Časopis ARS 30 (1997) 1-3


K ikonografii náhrobku fin de siècle na Slovensku
[To the Iconography of the fin de siècle Grave Monuments in Slovakia]


I. The idea to research the grave monuments of the fin de siècle in Slovakia was born in the end of the eighties. The subject was already partly treated in the works of A. Szalatnai (1920), B. Wick (1928), A. Čunderlík, V. Obuchová, Z. Ševčíková (1990) and V. Dobešová-Luxová. There is the foreign literature sources and the own investigation of grave monuments from almost one hundred cemeteries in Slovakia, Vienna, Budapest and other cities which enabled in this study presented interpretation about the iconography of the works coming from the most bizarre period in the development of grave monuments.

These grave monuments do not unambiguously belong to the art history in which it is considered their development as finished since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Therefore their profound analyses are usually refused pointing out that despite of the efforts to be original they could not renounce the iconographic reverences for its genetic predecessors.

II. The more artistic grave monuments of fin de siècle in Slovakia can nowadays be seen (only fragmentally) in the old city cemeteries, in those ones of villages, rarely in the churches and exceptionally in or near the aristocratic residences - Bojnice, Krásna Hôrka, Trebišov. (The folk, military and Jewish grave monuments for their specificities were outside of our interest.) They were made (in Slovakia or abroad) for the members (and not only men as before) of aristocratic and landholder families, enjoyed still great respect, not a big number of the first capitalistic entrepreneurs, some solvent citizens and the representatives of intelligence, while the role of an order could be overtaken by an institution. Anyhow, in that romantic time, the "most beautiful" grave monuments were dedicated to loved women. In comparison with European centres we missed the grave monuments of people from the highest society (politicians, bankers, nonconformist intellectuals) as well as of the "great sons of nation". (A grave monument of Ľudovít Štúr, the main leader of Slovak national movement, was made in 1872, sixteen years after his death!) Reasons are well known: Slovakia was politically and nationally an unfree country, economically a more backward part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy; most of its people lived in the countryside and less in the small towns with rural atmosphere; the not very successful national movement, of indisputable positivity, was organized by few Protestants, although eighty per cents inhabitants were Catholics. Despite of this, we can speak about certain boom in Slovak cities, where a lot of built activities were realized, but more conceptional urbanistic plans and from our point of view a more broad-minded establishment of a newly understood cemetery were missing. In western Europe there started to appear, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, new (representative) city cemeteries: Père Lachaise in Paris (1805), Staglieno in Genoa (1806), Highgate in London (1839), Kerepesi temető in Budapest (1849), Zentralfriedhof in Vienna (1874).

III. The image of a newly understood cemetery with individual grave monuments situated in nature-like garden, a cemetery which for first time in the history thought of the visits of survivors, could be find in the period of French revolution and the Enlightenment. It was suggested not only by the defence of human dignity but also by new hygienic consciousness in which the fear of infections played its role. Before, between the middle age and the eighteenth century, the cemeteries were without "decorations", situated at the churches. The ruling orders commanded the abolition of the intramural cemeteries, graves in churches and monasteries and also the restriction of burial pomps. Man should be buried in a cemetery, with one common cross, situated outside the city, into a common grave, irrespectively of his rank and faith. Such orders were in reality not accepted. During the nineteenth century the again awaken wish to visit the grave and to meditate there together with the desire for a "grave decoration" got to be gradually strong. It means that the establishment of a newly understood cemetery could be apprehended also as a result of a feeling change. The church was against: it did not respect the ban on burring in God's houses arguing that to fulfil the wish to visit a grave often it should rather be placed in a church. Though it touched the gist of the problem it underestimated the fear of epidemics. It mistakenly explained the idea of making a visit to a grave as a wish to pray for the redemption of these who could be damned. But everyone liked to meditate and to have a possibility to express individual grief. A grave in a church was never thought for everyone. People were offended by the dishonour of the common graves, by the disappearance of one’s relative in dreadful cloacae, by the transfer executed by usually drunk carriers.

They welcomed the introducing of individual graves for everybody, regardless if one was rich or poor. Many people saw it as religious compassion. But this was not of religious character in the confessional sense. It was something what was suspicious to the church because it anticipated very well that the new cultus of death would become one of the symptoms of an expected weakening of Christianity. Later, when this cultus was introduced already, the church hurried up to make from it its own matter.

The recourse to the antiquity was important in the process of grave monuments. The mythological material was accepted (again), the antique relation to the death was appreciated, because the Greeks wanted to drive away the ideas about death by the "euphemism of art", too. Death should be presented by an image of redemption, beauty and tender sleep. The physical reality, the things of the context from memento mori, were refused, if, so in the changed meaning, as the objects of the cultus of melancholy.

