SYMBOLISM ON MONUMENTS

Whereas some people in the 17thand 18th centuries had little education, they were certainly wellgrounded in the scriptures and the catechism. Village schools had beenset up from the times of the Reformation, so there were many peoplefrom humble homes who could read and knew the scriptures. The emblemsof mortality and immortality were seldom used after the 18th century,but many other forms of symbolism were the stock-in-trade of 19thcentury monumental masons.
A B C D E F G H I J KL M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Please note that this section is under construction

ACACIA 

Immortality of the soul.

ACANTHUS

Heavenly garden; one of the oldest cemetery motifs, acanthus is associated with the rocky ground where the most ancient Greek cemeteries were placed.  

AGNUS DEI 

See Lamb

 

AMORINI

See Putti.

 

ANCHOR

Hope, security, or ‘At Rest’ See: Hebrews 6, 19. If held by a female figure, Hope. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom,Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.

ANGEL

The messenger of God, often depicted pointing heavenward: also guardian of the living and the dead. If shown with a trumpet, indicative of the approach of God.  

ANGEL OF DEATH

Rare, and shown as a putto (qv), with dart and/or hour-glass,and/or scales. It may have wings

 

ANGEL OF THE RESURRECTION

Clad in loose robes, standing trumpet in hand, or flyingthrough the air, feet bare, knees bent.


ANGEL’S HEAD

Usually winged, symbolises resurrection and the metamorphosis of the soul

ANKH Eternal life, peace andtruth  
ARCH  Victory in death, beingjoined with partener in heaven  

ARK

Symbolic of the Church, since in the Ark all living thingsfind refuge.

 
ARROW The 'dart of death'  

AXE

Weapon of death.

 
AZALEA  Temperance  

BAMBOO 

The emblem of Buddha. The seven-knotted bamboo denotes theseven degrees of initiation and invocation in Buddhism. On Japanesememorials, symbolic of devotion and truthfulness. 

 
BAYLEAVES  Victory over death.  

BED

A deathbed, sometimes depicted as merely a pillow.

 

BEEHIVE 

Symbolic of industry, for a community of those whose work is beneficial to all. Also of domestic virtues, education, faith, abundance in the Promised Land

 

BELL

The Dead Bell was rung to give notice of funerals, and at the funeral itself. Depicted as a small hand bell, it was a favourite emblem in Northern England and Scotland.

 

BELL & BRAZIER

A bell founder.

 

BIBLICAL SCENES 

A number of Biblical scenes appear as low reliefs ontombstones, the more  frequent being those of the Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Good Samaritan, Christ and the Samarian Woman, Noli Me Tangere, the Agony on the Garden and the Flight  into Egypt.    

 
BIRD  Eternal Life; a 'winged soul'  
BIRD IN FLIGHT  Rebirth  

BOOK

The ‘Book of Life’,i.e.the Bible; a cross lying upon it symbolises Faith. See: Philippians 4, 3 and Revelation 3,5.   If held  by a female figure, Wisdom. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity. 

BONES

In the 17th century the death's head was often accompanied bycrossed bones. However, by the 18th century there were many morevariations, including such items as jaw bones. The bones were sometimesshown as trophies or suspended on ribbons.

 

BOW & ARROWS

Weapon of death.

 
BROKEN COLUMN See Column,broken  

BUTTERCUP 

Cheerfulness.

 

BUTTERFLY

Resurrection; as the butterfly emerges from the pupae so toowill our souls emerge from our bodies and soar upwards towards Heaven.

 

CADAVER

 Mortality. See  Corpse

 

CADUCEUS

Wand entwined with snake sand surmounted by a dove, carried byMercury. A Familiar emblem on the tombs of those of the medicalprofessions.

 

CANDLE 

Either alight or extinguished, symbolises the imminence ofdeath.

