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#235: FACING THE LONG VOYAGE.

#235: GRAVEN IMAGES.   Surely it’s a face: the outline in the shape of an inverted teardrop; two deeply carved hollows for eyes, without pupils; a long center-split line descending for a nose and something like a mail-slot for a mouth.  But what kind of a face?  A Bantu mask, or a Brancusi portrait?  One of Picasso’s sculptures, like his bull’s head made of a bicycle’s seat and handlebars?  None of the above, but actually the gravestone of a Mr. Samuel Green in Lexington, Massachusetts, who died in 1759, and which is the arresting cover image of Allen I. Ludwig’s book Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1966 and still pretty much the last and most interesting word on the topic.  Most of the books on New England cemeteries are just area guidebooks; Ludwig’s book is an observant and encyclopedic study of what can seem an almost autochthonous form of New England art.  Being a New Englander, and sharing the local enthusiasm for graveyards, Ludwig’s book was not only an enjoyment and an indulgence; it was a revelation of what was specific and peculiar to my home region.  Having grown up with this art, it had not occurred to me how distinctive it was; how closely aligned with and formed by the fabled iconophobia of the Puritans, and how it approached and resolved the issues of that culture; what and how much it had inherited from England and Europe.  The only thing more enjoyable than a fascination is an informed fascination; Ludwig provides this in excelsis, both with explication and illustration. 

       Almost autochthonous, as I said.  In the later part of the study Ludwig is precise in showing what this art inherits from abroad, and not only from the English funerary art of the period.  One of the most startling juxtapositions shows a 1785 stone from Lebanon, Connecticut and a similar Romano-British stone, cut some thousand years earlier; the Lucinda Day stone in Chester, Vermont, shows an echo from the first century Arch of Titus in Rome.  He is alert to what they did and didn’t show: the Adam and Eve carving on Sarah Swan’s stone in Bristol, Rhode Island, is thought to be unique in New England; and crosses, which you might expect to be common, are unusual, as they were suggestive of Papistry—a bit Romish, you know.  And he demonstrates, in the end, how the specifics of our time and history limited the accomplishments of these craftsmen, so that they got so far and no further.  He quotes an epitaph, against the very art he is examining:  “How many roses perish in their bloom / How many suns, alas, go down at noon.”

       The sharpest writing in the book deals with how these images came to soften the dry literalism of Puritan theology; how they showed that an image need not be an idol; and how the gravestones and their symbols “opened up brightly-lit boulevards of the spirit where Puritan discursive reasoning revealed only dark labyrinths of thought about that which cannot be conceived.”  In Graven Images, Ludwig provides by no means the least impressive demonstration I’ve ever read of the necessity of the visual arts—and by extension, art in its many forms.   “It seems that only in art could the aspirations of men pierce the veils of discursive language and give the ‘invisible world’ meaningful expression, and so it was to art they turned when confronted with the awful immensity of death and the long voyage of the soul.”

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