The subject of death was replaced by the subject of love, the memories on deceased by performances of mourning. The whole century various grave monuments should have served for the idea to deprive the society of the frightful notions in connection with death. A cemetery should have represented a philosophical establishment: its nature should have reminded the eternal circulation of birth and extinction, its grave monuments should demonstrate the magic power of art. But could they change something what was not to change? Were the looks of various statues there a hope for survivors? A reproach? Or a regret for this, that man's desire for eternal being in this world is vain? However it should be, none is thinking on death. It was managed to expel it from these places full of graves.

In Slovakia, the older cemeteries (mostly from the period of Joseph II) survived until their capacity allowed it. Although some new cemeteries were established at the turn of centuries (Košice 1889, Bratislava 1912), it was proved that they are mostly irrelevant for our research. The significant fin de siècle grave monuments were founded in the older cemeteries above all of Bratislava, Košice, Prešov, Banská Bystrica, Levoča, Kežmarok, Komárno, Levice, Malacky, Spišské Podhradie, Smolenice, etc. The named belong to the most interesting while the cultus of grave monuments seems to be more popular in the eastern parts of Slovakia.

IV. The new attitude towards cemetery and its grave monuments was connected also with the changing relation to death. Any illness was considered as terrible, not death, in which was seen more a subjective experience as an objective event. Death - in an idealized form and bound with love - got to be a great theme of romantic and decadent literature, also music and fine art of Art nouveau and symbolism. The main role was given to a hypersensitive woman, which became to be a phenomenon, and as such a theme of a novel, defender of her desires for love. Real love should have been recognized by unchained emotions. Limits of their showing were offered by artists, who caused an expressive disintegration of canonical typification. They were inspired not only by the idea of man's transience but by "that terrible" what is always connected with an unexpected death. The expression of mourn was not be submitted to the old habits any more. Either the widows did not stay at home during the burials. In their behaviour a light hysteria and crying was expected, what showed, on the other hand, the cold-livering and narrow-minding of bourgeois-puritan customs. Paroxysm of mourn contributed to an exaggerated necessity of grave monuments, too. Some people sneered at this extravagant dolorism as well as at the whole cultus of death (and grave monuments).

In the artistic fictions, death promised redemption, a deliverance from unbearable reality. Death of a loved person urged to follow it, because pain from leave seemed to be unremunerative and it was believed to be together again in the other world. So it is spoken about the religion of love which could get only in conflict with the church norms. The church commented it as idolatry of individuum and disdain of by God given life. The romanticism was a vast theory of love; its philosophy dreamed out a re-connection (through death) of all detached: man and nature, spirit and material, loving and loved; its literature offered a magic substitution for missing perspectives and enabled to enter in the described relationships. Since the end of the eighteenth century a unique of love and matrimony was acknowledged. Therefore the lost of a partner could be felt in the other way as in the cases of before current matrimonies of sense. At the same time this lost could cause a falling into a state of despair and pathological forms of mourn. A lot of examples are in the literature works including the gothic novels full of opening tombs, apparitions of deads, love to deads, etc. They frighten with their strange phantasy and necrophilic inclinations. A latent fear (above all from the awaking alive in the grave) changed some burial practices and influenced relation to death, too. But the relation between literature and art of grave monuments was based rather on the evocative resonances - transmittions of emotional impressions creating certain "mood", on giving impulses to individual reactions and motives for free elaboration - as on outright inspirations (Petr Wittlich).

Death did not "triumph" only in the artistic field, it also touched the every-day presence. Man used to die at home. Dyings as well as the burial ceremonies were "welcomed" occasions to familiar, social or national meetings. This relation to death is completely changed: Death as an "unpleasant matter" is eliminated from our life. We die alone, in sterile rooms, among medical apparatuses. Burial ceremonies are simple, emotionally cool, grave monuments monotonous. Opposite to this the grave monuments of the discussed time represent an "imaginary museum" containing old myths, metamorphoses of human world-opinions, poetry and not completely forgotten symbols (Gerrit Confurius) - a space of feeling about which a man before 1800 could not even dream and a man after the dying away of fin de siècle period found it already strange.

V. In Slovakia were preferred the grave monuments which were more in harmony with the church ideas about piety and piousity. The catholic reform movement starting in the thirties and forties of the last century together with some followers of Romanticism participated in the returning of Christian motives into the cemeteries (after the period of classicistic, antiquelike, grave monuments).