 
CATTERPILLAR Metamorphosis to a newlife  
CHAIN  If of three links, anassociation with the Odd Fellows  

CHALICE

The most familiar symbol for a priest, usually shown with itspaten.

 
CHARITY  Shown as a femalefigure succouring, or with, children.  

CHERUB

A winged child of indeterminate sex.

CHERUB SLEEPING Innocence  
CHRISTMASROSE  Cheerfulness  

CINQUEFOIL

Maternal affection; beloved daughter.

 

CIRCLE

Eternity, often incorporated into the Celtic cross or shown asa snake.

 
CLEMATIS  Skilfullness  

CLOCK DIAL

The passage of time.

 
COCKERELL  Awakening to a newlife, i.e. resurection  

COFFIN

The shape is realistic and is normally recognisable. In the17th century the device was often placed in a row of emblems oroccasionally appeared as a sole emblem.

 

COLUMN 

The support of life. If held  by a female figure,Temperance. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude,Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.

 

COLUMN, BROKEN

The broken column traditionally signifies mortality, thesupport of life being broken. 

 
COMPASS &SET-SQUARE Masonic symbols

CORNUCOPIA 

Symbolises abundance.

 

CORPSE

The corpse usually appears in a winding-sheet or lying in, orrising from a coffin.

 

CROCUS

Youthful gladness.

 

CROSS

Has several meanings, such as the symbol of The SupremeSacrifice and of the Christian religion   If held  by afemale figure, Faith. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom,Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.


CROWN  

Emblem of the Christian martyr, and of the ‘Crown of Life’,the reward for those who stayed faithful until death. See:  1Corinthians 9:24-27, James 1, 12 and Revelation 2, 10.

CROWN OF THORNS

Symbol of suffering, based on the crown plaited by thesoldiers and imposed upon Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate.

 
CROWNED SKULL Triumph of death  

CROZIER

see Pastoral Staff.

 

CYPRESS TREE 

Mourning and death on account of its dark colour, and becauseonce cut down it will not grow again. Also a symbol of Hope

 

DAFFODIL

Regard; death of youth; desire; art; grace.

DAISY

Innocence of childhood; Jesus the Infant Youth, Son ofRighteousness.

 

DART

A weapon of death

 

DEAD LEAVES

Sadness; melancholy.

 

DEATH BED SCENE

Death bed scenes on headstones are usually simple, thedeceased shown in a box-like bed sometimes with curtains

 
 DOLPHIN  Resurrection,salvation, bearer of sould across the water.  
 DOOR  Entrance to Heaven;also, entrance to the heart.  

DOVE 

The Holy Spirit, also for peace, innocence, purity and love

DRAGON  Eternity  
DRAPERY  See  Urn  

EAGLE 

Strength and endurance. Also the symbol of St John theEvangelist

 

EFFIGY 

The sleep of death

EYE  Humility; alsoemblematic of the deceased watching over the living
EYE OF HORUS/RA Life and death (Horus),Sun and Moon (Ra); protection against evil  

FATHER TIME

Known in ancient mythology as Chronos. With hisscythe, symbolic of gathering in those whose hour to depart has come.Portrayed standing, stalking or seated with elbow on hour-glass. Insome scenes he is shown together with the Skeleton, the King of Terrorsto two ready for action

FEMALE FIGURES

Other than sculptural representations of Our Lady, see Psyche.

FEMALE FIGURES with CHILDREN Charity. One of theseven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice,Faith, Hope and Charity.  
FINGER Pointing down: callingthe Earth to witness. Pointing up: indicates that the deceased is nowin heaven  

FIR CONES

Ancient symbol of fertility

 

FISH 

A symbol of Christ used by the early Christians re story ofFeeding the 5,000.

 
 FLAG Patriotism or militarysupremacy  

FLEUR-DE-LYS

Our Lady; passion; ardour; mother.

