For centuries, talented sculptors have chosen to depict Death and mourning in their works. We are familiar with the more common displays such as angels weeping or pointing heavenward, extinguished torches, mourners depositing a flower or wreath on a grave or comforting children, crosses and butterflies.
Sensuality In Unexpected Places
What we don’t expect to find are images of sensuality in cemeteries. And yet we do, particularly in the cemeteries of Europe. Why are sensual, sometimes naked statues of women, with a hint of eroticism — similar to those in an exhibit of Greek or Roman sculpture — found in our burial grounds?
The presence of such erotic figures represents the combination of our most basic human emotions: love and fear. The concept of “Eros” — borrowed from Greek Mythology — embodies passionate love as well as creative life energy. Death has always been associated with the emotion of fear. At first glance, Eros and Death seem mutually exclusive; when Death arrives, Eros departs. Yet research reveals the two have been intertwined for centuries in literature and iconography.
Born Of Romanticism
Bringing Eros and Death together is the idea behind these erotic figures. The sensuality in cemeteries expresses the belief that love is stronger than Death. Such thinking was characteristic of the Romantic Era (1800-1910). When Ohlsdorf Cemetery opened its gates in 1877, Romanticism was at its peak. During this period, even Death was romanticized. Thus, scantily-dressed figures found their way into many cemeteries, putting Eros, the symbol of life, on par with Death.
Elaborate sculptures and memorials were costly to produce. To make them affordable to a broader audience, manufacturers made them in different sizes and styles, depending on the customer’s budget. Eventually, manufacturers perfected the use of electroplated figures — sporting a wafer-thin layer of bronze — to drive costs down further from their full-bronze counterparts.
Death And The Maiden
A good example of sensuality in cemetery art is the concept of “Death and the Maiden.” A common motif in Renaissance art, these images have erotic roots dating back over five hundred years. They employ a female figure, representing earthly life and pleasures, and a male figure symbolizing Death. “Representations of “Death and the Maiden” remind us of the transience of earthly vanities and concerns.
In 1901, the sculptor Caesar Scharff, born in Hamburg, created his interpretation of “Death and the Maiden” using granite and bronze. Here, the male figure symbolizing Death is Charon. He is the ferryman from Greek mythology, who carries the souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx. Charon tries to draw the young beauty into his boat. Attached is an inscription reminding the maiden and viewers alike: “You all have to take this path.”
Sensuality in a Cemetery Combines Love and Death
Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In a similar manner, the inevitability of Death strengthens and emboldens our sense of love and desire, adding intensity and pleasure to our lives. These erotic figures suggest that love is immortal and beauty can help us conquer our grief. As such, these sculptures are meant to provide a glimpse into eternity.
The next time you are wandering through a cemetery and come upon one of these erotic figures, perhaps you will pause to consider the competing and complementary aspects of Eros and Death.
All pictures in this article are from Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, Germany. If you would like to read more about this topic, consider the book, Saving Graces” by David Robinson.
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