Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

Cemetery Symbolism Part 3 – Heavenly Music

From lullabies in the cradle to our favourite songs on Spotify to the sacred music of composers like Antonio Vivaldi — music plays an important role in our lives. And since death is part of life, and art reflects life, musical instruments are represented in cemeteries as well.

Bronze bas-relief of an angel playing on a flute.
Angel playing a flute, Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Flute – The Oldest Musical Instrument

In 2008, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen discovered an almost completely preserved flute in a cave in southern Germany, carved from the bones of a griffon vulture 35,000 years ago. The flute derives from the early days of modern man in Europe, the so called Aurignacian culture. According to experts, these musical instruments likely played a role in recreation and/or for religious ritual.

Heavenly music: Gravestone relief of a boy playing on a flute.
Gravestone relief of a boy playing on a flute. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Flutes are prominent instruments at festivals as well as funeral ceremonies in many cultures. Flutes and funeral chants accompanied burials in the Greek and Roman world. Among the Israelites everyone, even the poorest, had to provide two flute players at a funeral.

The flute is also associated with shepherds. Thus, in Christianity, the flute symbolizes ​​Jesus as the “good shepherd.” Psalm 150:4 calls on believers to praise the Lord with strings and the sound of a flute: “Praise Him with the tambourine and dancing; praise Him with stringed instruments and flute!” As a wind instrument, the flute  is closely linked to breath and human voice. Thus its sound builds a bridge to the world beyond, connecting the living with the departed.

“The flute of the infinite is played without ceasing, and it’s sound is love.”
― Kabir Das, 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint

Lyre – Epitome Of Heavenly Music

The lyre is a stringed instrument resembling a small harp. The ancient Greeks believed it was invented by Hermes, herald of the gods, who gave it to his brother Apollo, god of prophecy and music, as compensation for his cattle theft.

Music was an important part of ancient Greek culture. The lyre accompanied theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, and especially recitations of poetry. The number of strings increased over time from 3 or 4 to 7, and, in rare situations, 8. You hear the sound of a 7-stringed lyre here.

Heavenly music: Lyre on a tombstone.
Lyre on a tombstone. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The term “lyric poetry” took its name from the lyre. Carved on a tombstone — as pictured above — this instrument represents the love of the deceased for arts and music.

“Come, Erato, come lovely Muse, stand by me and take up the tale.”
― Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (3rd century BC)

Kissed By A Muse

Erato, muse of love poetry, by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1779.
Erato, muse of love poetry, by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1779. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Terpsichore, muse of dance and chorus, by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1759.
Terpsichore, muse of dance and chorus, by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1759. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Nine Muses of Greek Mythology, taught by Apollo himself, were deities that gave artists, philosophers, and individuals the inspiration for creation. Erato represents erotic poetry and mimic imitation, while Terpsichore stands for dance and chorus. Each style employs a lyre.

Accordingly, a lyre in a cemetery indicates the departed was “kissed by a muse,” and most likely was a musician, composer, dancer, or singer.

“Was there a magical love-of-the-dance moment, when the muse Terpsichore called to us and we lifted our arms and spun at one with the divine music of the Universe?”
― Meg Howrey, The Cranes Dance

Heavenly music: Orpheus and his lyre.
Orpheus and his lyre. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Orpheus – The Passionate Lyrist

Kalliope, Muse of eloquence and epic poetry, is the mother of the most famous lyre-playing figure of mythology: Orpheus. The outstanding musician moved not only people and wild animals to tears by his other-worldy skills, but even trees and stones. After the death of his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus descended to the underworld to convince Hades and Persephone, gods of the underworld, by the power of his music, to allow his beloved the return to the land of the living. The picture above shows Orpheus on his way back, followed by Eurydice.

“Oh, if I had Orpheus’ voice and poetry with which to move the Dark Maid and her Lord, I’d call you back, dear love, from the world below.”
― Euripides, Alcestis (438 BC)

Orpheus And Christianity

While Orpheus failed, Christ was successful. This is at least the interpretation of the Orpheus myth by Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260/265–339/340), Greek historian of Christianity, Cyril of Alexandria (AD 376–444), Patriarch of Alexandria, and Augustinus of Hippo (AD 354–430), known as Saint Augustine. Most credit Saint Augustine’s writings as having a prominent influence in the development of Western Christianity. He compared Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to Christ’s descent into the world of the dead. Orpheus bewitched the wild animals – Christ the sinners.