 
FLOWER Frailty or brevity oflife  
FOO DOG  Almost entirelyrestricted to monuments to those of the Chinese community, being one ofthe four animals of power, energy and bravery.  
FROG  Worldy pleasure, i.e.sin  

GARBE

The heraldic term for the sheaf of corn. Common feature onheadstones to farmers.  Also associated with the bread of the LastSupper  

 

GARLAND

A wreath of flowers, for remembrance. Also victory over death

 

GATES 

The entry into Heaven.

 

GLORY OF GOD

Depicted by clouds, sun, sunrays, trumpets and more simply bya sunburst.

 

GRAPES

Sacrifice; immortality.

 
HAIR FLOWING Penitence  

HAMMER

If shown with pincers, indicative of a smith.

 

HAND/S  

As an admonitory finger a pointer to Heaven, with a heart asan emblem of Charity, when clasped as a symbol of brotherly love,farewell or reunity. On Jewish tombs, two outstretched hands with thethumbs touching symbolises a descendant of Aaron, the High Priest(nearly all named Cohen).

HAND BELL

See Bell

 
HARE-BELL Tenderness  
HARP   Instrument of theangels; divine/heavenly music  

HEART

Divine love and devotion. When flaming, the fire of Divine Love

 
HEART,PIERCED  When pierced by asword, indicative of the Virgin Mary's sorrow  
HELMET   Military service;also occasionally used on monuments to firemen and policemen.   

HOLLY

Symbolic of the Crown of Thorns

 

HORSE

Strength, courage or the swiftness of the passage of time.

 
HORSESHOE Protection against evil  

HOURGLASS

The ‘sands of time’; passage of time, mortality and death;also a symbol of Father Time. Portrayed either in a vertical orhorizontal position. Sometimes a flaming hour-glass was carved torepresent eternity.

 
HOURGLASS,WINGED  Passage of life/time  
HYACINTH Truth and hope  

IHS

First three letters (Iota, Heta, Sigma) of the Greek spellingof Jesus. Also In Hoc Salus (‘In this cross, Salvation’) and In HocSigno (‘In this Sign  [ye shall conquer]’).

IRIS

Light and hope.

 

IVY 

The evergreen, symbolising immortality, everlasting life or friendship.

LABYRINTH

In popular useage, symbolises eternity; used in esoterictradition to represent the inward path.

 

LAMB

The Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. Signifies innocence, oftenused on infants’and children's graves. See: John 1, 29 and Revelation5, 6-14.

 

LAMP

Immortality, knowledge of God. See: 2 Samuel 22, 29 and Psalm119, 105.  

 

LANCE

Weapon of death

 

LAUREL 

Fame or Victory, often of a literary or artistic figure.

 

LILY

Symbol of Our Lady, of the Easter resurrection and ofchastity, innocence and purity.

 
LILY of theVALLEY Rebirth  

LION

Courage, strength and the Resurrection (tradition being thatthe lion’s whelp is born dead and remains so for three days until itsfather breathes on it).  Also the symbol of St Mark.

 
LOTUS Purity,perfect beauty, spiritual revelation.

MALE FIGURES

The commonest male representations – apart from that of OurLord - are of Eros, carrying or resting of a reversed torch, Thanatos,shown as a young man leaning against a tree trunk and lowering hislighted torch towards a small altar, and Hypnos, the son ofNight, often standing next to Thanatos with more gracious mien. Ifwinged, the symbol of St Matthew theEvangelist.     

 

MALLET & CHISEL

Symbolic of a joiner.

 
MENORAH Divine wisdom  

MILITARY EMBLEM

A soldier.

MIRROR

Symbolises truth and knowledge, may alsopossibly refer to 1 Cor. 13:12,
‘For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face etc

 
MISTLETOE Immortality  

MITRE 

Symbol of episcopal status.

 
MOON Rebirth  

NEPTUNE

With trident, anchor and accompanying puffing-cherubrepresenting Wind, usually found on mariners' tombstones  

 

OAK LEAVES

Hospitality; strength, honour; eternity; endurance; liberty.

