Take a look around church grounds, the length and breadth of the country and you will see symbolism used on gravestones. This was there to pass something on to the onlooker. We shall look at the symbolism used by the masons on Belvoir Angel gravestones later, but to start with I shall take a very brief look at symbolism in general, with emphasis on the mortality of Man.
For much of the time, the message passed on is that Man is mortal and will die. Therefore, live a good Christian life. Trust in God and do not be caught short when your own time comes. With life expectancy around 40 ish your own time could come sooner than you think.
The use of symbols was at its peak during the mid 18th century. Certain symbols were used to hammer home this message, in symbol form as most would not have been able to read or write at that time.
The main symbol which depicted the mortality of Man is the human skull, the deaths head. This could be used alone or with human bones or the gravediggers tools of pick and shovel. Sometimes the skulls can be wearing things such as a crown or laurel wreath. These latter are each symbols of victory; the victory in this case being over death. Therefore, this could also be seen as a proclamation as to the faith of the deceased.
Sometimes, an entire skeleton is used as opposed to simply the skull. This was more common in areas where slate was used. At Teigh in Rutland death in the form of the skeleton peeps from around a curtain, about to throw a dart at its luckless victim who is going about her daily work.
At Newton Linford in Leicestershire, the skeleton stands holding the dart, leaning against a shovel; one of the grave diggers tools and another symbol of mortality. In this one Old Father Time looks back at death, holding a scroll which reminds us of our own mortality 'Our glory fades and death's at hand'
The hourglass is another commonly used symbol to pass over the same message. Tempus Fugit, time flies, Man is mortal and his days are numbered.
Sometimes the hourglass is depicted with wings.
Be prepared is the message here. Be prepared for your own death and do not be caught lacking when your own time comes. In truth, this is the same message as Jesus told in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins/brides
There were five wise and five foolish virgins; the wise had oil in their lamps the foolish had no oil. They were awaiting the coming of the bridegroom (Jesus). The bridegroom arrived and those without oil were unprepared. They asked to be let in and the reply was 'Verily I say un to you I know you not'.
There is much, much more to images of mortality than this. This has just scratched the surface, but I just wanted to set the scene so to speak for those who are not versed in this forgotten language, which is still there for us to see.
The angel as a symbol has another meaning. The angel symbolises the safe escorting of the soul of the deceased towards Heaven. Whilst the skull and hourglass were there to remind the onlooker as to how they should live, and to amend their ways if they need to, the angel is there to be a comfort after death. The soul of the deceased is in good hands; a comfort to those looking on s well, as one day they too will follow in the footsteps of the deceased.
BELVOIR ANGEL SYMBOLISM
I will start off with the angel itself; this being the integral part of these stones. As mentioned above, the angel was used universally as a symbol that the soul of the deceased is in safe hands and is being escorted up towards Heaven.
The angels themselves are finely carved, with intricate details on the wings. The angels are depicted with a ruff around the throat. These are mainly associated with the Elizabethan era and it is thought that they had pretty much disappeared from use in Britain by 1625. It seems curious to have the angels wearing an item of clothing which had ceased to be used for many years beforehand!
There are subtle intricacies within the facial features of the angels themselves. Some are frowning (reasonable, given that the deceased has recently passed on) whilst others appear happy (reasonable given that the soul of the deceased is making an important and exciting journey).
Very often, the words 'Come Ye Blessed' are carved in to the stone alongside the angel. Words of comfort and also another proclamation as to the faith of the deceased!
The words themselves are Biblical and come from Matthew Chapter 25, when he speaks of Jesus coming in in His glory and judging the righteous from the condemned. Verses 31 - 35 read...
31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'
So, important words; a Biblical promise to those who are departed and to those who look on, knowing that they too will one day, possibly sooner rather than later, follow in their footsteps and receive the same promise for living a good Christian life.
With regards other symbolism, the Vale of Belvoir Angel gravestones are quite limited to be fair in the number of different symbols used.
For the most part we are looking at the hourglass, which is normally to be found in the top left hand corner as we look at it, and the crossed bones which are to be found top right.
Apart from these, all that we really see is the heart, used as a symbol of love and occasionally a Christian cross.
There is one instance, at Whatton In The Vale, where there is a full skeleton, which holds a dart and a candle snuffer.
The hour glass is mentioned above and is often used with the words 'Be Ye Also Ready'. A reminder that your days are limited, especially with life expectancy so low. An often used verse at the foot of the grave reads 'Death does not always warning give ,so be careful how you live'. Time flies, and it may be later than you think.
It is interesting, looking at the epitaphs at the foot of these gravestones, how the people of the day saw the passing of time. There are several inscriptions in which the passing of time is likened to a glass being emptied. One reads 'As runs the glass our lives do pass' another says 'Reader stand still and shed a tear upon the dust that sleepeth here and whilst thou read of the state of me think on the cup that runs for thee'.
As mentioned earlier, human bones were often used as a symbol to represent the mortality of Man. However, there is another meaning associated with this. In medieval times it was considered essential that the skull and the large bones such as the thigh bones were preserved in order for the body to be resurrected on the final day.
This is why the skull and larger bones are preserved and treated with such respect in bone crypts. The human bone as a symbol therefore can have another meaning. It can be seen as a symbol of the resurrection and therefore, also be seen as a proclamation as to the faith of the deceased.
So, symbols run alongside script and vice versa; together passing on an important message. Be prepared to follow in the footsteps of those who have passed before you, and make sure that you have lived correctly along the way!
A universal language; the same symbols were used, and would have been understood, by people the length and breadth of the country and abroad. A symbol understood by someone in Devon would also have been understood by someone is Scotland. The same symbol would have been understood by someone in France or Germany or any other country, even if they didn't speak the same language. A language that has been unlearned over the years.