Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

Omnia Vincit Amor – Love In Cemeteries

The Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Vergil, wrote in his first work, Bucolica or Eclogae: Omnia vincit amor. Love conquers all. This phrase quickly became one of the most famous themes in art and literature. In cemetery art, we find many beautiful examples of its visible expression.

Love in cemeteries: Heart of red roses in front of a grave.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

“Skyhigh rejoicing despairing to death;
Happy alone
Is the soul that loves.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Little Clara’s Song

Along with sadness and fear, love is one of our strongest emotions. Love, in its various forms, is the foundation of many of our songs, films or books. 

Eight Types Of Love

To quote Cole Porter, “What is this thing called love?” The ancient Greeks viewed it as a broad concept, comprised of eight different forms. They’re just as important today as they were 3,000 years ago. 

“Real friendship or love is not manufactured or achieved by an act of will or intention. It is always an act of recognition.”
― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

Sculpture of a woman touching a man's chest.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Ludus – The Playful Love

Ludus (Latin for school and play) is a playful, flirtatious love. It can prevail at the beginning of a relationship, or between two very young lovers. Ludus is the joy of teasing and joking. It often remains an essential part even of a long-term relationship. It is also referred to as “puppy love” in some cultures, illustrating the feelings among children and teenagers. Little angels kissing each other depict this form of love. 

Ludus love: two little angels kissing each other.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The concept of “Free Love” is also associated with Ludus. It doesn’t expect or provide closeness, and is uncommitted. This interpretation of Ludus is synonymous with the hippie culture of the late 1960s. 

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Philia – The Amicable Love

Philia (ancient Greek for brotherly love) is understood as friendship or affection. Amicable love exists between people who share similar interests and ideas about life. It is the affection close friends have for one another. 

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
― Elbert Hubbard, Love, Life and Work

Bas-relief of two angels, one plays a violin.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Philia often develops between soldiers, who have endured the hardships of battle. The statue below stands on the grave of a soldier who fought in WWI. The sculpture is carved in the likeness of Achilleus, the greatest of all the Greek warriors, and hero of the Trojan War. As Homer describes in the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus were close friends who had known each other since childhood. Their friendship extended even beyond death.

Statue in the likeness of Achilleus on top of a grave monument.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Storge – Familial Love

Storge (ancient Greek for natural affection) is the trusting, familial love. It is based on a deep mutual understanding for one another, and also describes the attachment between parents and their children. This protective, kinship-based love includes the desire to care compassionately for one another. It also capture one’s sense of patriotism towards his country.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Marble sculpture of a mother comforting a child
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The powerful empathy and compassion of Storge, as shown in the bas-relief statue below, is a common theme in cemetery art.

Bas-relief of a woman comforting a dying man.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Agape – The Unconditional Love

Agape (ancient Greek for selfless love) is constant and never ending, selfless, and altruistic. Various religions describe Agape as the love of God. Agape is often represented by statues of Jesus or angels blessing or comforting the deceased. 

Sculpture of Jesus blessing a kneeling woman.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

It also captures man’s affirmation of others, including his enemies. When charitable organizations promote their causes, they are attempting to connect with people’s sense of Agape. It is always benevolent, expecting nothing in return. In relationships, Agape represent people’s willingness to listen and communicate empathetically.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope

An angel guiding and comforting a pilgrim.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Pragma – The Rational Love

As the name suggests, Pragma (ancient Greek for businesslike) describes the pragmatic aspect of love. It measures the various social, societal and personal conditions when making decisions. Pragma is built on understanding and long-term best interests.

Bas-relief of a couple.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Pragma is much more rational in nature than other forms of love. People can achieve their shared goals if they have the ability to understand one another and discuss their challenges and problems in a productive manner. Complementing other forms, this practical aspect of love can add to the durability and longevity of a relationship.

Bas-relief of a couple holding hands.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Philautia – The Self-Love

Philautia (ancient Greek for self-love) is the foundation for other forms of love. The ancient Greeks knew that, in order to care for others, we must first care for ourselves. A practical, common example is found in emergency procedures on airplanes: the adult accompanying a child must put on their mask before putting the mask on the child. The reason is obvious — if the adult is incapacitated by smoke, they will not be able to assist their child with safety and evacuation procedures.

The healthy form of Philautia includes respecting, appreciating, accepting, and taking care of oneself. Taken to extremes, however, Philautia can manifest in a destructive form of narcissism. The picture below depicts the healthy aspect: confidence and trust in oneself.

Self-love: Marble statue of a woman wearing a wreath in her hair.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Taking care of your emotional and physical needs is also part of Philautia. Psychologists warn us that self-loathing people have little to give and can be destructive to themselves and those they come in contact with.

“All friendly feelings toward others come from the friendly feelings a person has for himself.”
— Aristotle (384–322 BC), Greek philosopher

Bronze statue of a woman.
Riensberg Cemetery, Bremen, Germany

Mania – The Obsessive Love

Mania (ancient Greek for madness) is an obsessive form of love, shaped by intense emotions. In its healthy form, Mania prevents us from taking our partner for granted. It reminds us how much our loved ones mean to us. As with Philautia, Mania also has a dark side: it can lead to co-dependency, extreme jealousy, stalking behaviors, and violence.

Mania is responsible for the many great acts of devotion and sacrifice between lovers, depicted in art and literature. The picture below illustrates the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus loved Eurydice so much, that after she died, he ventured into the land of the dead in an attempt to bring Eurydice back to life. 

“When love is not madness it is not love.”
— Pedro Calderón de la Barca, (1600–1681), Spanish Dramatist

Mania love: Sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Eros – The Sensual Love

Eros (ancient Greek for desire) is the passionate, romantic, life-changing force that we most associate with the word love. It includes deep physical attraction to and all-consuming desire for the other person. Desirability and sensuality are important in relationships because they are often the first step leading to the other forms of love. Eros is referenced in the biblical Song of Solomon, celebrating this vital harmony between lovers.

Eros love: Sculpture of a man and woman.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Eros lovers choose each other by intuition, and often fall for one another at first sight. While physical intimacy is an important part of a fulfilling relationship, Philia and Agape must be present as well. Many throughout history have believed such a bond based on these three kinds of love is indissoluble and may stretch beyond this mortal life.

“There is never a time or place for true love. It happens accidentally, in a heartbeat, in a single flashing, throbbing moment.”
― Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever

Eros love in cemeteries: Marble sculpture of a kissing couple.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

In a philosophical sense, Eros stands for the passionate urge for knowledge and truth. The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, used Eros to express the human instinct for life. Eros is described as the force that opens the soul of man and evokes creativity, sensitivity and imagination, driving him to a deeper development of the true, the good, and the beautiful in himself.

Marble sculpture of a couple.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

A Sense Of Connectedness

It is not surprising that numerous works of cemetery art reflect love in all its various forms. Cemeteries, as the last stop on our worldly journey, mirror the most fundamental aspects of our culture and values. The many statues indeed provide support for Vergil’s astute and timeless observation — Omnia vincit amor.

“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
― Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Love in cemetries: Sculpture of a couple with hydrangea blossoms in the foreground.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

If you’re a interested in learning more about the classical world, I recommend the book: In the Orbit of Love: Affection in Ancient Greece and Rome, by David Konstan, Professor of Classics at New York University. It is a wonderful illustration of the affections that binds  family members and close friends.

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