 

OAK TREE

Temporal human strength, and the male head of the family. 

 

OBELISK

Eternal life, from the Egyptian sun-worshipping symbol

 

OLIVE BRANCH

Peace, harmony and healing. If in a dove’s beak, a symbol ofrefuge.

 
OPEN GATES Entrance to heaven  
ORB Faith  
OWL Wisdom  

PALM

Triumph of a martyr over death.

 
PANSY Remembrance, meditation  

PASSION FLOWER

Christ’s passion, sacrifice and redemption. The five petalsand sepals representing the ten Apostles (Peter and Judas are omitted),the five anthers the Wounds of Christ, the tendrils the scourges,hammers, the three stigmas the nails and the filaments within theflower the Crown of Thorns.

 

PASTORAL STAFF 

The standard symbol for a bishop.

 

PEACOCK

Early symbol of resurrection; when the peacock sheds itsfeathers, he grows  a more brilliant one than that which he lost.

 

PELICAN  

Piety and atonement. The pelican was believed to draw bloodfrom its breast to nourish its young.

 
PEONY Honour, love oraffection  
PHEASANT Beauty and good fortune  

PHOENIX 

Christ’s resurrection. A mythical bird which at death burstsinto flame but rises to immortal life from its own ashes.

 

PICK

The sexton's tool, symbolising mortality.

 

PILLOW

Symbolising the deathbed.

 

PINEAPPLE

Symbolises fertility.


PINK Genius  
POPPIES Sleep;usually associated with WWI military death, i.e. poppies in FlandersField  

POPPY HEADS

Sleep

 

PLOUGH

Symbolic of a farmer.

 
PRAYING HANDS see Hands  

PSYCHE

Love.

 

PUTTI 

A wingless pot-bellied naked infant, usually male, cherubic inorigin.

 
PYRAMID Eternal life,enlightenment and spiritual attainment  

RAKE& SPADE  

 Agardener.

 
RAINBOW Fulfillment of thepromise of resurection  
RIFLE Military service  

ROCKS

Solidarity, strength, the Church, or steadfastness of theChristian faith.

 
ROD or STAFF Comfort to the bereaved  

ROPE

Symbolic of betrayal or arrest, after the rope used to bindJesus following  His arrest.

 

ROSE 

 Sinless, innocence, a paragon, one without peer, usuallyassociated with Our Lady (the Rosa Mystica of the Garden ofthe Saints) or Paradise.

ROSEBUDS

Strong bond between two people, usually children or mother andchild.

 
ROSEMARY Remembrance  

SCALES

Weighing the soul on the day of Judgment
If held by a blindfolded female figure, Justice, being one of the sevenChristian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith,Hope and Charity

 
SCALLOP SHELL Birth, baptism,everlasting life  
SCARAB Transcendance  
SCEPTRE Fortitude  

SCISSORS & GLOVE

Emblematic of a glover

 

SCYTHE

The passage of time and death.
If held by a  female figure, Fortitude, being one of the sevenChristian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith,Hope and Charity

 

SET-SQUARE  & COMPASS 

Masonic insignia.


SHAMROCK The Trinity. Also emblematic of Irish descent  
SHEATHof WHEAT Abundentlife or final harvest  

SHEARS

Symbolic of a lady, or of the wife or daughter of a woolstapler or clothier, or of a sheep farmer.

 
SHELL Pilgrimage. The badge of those who travelled to Santiago da Compostella  
SHEPHERD'SCROOK Charity  

SHIP

The Christian Church, carrying the faithful through the world.

 

SICKLE

see Scythe.

SKELETON

Death. Frequently shown carrying a scythe, since death is thecutting of  this life, or with an hourglass, the symbol of thepassing of time, or with a dart/spear. Sometimes depicted as lyingdown or on a bed or in a hammock like object. When portrayed standing(with the weapons of death, the dart, spear, scythe or lance) it is thepersonification of death, the King of Terrors. Anatomical details arecarved according to the mason's skill and knowledge.

