Long before the painters of the modernist movement began splashing colors and the Hudson River School began producing remarkable landscapes paintings, the best known American art form was not painting but stone carving. A highly skilled trade, Colonial and Early National stone carvers, or stone masons, created the foundation of an American artistic style. New Jersey is fortunate to have many fine examples from well-known carvers who were based in what is today Newark and Elizabeth. While many different styles have been clearly identified, only the names of some carvers are known. In a few cases the carvers signed their work, much like a modern artist would sign a sculpture today, in others the name of the business was carved into the stone and extensive archival research along with comparisons to other identified stones have revealed the carver’s name. Other stones today remain anonymous works of art, identified only by their style.
From the early 1700s through the 1820s there is a distinct change in the tone of the symbols or iconography on the gravestones. The earliest stones show mortality symbols such as skulls, hourglasses, crossed bones, and coffins-- all meant to remind the passerby of his own mortality. However, by the 1820s many of these symbols were replaced by immortality symbols such as the winged cherub. These changes were brought about by new religious beliefs ushered in by the Great Awakening (1730-1743). The gravestone carvers slowly incorporated these new ideas as personal beliefs and tastes changed over time. The most dramatic shift can be seen in the changes made to the iconography in the tympanum (arched top of the stone). While different symbols are placed within this area, the most common are the skull or death head, a stylized skull, the winged death head (a later evolution which begins to incorporate immortality imagery), and the winged cherub. These styles can all be seen in several of the local colonial cemeteries including Madison’s Hillside Cemetery, the Morristown Presbyterian Cemetery, and the Hanover Presbyterian Churchyard.
For more information on the subject of cemeteries and tombstones in New Jersey you will want to read New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape by Richard F. Veit and Mark Nonestied.
If you would like to learn more first-hand there will be a tour of Hillside Cemetery on Saturday October 12th at 2pm. For more information, or to reserve your spot, please call 973-377-2982 ext.13.