Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Commemorating death

click photo to enlarge
Every now and again the appropriateness of how we remember a death surfaces in the press. Recently someone was asked to remove a small shrine from the roadside that she had erected to commemorate her son's death in a traffic accident. Fairly frequently the press reports aggrieved relatives challenging a church's rules on the design of memorials permitted in its churchyard, or a ban on diminutives or nicknames in tombstone inscriptions.

In the past the church seems to have had fewer restrictions of this sort - or perhaps people were more conformist in their choice of memorial. Certainly if you were rich and powerful you could have whatever took your fancy. I see many memorials, dating from the eleventh century to the present day, in my visits to England's churches. Most of them follow the conventions of their day. But, every now and then I come across one that significantly bends and sometimes shatters, the idea of what was considered appropriate. I came upon one such example yesterday in the church of St James, at Spilsby, Lincolnshire.

This edifice, which has a tomb chest out of shot below my image, commemorates the deaths of Richard Bertie (d. 1582) and Baroness Willoughby de Eresby (d. 1580). It is early English Renaissance in style and decidedly weird. The frieze with fruit and leaves is fairly conventional, though the tall diapered niches with their unhistorical columns are quite naive. However, the three tall, crudely carved figures in place of columns (telamones) are just plain odd, not to say ridiculous. They depict a monk and two wild men, one covered in leaves or feathers. These refer to the emblems on the Willoughby coat of arms. Below them are carved skulls, two of which have been damaged over the centuries by inquisitive fingers. Furthermore, the portrait busts of the deceased (rather better carved than the three larger figures it must be said) look completely out of place in their tall niches, like after thoughts or the result of a mis-hearing by the sculptor - "Oh you said one yard high: I thought you said one foot!" You can't help feeling they should be either bigger, or placed on pedestals to better fill their spaces. I suspect that if the sixteenth century church did have rules about the style of memorials this one would fall well outside them. However, strange though it is, I do find it fascinating. And it brought a smile to my face. Looking at the unsmiling visages of the Baroness and her husband I don't think they would have approved of my response!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 20mm (40mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On