Carved in Stone
The Artistry of Early New England Gravestones
There is something eerily stimulating about thumbing through, Carved in Stone (Gilson, T.E. & Gilson, W., 2012, University Press of New England) the book of photos of New England gravestones by Thomas E. Gilson, with an essay on their history and style by William Gilson. The Gilson brothers were born and raised in Connecticut. Thomas Gilson taught photography in Vermont for 17 years. What started as a curious hobby of T. Gilson turned out to be a compilation of early colonial American history in photographs. In his book Gilson shows us colonial American sculpture in its earliest form. The stories the pictures tell share not only the hardships and fears of colonial times but also hope and accomplishments. The essay written by William Gilson shares a common desire to understand not only the messages and symbols carved into the stones but also pay tribute to the artwork of the carvers.
As a society we are squeamish when discussing death, yet we sentimentalize death with depictions of angels, soft light and our idea of heaven. The men and women of 17th and 18th century New England viewed death with a fear that is seen on their gravestones. Skeletons, teeth-baring devils and skulls with eerie eye sockets tell of uncertainty and dread about what really lies beyond this mortal soil. Interestingly they did not waste any space on their gravestones with such euphemisms as “passed away” or “gone” as we see on later and present day stones.
The early settlers of New England lived in a place and time where death was always present. Disease and violence were present on a daily basis. They feared hell and the eternal damnation of their souls. It is no wonder that so many of their gravestones reflected the anxiety of living in a harsh, unpredictable world. “O! [Relentless] Death” is an inscription on one gravestone shown in the book (Gilson, 2012 pp110), and it reads like a cry of despair. Still not all the gravestones are so gloomy or the depictions on them as grim. Although the Puritans’ held stern ideas against human weakness and sin there was hope that a more glorious and generous world that awaited them after death. Many Puritan gravestones show a “Death Head” or a carved face or skull with wings on either side of the head. This symbol states the soul is ascending to heaven, and the occupant was a believer in heaven.
Eventually, as Puritanism waned in the early 18th century, the Death's Head imagery faded and new carvings of cherubs (symbolizing a child) and then later to urns with weeping willows over them, representing the mourning of the loss of life. Some of the headstones show rising suns(Gilson, 2012 pp 22,81), their light presumably shining on the dead; angel faces that are neither male nor female but still sweet and childlike (Gilson, 2012 pp 34,35) and crude faces that look like the stone heads of Easter Island(Gilson, 2012 pp112). In one remarkable carving(Gilson, 2012 pp 44), a young woman wearing her hair down on her shoulders, not pinned up or hidden behind a cap, holds a flower. Even carved in stone she radiates with life. In a period of; crude medical treatments, chronic wasting diseases, short life expectancies and a high mortality rate the promise of an after-life without pain or suffering must have seemed like true salvation. Some of the carvings are not as sophisticated, they have had a rough life different from the modern, polished headstones. These were tough and judgmental people who fought for survival and their gravestones reflect their unbending spirit.
Thomas Gilson’s black and white photographs are elegant and show unexpected and humorous details in the carvings and the texts written on the gravestones. William Gilson’s text is nostalgic and thoughtful. Thomas’ photography and William’s essay about gravestones offers an unexpected journey into the spiritual and mental state of colonial American people. While both pay tribute to the craftsman who created these story-telling sculptures by compiling this book they also feed a curiosity for death that is as timeless as death itself.