From Heaven to Fame: tombstone memorials

Canon John G. Hunter
 JOURNAL 
 2008 
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The brutal legions of Rome, with their ruthless short swords, devastated and conquered all before them, making Rome the most successful city state of the classical world. Moreover Rome gloried in being a Republic.1 Other states might be ruled by kings and despots but Tarquin had been overthrown and the free Republic established. A republic was ruled by two annually elected Consuls. Henceforth a citizen of Rome could achieve no greater honour in life than to become a Consul of the Republic and to have a statue erected in the Senate. This acquisition of fame was the pinnacle of achievement for any citizen. Moreover, the statue preserved one's honour and fame for all posterity. Pompey the Great's statue dominated the Forum as did Caesar's. Trajan, one of the most successful of the generals to become Emperor of Rome, went one better. In 113 A.D. he erected a column to himself using twenty immense forty ton drums of Carrera marble, ninety eight feet high. Its spiral bas-relief glorified his exploits in conquering Dacia - modern Romania/Bulgaria - and carried the story of his victorious exploits, in which representations of the Emperor appear fifty nine times. The whole is set in a magnificent building plot of Trajan's market and forum in the newly excavated saddle between the Capitoline and Quirinal hills.The column was once topped by a heroic statue of Trajan himself, but this was later removed and Pope Sixtus V in the 16th century replaced it with a statue of St Peter, which remains to this day. However just as the acclaimed and venerated Republic was ultimately to be replaced by a military dictatorship of Empire, so the traditional fame of the Roman monument was replaced by monuments eschewing all reference to honour or fame. The Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian religion in 313, in tribute to the vision of the cross in the sky which had predicted his military success at the Milvern Bridge, which led to him being acclaimed Emperor of Rome. Thus the devotees of the proscribed Christian religion were able not only to worship publicly and to take their place in civic society, but also now to bury their dead publicly and mark their graves. However, the monuments of this new religion were not concerned with the fame of the deceased, their achievements or honour, they were primarily concerned with the prospects of their dead in the after-life and their hopes of heaven. Thus the message of Early Christian funerary sculpture was hardly ever retrospective, let alone eulogistic, and Christian art illustrated not what the deceased had been or done but what would happen to them on account of their faith. Thus early Christian sculpture does not ante-date the early years of the fourth century, the time when Christianity ceased to be an underground movement and achieved a recognised status among the better and more affluent classes.2

But Christianity not only made a difference to the purpose and message of monuments, it also changed the general cultural attitude to the dead and their burial. Today we expect the great to be buried and to have their monuments in churches, but this was impossible in classical times for either pagan or Christian. From the pagan point of view the dead body was an abomination, abhorred by the very gods. While the government remained in pagan hands the results of this belief applied to Christians also. The dead therefore were neither buried in churches nor even within the city, they were buried extra muro (outside the walls), sometimes at a considerable distance from human habitation. This was to prevent the departed spirits from interfering with the ongoing life of the living. That is except for a tiny minority, such as the emperor Trajan, who had been awarded a Roman Triumph. Thus the rise of Christianity produced a revolution in mortuary monuments. As a proscribed under-class, Christians had not been interested in fame, and even on achieving legitimacy, they retained this disinterest in worldly achievement and therefore their monuments did not mention the career or status of the deceased. They were interested in getting to Heaven and this led to a new geography of burial, a desire to be buried close to a martyr. As the martyred dead were believed to have been taken straight to heaven, from very early times the tombs of martyrs were venerated and indeed churches came to be built over such tombs. As St John Chrysostom commented, "Where the bones of the martyrs are buried, devils flee as from fire and unbearable torture."3 Thus there was an ever increasing tendency for the faithful to be buried, and indeed for those with influence and power to demand burial, near to the martyr.

The Christian belief in the Resurrection of the flesh intensified the wish of the faithful to be buried as close as possible to the locus of salvation, so as to be in a prime position for the last day, the day of Judgment. In this way the Christian system of thought not only minimized the fear of death but also the fear of the dead themselves. The 'dead which die in the Lord' were no longer considered impure, each one was in a sense a triumphalis, one who like the Emperor Trajan had achieved a triumph. Thus early Christian tombs were inscribed with the name of the deceased and the word triumpha. Their souls were received at the gates of Heaven and the church on earth rejoiced at their accession to their destiny bought as the result of the passion of Christ.