The picture below depicts a pilgrim in front of a large granite cross. Next to him, leaning against a rock wall, is a lyre with a broken string. Is this Orpheus, the passionate yet unlucky lyrist? The broken string of a lyre symbolizes the silencing of the music of life, and thus also represents Death.

Bronze statue of presumably Orpheus with his broken lyre.
Bronze statue of presumably Orpheus with his broken lyre. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The symmetrical basic form of the lyre also stands for harmony, heavenly accord, and praise of the Lord. The lyre shares this meaning with its kindred instrument, the harp, considered to be the choice of angels and kings.

Marble angel with a lyre. His left arm rests on a plaque with the inscription "in eternal love".
Marble angel with a lyre. His left arm rests on a plaque with the inscription, “in eternal love.” Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Lute – The Divine Instrument

The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) describes a European cultural epoch stretching over three centuries during the transition from the Middle Ages to modern age. It was characterized by the revival of the cultural achievements of Greek and Roman civilizations. Throughout this period, the lute was the most esteemed and admired of all musical instruments, due to its ravishing tone. It was seen as the heir of the ancient Greek lyre.

“Longing alone is singer to the lute.”
― Edna St. Vincent Millay, Poems

Heavenly music: Bronze bas-relief of a lute-playing angel.
Bronze bas-relief of a lute-playing angel. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The lute is also an important ingredient in so called “vanitas painting,” representing the transient nature of life and certainty of death. Vanitas (Latin for “vanity”) paintings exhort the viewer to consider mortality. At times a broken string — or no strings at all — convey the ephemeral nature of music in an even more graphic manner. This is a common motif in cemetery art, as shown in the picture below.

Angel playing lute.
Angel playing lute. Riensberg Cemetery, Bremen, Germany

The lute also represents the perfect symbol for concord and harmony, due to its ensemble of different strings. It mirrors the harmonious order of the universe and of the human body and soul.

Heavenly music: Bronze bas-relief of two kneeling angels playing the lyre.
Bronze bas-relief of two kneeling angels playing the lyre. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Musician Angels

Angels playing music convey slightly different messages, depending on the instrument they play. A lute in the hands of an angel symbolizes the beauties of heaven, while a lyre represents the spiritual connection with God. A harp-playing angel indicates the soul’s passage from earthly life to paradise.

“Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.”
― Thomas Carlyle, The Opera

Bas-relief of a little angel playing violin.
Bas-relief of a little angel playing violin. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Violin – Embodiment Of Feelings

Like the lute, the violin also belongs to the family of symbols called “Memento Mori” (Latin for “remember that you have to die”). The violin symbolizes the sound already gone the very moment the violinist created it.

In addition to its meaning as a symbol for the volatility of human life, the violin also stands as an image for the human soul in its various emotional states and forms of expression.
In German, we have the saying “Der Himmel hängt ihm voller Geigen,” which literally translates as “to him the sky is full of violins.” It describes the feeling of seeing things through rose-colored glasses, and refers to the soulful qualities of violin music.

Heavenly music: Two large angels, one of them playing violin.
Two angels, one of them playing violin. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The Baroque era (17th–18th century) introduced new vocal and instrumental genres. Composers as Claudio Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, and Georg Friedrich Händel created works of music still loved today. It was an era of exuberance, and emotional and sensory experiences. Dutch Baroque even considered the violin a symbol for the female body, due to its round, curved shape.

“A violin should be played with love, or not at all.”
Joseph Wechsberg, The Glory of the Violin

Stages Of Our Lives

While mythological and spiritual aspects of the various instruments in funerary art are not quite as popular as in earlier times, music still plays an important role. Flute, lyre, harp, lute, violin, and angels playing instruments remind us that life without music would be unbearable. At times, it even seems the musician left the stage only briefly to take a well-deserved break.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
― Plato, Wordworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations

Red guitar ajar to a tombstone
Red guitar ajar to a tombstone. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

For classical music lovers, I recommend the book, The History of Music in Fifty Instruments, by Philip Wilkinson. It describes in details the unique history of each instrument and explains its role in the orchestra and culture.

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  1. Beautiful work. I love tomb symbology, I’ve been reading, mostly about mythology. Especially your article, rich and very interesting. I’m a fan
    of your photographic work.
    Hugs from Brasil!!!

  2. Thank you for commenting on my article, Cidinha, I appreciate it very much! Cemetery art is indeed rich in symbolism, and elements of Greek mythology appear many times. The myths of Greece (and Rome) along with the Bible have been the major influence in Western culture for the past centuries. Hugs back from Germany!


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