 

SKULL

Death of mortality. On 17th century monuments, usuallyportrayed either in partial profile or facing front or above or oncrossed bones. The 18th century masons carved the skull in many ways:with or without lower jaw, full face, three quarter or half profile, noses triangular, U-shaped, heart-shaped; eye sockets deep or shallow,large or small.

SKULL, CROWNED Triumph over Death  

SKULL, WINGED

Death or mortality; more commonly found on 17th centuryheadstones. Also symbolises flight of the sould from mortal man.

 
SNAIL Laziness  

SNAKE

With its tail in its mouth, symbolises eternity. With applesor with a tress symbolic of the Fall of Man

SPADE &PICK The sexton's tools,symbolising mortality  

SPADE & TURF CUTTER

The sexton’s tools; the latter has a triangular blade. Veryoften the two tools are crossed

 
SPIDER'S WEB Human fraility  
SQUARE &AXE A stonemason.  
STAFF or ROD Comfort to the bereaved  

STAR

Divine guidance

 

STAR OF DAVID

Fraternity; also a Masonic insignia.

 
SUN -RISING Renewed life, i.e.resurrection  
SUN - SETTING Death  
SUN - SHINING Everlastiong life  

SUNDIAL

The passage of time.

 

SWORD

Justice, constancy or fortitude. Part of the Armour of God’.See: Ephesians 6, 10-18.

 
SWORD - BROKEN Life (usually amilitary one) cut short  
SWORD -INVERTED Relinquishment of power, i.e. victory  
SWORD -SHEATHED Temperance  
TETRAGAMMATON Four Hebrew letters -Y, H, W. E - spelling  the true name of God  
THISTLE Earthly sorrow. Alsoindicative of Scottish descent  

TORCH

Taken from a Greek emblem. Symbolised immortality; if upturned, symbolises life extinguished

TOWER

Strength.

 

TREE

Regeneration and immortality.

TREE WITHLOPPED BRANCHES Life cut short  
TRIANGLE Holy Trinity. Sometimesalso used as a Masonic device  

TRIQUETA

Three interlocking circles or triangles: the Holy Trinity,eternity

 
TRUMPET Announcement of thesoul's entry into Heaven; resurrection  
TULIP Honour  

URN

Draped and empty, symbolises death, derived from classicalcinerary urns; if flaming, indicates new life.

 

VENUS

See Psyche

 
VIRTUES The Seven ChristianVirtues (shown as female figures with their attributes) comprising theFour Cardinal Virtues of Wisdom (Book), Fortitude (Scythe), Temperance(Column) and Justice (Blindfolded with Scales); and the ThreeTheological Virtues of Faith (Cross), Hope (Anchor) and Charity (withchildren or child)  

WATER

Symbolises life; a hand pouring water from a flagon may occuron Jewish tombs of the Levites whose duty in the synagogue is to pourwater upon the hands of the priests.

 

WEEPERS

Usually shown in full relief on the top slopes of theheadstone, and in the form of putti

 

WHEAT 

The Bread of Life; fruitfulness harvested; bounty.

 
WHEEL The 'Circle of Life'  

WILLOW 

Grief and mourning. Folklore held that the willow dispelledevil, purified,  and facilitated contact with the spiritualworld

 
WINGED FACE A cherub  

WINGED MAN

See: Male Figures.

 
WINGED OX Symbol of St Luke theEvangelist.  

WINGED SOUL

 member of the elect, the soul being received straightinto heaven

 

WINGS 

Divine mission, thus angels and cherubim are depicted withwings.

 

WREATH

Eternal life, victory.

YEW 

Mourning, on account of its dark colour and association withchurchyards

 
     

©Julian W S Litten     April 2004-November 2010


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