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Gravestone Symbolism

The Iconography of Death in Britain


Once the cadaver went out of fashion in England in the mid-seventeenth century the skeleton became relegated to only secondary importance on the tomb.  Symbols representing death were rather limited in variety and occurrence, with the hourglass, for example, seldom being used on monuments to men of any status.  While the skull and crossed bones do occur occasionally the bell and coffin do not.  The most frequently met with symbols consist of cherubs and emblems relating to the Resurrection.  This would also seem to be the case with Welsh gravestones in the seventeenth-century.  However, considerable work has been done on Scottish gravestones and it is here that the gravestones have the greatest affinity with those in Ulster.


A number of early sixteenth-century gravestones in the churchyard at St. Andrews feature crosses with stepped bases within which are skulls and bones.  However, these are not in the context of mortality symbols.4  The above gravestones are pre-reformation while the use of mortality symbols on Scottish gravestones would appear to be very much a post-reformation phenomenon.  It is not until towards the end of the sixteenth century that representations of death begin to appear on gravestones.  A gravestone dating from 1598 at Creich, Sutherland, features a cross similar to the above stones from St. Andrews, although rather than a skull and bones within the stepped base, above each of the arms of the cross is a skull apparently clenching a bone in its teeth.5  This would appear to be a variation on a theme for at Spynie, Moray, there is a gravestone to a Robert Leslie of Findrassy, died 1588, which features a skull with no lower jaw but in its place a simple bone.  However, it is with the commencement of the seventeenth-century that an explosion occurs in Scotland in terms of the numbers of gravestones and in the variety of their decoration.


The most beautiful of all seventeenth-century monuments to the dead in Scotland can be found in the graveyard at Greyfriars, Edinburgh.  One of the finest examples is the monument of 1617 to James Harlay who had been Writer to the Signet and Keeper of His Majesty's Privy Seal.  The centrepiece of the decoration consists of an heraldic shield; to the left of the shield is a hand ringing a bell and below this are an hourglass and two coffins in saltire.  To the right of the shield is a skull below which are crossed bones.  Above the skull are the tools of the sexton, including mattocks.  Around the symbols, an elegiac in Latin to the deceased has been carved in false relief.  The standard of the masonry is high with the skull in particular being very sound anatomically.  The above monument, along with a number of others in Greyfriars, can be regarded as the zenith of monumental sculpture in Scotland in the seventeenth-century and contain all the symbols of mortality found on seventeenth-century memorials in Ulster.


Graveyards throughout Scotland contain seventeenth-century gravestones featuring the death symbols which can be regarded as modifications and generally vastly inferior versions of the above.  The quality of the carvings on these stones was very much dependent on the ability of the local mason.  One thing that emerges from the study of Scottish gravestones of the seventeenth-century is that they do not appear to have been the product of collective schools of masonry.  Instead it would seem that each gravestone was the product of the particular style of mason in that locality.


Symbols of trades and professions also feature prominently on seventeenth-century Scottish gravestones.  At the beginning of the 1600s the trade incorporations in Scotland were strong, having just broken the monopoly of the merchants in local government.  By carving the symbols of their professions on their gravestones the tradesmen were denoting their new found sense of status.  In west Ulster only one seventeenth-century gravestone was found which contained emblems that could be interpreted as representing a trade.  This was undoubtedly due to the fact that west Ulster was overwhelmingly rural with few towns of any consequence and the numbers of tradesmen were small.


The chief cause of the early origin and richer development of gravestones in Scotland was the strength of the reformation there which had a greater impact on the people there than in England.  The stern, austere character of Protestantism in Scotland, together with the gloomy history of the country gave rise to the popularity of the mortality symbols.  The egalitarian nature of Scottish Presbyterianism resulted in the belief that everyone was entitled to a gravestone.  This goes a long way to explaining the distribution of seventeenth-century memorials in Ulster since they tend to be found in areas of strongest Scottish settlement.

Harlay monument, Greyfriars
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