First a simple cross as a general symbol of a triumph over death could be added, later it appeared in more and more decorated form (fig. 6-11). A traditional crucifix, artistically elaborated, was rare (fig. 18), in insite look was one of the most current grave decoration (fig. 19-21). In Europe popular Thorvaldsen's type of Jesus Christ was not found in Slovakia. We can see his more canonized figures: pointing toward the heaven (fig. 22, 23), as loving father (fig. 24) or carrying the cross (fig. 25). A statue of Virgin Mary used to be placed in the towers of the chapellike tombs (fig. 30, 31). The allegories of Fides (fig. 32) as well as the figures of praying persons were relatively widespread (fig. 33, 34). All these works (together with angels and chapellike structures) gave a Christian feature to the necropolises of fin de siècle. But they did not satisfy everybody. They were often the products of "grave monument industry" (mostly influenced by German taste). We can notice also the survival using of in the Classicism popular mythological motives (urns, down turned torches, figures of genii), scenes (of warriors or of the three spinners of fate) and antiquelike diminished temples (fig. 36-45).

The other typical properties of the grave monuments were the symbols taken from fauna and flora. Their meanings could often suit both to a free thinking man and a Christian; they proved even here the for the last century significant close relation to the nature and contributed to that what obtained in the nineties an importance of a developmental slogan - the mood. Butterfly - was shown in grave monuments either together with a caterpillar at once symbolizing the miracle of this change and commemorating the change of man's own soul giving a hope for its rising into empire of eternal light or in own beauty as an old (antique) symbol of man's soul flying away from this world (fig. 47). Snake - grovelling under the crucifix was a sign of the ransom of the sin; turned around a stick symbolized the Saviour; as uroboros was coiled up in the form of a circle biting its own tail and presented the circulation of birth and death (fig. 48). Pigeon (dove) - a symbol of Aphrodite, a romantic sign of love; since it brought the message from God to Noem that the Deluge was finished a symbol of reconciliation between man and God (fig. 49). Eagle - sign of a victorious fight; connected with an apotheosis in Roman sepulchral fine art; God's messenger which carried up Ganymede and later symbolized the Ascension; known from the Apocalypse, too (fig. 50-52). Lion - symbolized a victory of human spirit over the animal nature; a defeating of the devil; its "wakeful sleeping" predestined it to a keeper; Canova and Thorvadsen used its image in their sepulchral (memorial) works what inspired more other authors (fig. 53-54). Owl - was an antique symbol of wisdom (fig. 55). Dog - symbol of conjugal faithfulness (in the relief of Dénes Andrássy's sarcophagus in Krásnohorské Podhradie, where he let create a special grave monument even for his dog (fig. 56). Palm (palm twig) - symbolized the paradise; its twig was sign for the victory over the death (fig. 57-60). Poppy-head - symbol of sleeping which should remind a man that death is not a definite end (fig. 61, 62). Leaves and branches of oak, a kind of wood which does not moulder - meant immortality (fig. 63). Laurel and ivy, with ever green leaves - were motives of everlasting life; laurel wreath should have guaranteed the glory and ivy which tendrils are able to "live" also on "dead" trees said about the faithfulness of love or about continued living of a soul. Willow - was a very general symbol of mourn. Limetree - used to be dealt on the graves of the old Slavs; mostly shown as a broken tree (fig. 65). Flowers, contributing to a delusion of paradise, were the most conventional symbol of man's transience. Rose - the flower of the last century; presented everywhere; symbol of paradise, beauty and love (fig. 69). Anemone - known from the story about Adonis; symbol of death; of Jesus's blood and if they are seven so of the seven pains of Virgin Mary (fig. 70). Lily - symbol of the innocents in the Day of Judgement (fig. 71).

In the Day of judgement it was decided about the further destiny of a deceased (substituted often by a women being) on the base of the records written in the "book of life" - another symbolic motif of grave monuments (fig. 72). The image of a real man was also developed what was influenced by the ideas of the French revolution, Napoleon's cultus of personality and reviving of public monuments (fig. 73).

