Thursday, August 23, 2012

Grave Symbolism

Besides being drawn to the lettering and artwork on the headstone, there is a fascination with the symbolism behind the design. For example, a skull with wings or "winged death" was a popular motif of early 17 th.  and 18th. century headstones in New England. Winged Death represented man's mortality or the the fleeting nature of life.

But on Monday, I was visiting a Catholic cemetery and the symbolism would be confined to images of saints.      In my rush to run around the graveyard, all I saw at both grandparents' graves was lilies and the image of St. Joseph holding the Christ Child. St. Joseph was the foster father to Jesus, and the head of the Holy Family. Both grandfathers died before their wives,  I thought the father figure was a fitting choice. Lilies symbolize purity, hope and life. Associated with St. Joseph, they also symbolize Joseph's wife, the Virgin Mary.

It wasn't until I was uploading the photographs did I notice something was off with my interpretation. The saint on both stones had a tonsure, the shaved hairstyle usually worn by monks. And the saint was wearing monastic robes. That wasn't St. Joseph. A quick search on the Interwebs identified the saint as St. Anthony of Padua. He's usually associated with finding lost items. One of the legends about him was that one night while in his cell at a monastery, he was visited by the Christ Child. He was also a great preacher and is sometimes depicted with the Christ Child standing on a Bible as if the word of God came to life.

I don't know what connection my Todisco grandmother felt to St. Anthony to choose his image for the headstone. Maybe it was just a popular choice of the day.

Grandma  (Riccio) was a devout Catholic. She attended Mass every morning and carried a pair of rosary beads in the pocket of her dress. She was afraid of thunder and during storms, she'd whip the rosary out of her pocket and go through a litany of saints starting with San Antonio.  She also implored Saint Anthony to give her patience and strength not to kill us when we got too rambunctious.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I learn something new every day!