An African cemetery near Tripoli has the inscription "Requiem aeternam donna eis, Domine et lux perpetua luceat eis" from Esdras - 'Grant them O Lord eternal rest, and may the eternal light shine upon them.' This text was later incorporated into the Gallic mass. Indeed in North Africa decorations in mosaic showed full length portraits of the deceased as Orants, their beatified status shown by symmetrical birds and flowers at a time when faithfulness to scripture still forbade representation of the human form (Exodus Ch 20 v4). By medieval times the invasion of graves into churches produced a new type of monument - the 'tomb slab' defining the particular area beneath which was the body, occasionally reflecting its trapezoidal shape, set flush with the pavement. Not all Christians however, had the privilege of burial in church as efforts were made to restrict intra-church burial to royalty, high ecclesiastics and to founders of churches. In England almost all burials were in the churchyard and we find very few medieval tombs in our local churches, particularly here in the north-west. Nevertheless, despite this there is such a tomb slab to be found in North Craven. As with most early medieval tomb slabs, it is anonymous, but we may date it from reference to its style. Almost certainly it is of the 12th century or late11th.4 As such it is a rare example of the period.

The decoration on the Thornton tomb-slab consists of a diamond lozenge in the centre of the slab linked by closely set parallel lines to triangular motifs at each end of the slab. Within the triangles are sunflowers and down the side of the carving are sprigs of vegetation on each side. Although there are no known extant literary references which might point to the identity of the deceased, we are aware that the most significant Norman family of the period, in this part of the north of England, was that of Mowbray. They rebuilt the castle at Black Burton (now Burton-in-Lonsdale), and may well have rebuilt (or founded) the parish church at Thornton-in-Lonsdale as St Oswald's retains a (rebuilt) Norman arcade to the north aisle. William Mowbray, fourth Baron (d.1222) an executor of Magna Carta, had a name for founding churches and religious houses; he also took part in crusades, but his burying place is unknown. However, if it was he who founded (or re-founded) Thornton church, then this tomb could possibly be his. However the identity of the tomb will repay further research.

In medieval times belief in heaven remained firmly entrenched across Christendom and this inspired the urgent desire for Christians to secure a favoured place on the day of Resurrection. Everyone's aim in the short and precarious lifespan of the period was to ensure a place in the after-life and this is demonstrated by the geography of burial. For those with influence and financial resources, to be buried within the church building was an asset, but the position within the church was also important. Martyr's tombs were no longer to be found within English parish churches, but the altar slab might contain a piece of a martyr's or confessor's bone, so to be buried close to the altar was desirable. Moreover the adoption of the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the 14th century meant that the focus of the local parish altar acquired a fresh significance. It was believed that the parish priest was able to create the very body and blood of Christ on the altar, and then to offer Christ in the sacrifice of the mass. This meant that the desire to be buried close to the martyr's tomb was replaced by an anxiety to be buried close to the presence of our Lord in the mass as a harbinger of favoured treatment on the day of resurrection.

Again in North Craven we have such a tomb. In the church of St John The Baptist, Low Bentham, the tomb of the 14th century benefactor, name unknown, can be found close to where the medieval altar would have stood. This benefactor rebuilt the chancel of St John's after the original church had been destroyed in the disastrous Scottish raids that followed Edward II's defeat at Bannockburn (1319). A fragment of the original inscription records the donor's generosity and an appeal for mercy on his soul. Again in medieval times, the focus of Christian eschatology had changed so that the faithful no longer died expecting to be translated to glory. With the introduction of the doctrine of Purgatory in the twelfth century1 they were taught instead to expect, after death, a period of punishment for their venial sins before gaining access to Abraham's bosom. In order to encourage the faithful to seek this salvation pictures of the terrors of Purgatory were extolled in sermons and were painted on church walls. Those terrors, however appalling, the faithful were taught, might be mitigated by the prayers and masses of the faithful who remained here on earth. Thus appeals for mercy became linked with appeals for prayer for the soul of the deceased. Christian monuments therefore reflected this change and urgent requests for prayer for the departed soul were added to monuments together with the names of the deceased. Such was the urgency felt by the faithful for their prospects of eternal bliss that the great and the good, now having the financial resources to be buried in church, also left up to a third of their estate to the church in return for prayers and masses for their souls. Finally they appeal to the living, through their monuments, for the prayers of the observers of their tombs in the decades and centuries to come.

With the introduction of the brass, or cheap fillet of latten (a metal alloy like brass), the range of those memorialised in the parish churches of the land widened enormously. England now has the greatest collection of brasses in Europe, although none - so far as I am aware, in the north-west. ' of your charity, pray for the soul' they read. Across these many centuries the primary concern of the Christian remained firmly fixed on the after-life and the prospect of heaven.