VI. After a brief inventory of symbolic motives the study aims its attention to the angel (also genius) and woman (also sphinx) images - the most significant beings of the fin de siècle grave monuments. The angels "born" in Catholic dogma with the images coming out from the Baroque tradition and genii with the images derived out from the theoretical works of the antique recipients are often very similar to each other and often therefore misleadingly interpreted. They are both winged figures, angels are usually of an indefinite age and sex, genii are young men or women, angels are dressed, genii nearly nude, angels have as attribute at most a cross, a palm twig, a bugle or a sword, genii a turn down torch, a garland, a wreath, an urn or a bowl for tears. The genii were changed during the last century: first they stood, then they kneeled down (if on one knee so mysteriously on the left one while the angels on the right one); they began even to pray and their look was turned toward the Heaven (fig. 74, 75). The genii were so popular that the church began to speak about the continual existence of winged protect ghosts. In the end the using of winged figures in grave monument art expressed in certain sense the general idea about the continuation of life after death, the idea even a modern man did not like to give up. Any angel was understood as a personification of God's will, but in 1848 "an extraordinary intelligence and ability of free will" was added to his definition. Some were changed by artists more as the church would have liked. In the intentions of church remained: 1. archangel Michael (fig. 76); 2. the apocalyptic angel with a bugle (fig. 77); 3. cherubim with swords keeping watch of the paradise; 4. guardian angel, always praying; 5. "normal" angel: giving a wreath on the cross, having a palm twig, pointing out toward the Heaven (fig. 84), consoling mourn, etc. 6. angel shown as only a winged head symbolizing its spiritual essence (fig. 81). In the fin de siècle some angels lost their "Christian character" together with strictness, sullenness and sexlessness. They were rather pieces from higher wholeness as only executors of God's will. Their faces got a secretfull look. Their figures resembled beautiful beings (women), similar to the familiar images well known from Art Nouveau and art of decadence: deplorably sad, ethereal, with tired gestures, graceful, full of humility. Some of them fulfil still the role of a messenger of death, some are as maternal protecting goddesses (fig. 92), some are just tender daughters of Heaven. There are angels with the butterfly wings what could symbolize an assumptional soul, there are such with wings heavier as their body. These angels seemed to be without any power to fullfil their task. It is a question if they fail or if they feel responsibility for misfortuned love. So the angels being at the beginning of any lovestory are to be seen on its end. They represent the most poetic images of memories on the life full of love. Between angels and women there can be put a sphinx with body of a lion, female breast and face, without or with wings; either in classical appearance, motionless, quite as a cat or as an absolute stranger being. From many meanings it could be understood as the question itself waiting for an answer. Alone and helpless closed in her own magic, so with a stigma of a modern man. The motif of mourning women rooted in the old tradition of their images from the antique through the middle age tearful figures till the allegories of sorrow in grave monuments of the seventeenth and eighteenth century as well as in the image tradition of Melancholia or in the general popularity of woman figure in the nineteenth century. In addition there are such which are out of any mythological phrases and iconographic traditions. In the Slovak cemeteries, after the appearing of the mourning women only "light broken by sadness" there prevail, from fin de siècle, the thoughtful woman in a pose so that her head is resting in the hand (fig. 98). These Saturn's daughters, as if suffering from headache, demonstrate mourning in unity with an expression of deep thoughts. This melancholic pose could be changed to an illusion of ecstasy. The repertoire of poses taught in academies could obtain by tiny corrections an erotic hint. A woman sometimes appears as if coming from a fairy tale, sometimes as if performing in a drama: she cries with pain, torments herself, faints from qualm. The complication of her wishes, the expectation of expectation became later more simple: there are seen natural peaceful women which seem to believe that redemption is in humility. Some woman figures did not demonstrate any internal movement, they are just a part of architecture or mere decoration as the Art-déco figures (as the woman closing the door of death in Košice, fig. 97). Also the types proud of their social or national identity found a place in the necropolises. All these images represent dying away of a period when the mourning women stood on its top. By these women the pleasant memories could suddenly transfer into a state of despair. This entry of suffering into the sepulchral sculpture enabled a turn to the naturalism. The hands clasping together, the palms hiding the face, the body thrown on the grave - the young persons as if they could not express so much pain which is strange to them. The church commented these woman statues as "interesting works of fine art" whose place is anywhere else, but not in such a sacred place as a cemetery is.

VII. After certain time the often repeated image material could not awoke any emotional reaction. Therefore we can met, but not in Slovakia, a more fascinating image potential fed by the individualism and psychologism of that time: embraces of lovers, scenes of saying good-bye, paganic bridal rituals, theatrical gestures, figures losing the chastity of antique goddesses, figures of Death in a mask of an aristocrat or maternal power.

All statues belonged to another world than a real one: to a cemetery which should approach an earthly paradise, its artistic visions. There were the artists who tried to create their own world to find that what was refused to them: a harmony between art and life. They did not come out from the life itself, but from the art which they created. Arcadia was an aesthetic place, to which a man of the last century liked to return - to meditate. This arcadic empire enabled some melancholic reflections but it could not be anything more as a bitter comment to a more and more illusionary dream. And why so many thoughtful figures there? Maybe therefore that the precipice between the paradisean past and prosaic present seemed to be more visible. The hope for an adaptation of the antique to the life was smaller and smaller. The cemetery Arcadia as an artistic reflection of the lost ideal was a fabled place only to that extent, how far the artists succeeded to replace the terrible reality of dying by the mythic images. This dream world is mythic therefore because its source was in fact the antique which personified and exemplified all troubled situations in life and elaborated the most deeply human passions and feelings as well as fatal blows.