In Highgate Cemetery (above) there are many monuments with urns, many of them draped with cloths. To us, the urn as grave marker suggests ashes; when draped, a shroud; when wreathed, honour and remembrance. It is easy to see how it became a part of Victorian mourning customs and symbolism. But what exactly did it symbolise?
Look on the web and you'll find many explanations, most of them offered with confidence, without source or justification and often contradictory. The urn is said to symbolise sorrow, the departure of the soul from the body, the veil between the living and the dead, immortality, the hope of resurrection, an untimely death and the ashes of the dead. The last interpretation is the least likely: at the time when the urn was most common in British funerary art, cremation was illegal.
Perhaps we might understand this urn monument better if we knew where it came from.
The urn is a high-shouldered vase on a small foot with a narrow neck, usually with a lid and with or without handles on the shoulder. The high shoulder makes it lift from the ground, looking elegant and noble. The high-shouldered jar has been a popular form in ceramics of different cultures, styles and materials, in the Greek amphora, the Song vase, Renaissance maiolica, and the studio potter's jug, but it flourished in Britain as an absolute mania in the 1760s.
Urn monuments were most common in the 19th century, the age of elaborate tombs and conspicuous mourning. They spread through the English speaking world, but whether they're found outside Anglo-Saxon cemeteries I don’t know, nor whether they're exclusively Protestant. Their use continued into the 20th century, a modest age embarrassed by death, when they fell out of favour.
A good place to start looking is Simon Knott's extraordinary photographic record of gravestones in East Anglia (below), over 2,000 pictures covering the period roughly 1700 to 1875. From his painstaking collection we see that, in this part of England at least, the urn motif emerged in the 1780s, not as a free-standing monument but carved in relief on headstones.
Among Simon Knott's photos are:
- an urn with a skull and cherub, St Peter, Strumpshaw, Norfolk, 1781
- an urn with cherubs, St Peter's, Ousden. Suffolk, 1793
- a woman grieving over an urn with a weeping willow, early 19th century
- a draped urn, 1834
- an urn with a fern, 1867
- an urn, St Mary, Tharston, Norfolk, 1875
Lawrence Weaver, in Memorials and Monuments, a plea for a fitting funerary art written at the beginning of the First World War, said that "The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their rather weary imagination, were much addicted to the decorative use of such dismal emblems as the skull, hour-glass and the scythe, all by way of memento mori." Then, towards the end of the century, the urn was added.
So the first urn in East Anglia may have been carved in about 1781, when the mania for vase collecting was beginning to cool. There is also a gravestone dated 1781 at the old Ayot St Lawrence church in Hertfordshire with an urn motif. Where did the stonemasons get the idea from? Did they invent it or did they copy it from somewhere else?
In Memorials and Monuments, Weaver considers the influence of Robert Adam on monumental art. He found a wall memorial in Westminster Abbey to Edward Wortley Montagu, made in 1787, "a delicate and delightful tablet, with its clever use both of the sarcophagus and urn motifs". The Montagu memorial takes its style from Adam, but it may have taken the urn as well.
|Monument to David Hume, Edinburgh|
The urn was part of Adam's architectural vocabulary, used on buildings and furniture without reference to death or mourning. But Adam did use the urn at least once as a funerary motif, on the grand mausoleum for David Hume in Edinburgh (1778) where he has a prominent free-standing urn – earlier than the Montagu memorial and earlier than the gravestones in Strumpshaw and Ayot St Lawrence. The urn was not unique to Adam, it was part of the language of Neo-Classicism in its Baroque, Palladian and Adam phases. It was taken with other motifs from Greece, Pompeii and Rome without too much fuss about its original context or significance.
In Chiswick House (1729), the Earl of Burlington and William Kent employed urns as finials, accents and decorations. The two grand, purple porphyry urns in the house are said by the trustees to symbolise the imperial majesty of Rome. Urns had also been used as finials by Vanbrugh in Grimsthorpe (1715) and by Talman in Chatsworth (1696).
|Sir John Soane, The Bank of England|
|Roman cinerary urn|
The Romans and Etruscans practiced burial and cremation at different times, keeping cremation ashes in various types of vessel - canopic jars, receptacles like little houses, terracotta vases, urns of bronze or clay, and urns of glass. This first or second century Roman cinerary urn, in glass, about 26cm high, approaches the shape of the Victorian funerary urn, though it is broader in proportion. Here is the same high shoulder, narrow neck and small foot finished with an out-turned rim, and the same high-placed handles.
The urn, draped or otherwise, seems to have emerged as a grave motif in the late 18th century to accompany older funerary motifs, copied by country craftsmen from Neo-Classical pattern books or the buildings they saw around them. As a funerary motif, it developed at the same time as emotional religion. The simple urn on the headstone was joined by a weeping woman, a weeping willow and the shroud of the dead. (The urn-and-willow motif was particularly popular in the United States.) In an era when cremation was forbidden, local masons made muddled reference to Roman funeral practices, seen through the prism of grand architecture and the Grand Tour. Then, when industrial fortunes were made and burial moved from cramped churchyards to large new cemeteries, there was money and space enough for big tombs. More important, there was a culture of mourning that favoured sentimental sculpture. The urn, anticipated by Adam's monument to David Hume, become a popular memorial.
The urn is replete with associations, from Roman imperial to maudlin Victorian, but it never had any particular significance: it was not a symbol, just a fashion.
(Thanks to Simon Knott.)