circular nimbus.”

This monument is another example of the craftsmanship and artistry of the sculptress, Nellie V. Walker.

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