Following the political and religious turmoil of the sixteenth century the number of monuments erected suffered a dramatic although temporary decline. This was due in part to the new focus on the importance of biblical Christianity. The more zealous felt impelled to take the second commandment relating to graven images literally. They set about uprooting and destroying effigies and monuments. Others with building plans in mind also took the opportunity of removing monuments for construction purposes.6

After the Reformation the future of the deceased ostensibly remained at the forefront of the executor's mind in what monuments were erected, although Purgatory was no longer an issue, and Transubstantiation no longer accepted in the Reformed churches. Moreover the medieval link between the living and the dead mutated as the living no longer prayed for the dead in the Reformed churches but sought to maintain that link with the deceased by marking the place of burial, and sometimes by having the grave close to the family place of Sunday worship, beside or beneath the pew. Prayers for the deceased's future were no longer considered appropriate and instead the monument exalted that the deceased was now in heaven, with the angels and saints, their place won by the blood of Christ. This assumption of the soul now being in heaven was reinforced by the retention of the Latin words on the inscription Hic jacet, 'Here lies' - the body, or sometimes, the remains. For the bereaved that was all that was now in the grave, the soul had flown to the after-life. Again the pious relative or executor, in place of recording that the deceased had died, chose sometimes to say that they 'had departed this life', again an indication that the deceased themselves had departed for a better place, leaving only their remains behind.

Despite these aspects of continuity however, a significant change was beginning to take place. Not only the name of the deceased was recorded on monuments but their status in life and the details of the deceased family began to be recorded. Inscriptions burgeoned into epitaphs relating the names of wives and children, and recounting the good works of the deceased as an example to others. Indeed, after the Restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century with civic order being restored, economic prosperity and a new influx of landed gentry, there was a significant increase in the number of intra-church monuments erected here in the north-west. A new style of monumental inscription then began to develop. Apart from the words 'Here lies the body', the focus of some of the mortuary inscriptions now shifted from the future bliss of the deceased to his past achievements. Indeed some inscriptions appear to have lost interest in the future destiny of the deceased but were anxious rather to record for posterity his family history and exploits. As families became more concerned to establish themselves in the local community, so the Parish Church became a forum for public display of their relatives. Indeed by the later 17th century enormous monuments began to appear, some stretching from floor to ceiling; others dedicated to the dead invaded the chancel to the discomfort of the living. Here the fame of the deceased was displayed for all to read, and on Sundays while the family relaxed in this reflected glory, the faithful had to learn to accommodate a new distraction to their worship of Almighty God. Heaven was making way for fame and the grip of God on the future destiny of man was losing its urgency.

Nevertheless a safeguard for the deceased's future was retained in the introduction to the eulogy with the words 'here lie the remains', or 'near this spot', or even 'in a crypt below this monument' is interred the body. Such phrases indicated an assumption that the deceased's soul had winged its way to a new existence. In this way, although the assumption of the deceased's soul's flight to the after-life was retained, the importance of that objective had clearly been replaced in the minds of the executors by the importance of an earthly career and fame. This fragment referring to the deceased's hope of heaven was not to last and during the last twenty years of the 18th century, this last reference to the after-life and the future of the deceased was replaced by the thoroughgoing retrospective non-Christian preface as the inscription was headed by 'In memory of' or 'Sacred to the memory of'. The needs of the bereaved to remember had now replaced any interest in the future of the deceased. The memory of the mortal life, or fame of the deceased proved of comfort to the bereaved and was not only endorsed by the epitaph, but replaced any concern for the deceased's Heavenly destiny. In Victorian times this introduction developed to 'In loving memory' and a wide variety of affectionate remembrances. The journey back from heaven to fame had been completed.

References

  • 1. Holland, T., Rubicon:the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic,publ. Abacus, 2006.
  • 2. Panofsky, E., Tomb Sculpture, its changing aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini, publ. Phaidon, 1964.
  • 3. Panofsky, Ibid. E., p.46.
  • 4. Kemp, B.R., English Church Monuments, publ. Batsford, 1980.
  • 5. Le Goff, J., The Birth of Purgatory, publ. University of Chicago Press,1984.
  • 6. The Duke of Somerset built Somerset House in the Strand in part with material obtained from the demolition of the north cloister of old St Paul's and its monuments.

ThorntonTomb.jpg
Thornton tomb slab
BenthamTomb.jpg
…Qui fecit cancellum cujus animae proprietur deus (who made this chancel on whose soul God have pity) “Sepulchhrum fundatoris huius cancelli circ. A.D. 1340” is inscribed on a brass plaque in St John the Baptist Church, Low Bentham.
SedburghMon.jpg
Sedburgh monument



ThorntonTomb.jpg
Thornton tomb slab


BenthamTomb.jpg
…Qui fecit cancellum cujus animae proprietur deus (who made this chancel on whose soul God have pity) “Sepulchhrum fundatoris huius cancelli circ. A.D. 1340” is inscribed on a brass plaque in St John the Baptist Church, Low Bentham.


SedburghMon.jpg
Sedburgh monument