Memorials for Children of Change.
The art of early New England Stonecarving

Dickran Tashjian and Ann Tashjian
Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press
isbn 0-8195-4061-7

This is an Art History approach to the gravestones of Puritan New England. There is a focus on Puritan theory, history and sociology as they may have pertained to the grave markers.

The "standard" concept of the Puritans is that they were anti-art, but the Tashjians argue that is an unfair exaggeration, that the Puritans were adamant against imagery in religious context, and opposed to ornament for the sake of ornament, but had a place on their hearts and homes for some art. And since death was a civil matter, there was NOT a prohibition on art in that context. [And since births, marriages and deaths were civil events, they were matters for town records rather than church records, and graveyards were secular town facilities, not sacred church facilities.]

The first (known) carved stones were set in the 1660s or 1670s, and almost immediately there were the common winged death's-heads on 3-lobed stones, which evolved into winged cherubim decades later. The book has no statistics for when, where, or what sort of gravestones were used, so the reader must take it on faith that the authors are being representative. I doubt it. The Tashjians use the documents of the era to show that the stones were deliberate civic memorials, allowed with the theory or hope that they would remind the late-17th and 18th Century slackers of what their ancestors had done and believed. [They are personal and family symbols of grief and memory as well, but that isn't really addressed in the book.] These were people living at the edge of the howling wilderness, often endangered by famine, pestilence, weather, Papists and Indians. The stones were carved by men who usually had other jobs, sometimes several other jobs, so it was a craft activity and not Art. They were carefully designed, more and less skillfully carved, with messages and symbols and context understood by their viewers (and for which we need some interpretation.)

That interpretation, from the Tashjians, can be rather uninterpretable itself: "Stonecarvers often worked between the polarities of Ramist analysis and the suprarational logic of visual metamorphosis." (p. 65) "The earliest stonecarvers of the seventeenth century rendered the available motifs according to the analytic presentation of the plain style. This linear articulation of motifs was akin to the exegetic unfolding of scriptural metaphor in a plain-style sermon according to the dictates of Ramist logic. While an adherence to analytic design countered the synthesis of visual forms, the possibilities of metamorphosis were gradually perceived and articulated on a symmetrical structure." (p. 234) I eventually began to see that such gobbledegook mostly means something, but some explanation (or "plain-style" writing) would have helped. Overall, I think some of the alleged meanings of the stones are grossly over-analyzed.

They deny that any of the stones are simple or primitive, or that the carvers were unskilled, on the grounds that the stones were just right for their purposes in their context. I like the stones, and it seems to me that they are correct, at least in the sense that if the stones being produced were not sufficient for their purposes, the people would have sought other tokens, symbols or products that worked better. But the counter argument is that being satisfied with mediocrity doesn't make mediocrity excellent.

Part of their conclusion: "Gravestones, then, did not exist as an unconscious mystical outlet for what has been thought of as an repressive and repressed group. On the contrary, gravestone carvings appeared in the latter part of the seventeenth century to meet openly articulated needs." (p. 233)

There are more than 100 illustrations, mostly rubbings of the stones, with a few photos and pictures of related artifacts. The slate used for most of the stones lends itself very nicely to rubbing, and the granite and marble used in some places works less well. An issue not addressed is the tabular shape used for all the stones shown, and in all the carved stones I've seen from that era.

The typical stone's layout for the Boston-oriented area by 1700 was a 3-lobed stone - 2 narrow pilasters flanking a broad central slab. At the top of the central area was a semicircular tympanum, in which the major symbols were carved, below which was text about the deceased, with or without a message to the living. The pilasters were usually carved with secondary symbols. The grim skulls of 1700 evolved into happier cherubim mid-century, before being completely replaced by romantic willows and urns in the early 19th Century, and the standard interpretation is that the early focus and death and resurrection evolved into a focus on mourning.

Thankful Higins, 1712, Eastham

infant Lewis, 1789, Wellfleet

Examples are from Robert Paine Carlson's photos of Cape Cod stones.

Essex County stones had a tradition of carvings that look to me like Chalcolithic Greek figures or like our current silly conception of "aliens", but this is barely addressed. By Robert Carlson's web page photos I'm reminded of of sunburst and Medusa types that are not mentioned here. Connecticut had a traditional of carving dainty flowers and big coffins - why? Did the relatively religiously tolerant people of Rhode Island carve differently? And what was happening at graves in more distant colonies and in England?

Overall, there are some good points made, and I learned a fair amount, but I'm suspicious of what places, artifacts, and times are left out.

David Kew
October 2002

book reviews
Cape Cod library