Friday, 5 August 2011

Sandstone Monuments

A range of materials are present
© Godric Godricson

In general, rural communities in Norfolk did not have stone grave monuments before the 17th Century with some rare exceptions.  

Monuments that did exist would be made from wood and may have taken the form of a cross with a name inscribed simply on the monument. Such a transitory monument would decay naturally over time and would be buried with the next inhumation or burial on the same site. In the use of wood for monuments we have a philosophical acceptance of the transitory nature of life with a rapid return to the soil from which we came. The use of bio degradable materials for monuments  witnesses the idea of a burial site in the Cemetery being rented from the Church rather than being purchased in perpetuity like a house or a field. The wooden cross indicate both poverty and also the idea of communal burial where we share in death what we also shared in life. A wooden monument was arguably an acceptance of a communal fate that was shared by all in a non permanent and transient environment.  Putting it simply, humanity had little hope of permanence in a world that was poorly understood and where death was an ever present reality.

The individualised monument is a sign and symbol of the growing confidence of humanity who increasingly asserts itself in the landscape. Rather than being mere animals who are born and then disappear with only a simple wooden marker, the monument  is part of an increasing claim towards immortality. Humanity is saying that it exists, it has a right to eternity and that a record of our existence is essential. The cemetery becomes a place of grief-pilgrimage, a loci for an increasing ancestor worship and a place for the development of a rather ‘mawkish’ view of death and decomposition.

With the passing of time and the increase in affluence we find that in East Anglia, the most common type of stone used for monuments became sandstone. This soft sedimentary stone is often reddish in colour and is often confused with the harder and more expensive Limestone monument although the two are quite different. The emergence of sandstone for monuments can be seen in the 17th Century and the spread of this form of stone is widespread across the geographical region which has little (if any) quality stone quarried locally.

18th Century Putti in King's Lynn
© Godric Godricson

The sandstone memorial is often in the form of ‘momenti Mori’ or ‘skull and crossbones’ motif before that frightening design  gradually gives way to a more ‘Enlightenment’ style that comprised ‘Putti’ or smiling angels who are often portrayed as children.  A widespread acceptance of the ‘Enlightenment’ and rationality reflected in monuments is often not captured in the history books and is not captured in sculpture commissioned by the Authorities in the period. Sandstone ‘putti’ smile at us from the monuments in a serene manner  very far removed from the skull and crossbones.

How we perceive death as a society is captured in the sandstone monuments of the region. Death and the after life is culturally less frightening although it is still personally devastating for individuals and for families. Society moves from the conception of a punitive God who smites down the sinner and we start to sense a less vengeful God who is surrounded by ‘Putti’  and we move towards this Providential God in the 18th C. A  Providential God is the God of forgiveness and salvation rather than of punishment, pain and suffering and this new vision of God sets the tone for the cemetery itself which becomes lighter and more accepting as winessed by the Putti.

Cracking - rural parish mid Norfolk
© Godric Godricson

Shelling - rural parish mid Norfolk
© Godric Godricson

A perception of the Providential God conveyed in the Putti is increasingly captured in Sandstone. Such monuments are often carved without immense skill by rural craftsmen. However, whilst sandstone is accessible as a material for monuments it is also a very soft material and sedimentary by nature. Sandstone is formed from grains that easily yield to a chisel but which  finds itself similarly shaped and eroded by the wind and rain that is so evident in the English landscape. Monuments sited in hill top cemeteries are often badly eroded and the rain that falls on the monuments often leads to a sort of ‘shelling’. This action caused by the elements means that the external layer of sandstone bubbles and falls away. The monument is very much doomed from the day it is installed. We start to witness a monument that is an increasing victim to the ‘freeze-thaw’ of each  successive winter.  The words on the monument become illegible and another piece of history is lost unless a survey is carried out on the cemetery. Monuments in the UK are also subject to algae, lichen and pollution deposits, which degrade the monument and all combine to the decay of the inscription. 

Rationalism and the Enlightenment
© Godric Godricson

The  sandstone monument is everywhere in East Anglia. It pops up in the 17th century with a new affluence and a growing confidence on the part of humanity. No-longer does humanity in the region  perceive itself as a mere ‘beast of the field’ who merely rents a corner of the Churchyard. Instead, humanity becomes assertive and sure of its place in creation. We see local dynasties emerge in the way that a family would plant monuments in a row or in a prominent place within the cemetery. Whilst the landed family would have their marble tombs and elegant barley sugar columns within the parish Church, a growing bourgeoisie would have the sandstone monument in the cemetery.  Under these monument,  all in a row or in a block, the increasingly affluent population proclaimed their new wealth and power. It is as if the monuments proclaim “We are here and we have arrived!”

Similarly, the sandstone monuments say that God is no longer to be feared and, instead, God becomes perceived as the Providential God who is interested in our lives and welfare. The sandstone monuments display the power of God whilst also displaying a sort of intimacy with God and His plan for eternity.

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