Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

Sensuality In Cemeteries?

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. 

A common cemetery exhibit: angel pointing skyward
ANGEL POINTING SKYWARD
A common cemetery exhibit: Little angel putting a wreath on a cross, kneeling, mourning woman
LITTLE ANGEL DEPOSITING A WREATH ON A CROSS

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? 

A beautiful erotic woman in a sheer gown with an extinguished torch exhibits the sensual kind of cemetery art
THE GERMAN SCULPTOR KARL KIEFER CARVED THIS BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN HER SHEER GOWN IN 1918
A woman with bare breast, carrying a bowl. She represents the concept of Eros as creative life energy
IN 1902 THE SCULPTOR CARL LUDWIG SEFFNER CREATED THIS SENSUAL WOMAN REPRESENTING THE EARTHLY OR PHYSICAL WORLD

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.

Kneeling, scantily dressed woman with a rose in her hand. She brings the opposite realms of love and Death together
THE SCULPTOR RICHARD KUÖHL BROUGHT THIS SCANTILY DRESSED WOMAN TO LIFE IN 1928. SHE IS A SYMBOL OF LIFE AND PASSIONATE LOVE

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.

Sensual woman, her left hand rests on her right arm. Statues like this are sculpted to praise eternal love
IN 1909 THE SCULPTOR ALFRED MARTIN CREATED THIS SENSUAL FEMALE BRONZE GUARDIAN

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.”

A male figure representing death grabs a partially naked female figure representing earthly life
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CEMETERY ART: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN DEPICTIONS HAVE ALSO AN EROTIC SUBTEXT. THE SCULPTOR CAESAR SCHARFF CREATED THIS WORK OF SENSUAL CEMETERY ART IN 1901

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.

Sensual angel throwing a rose
THE FAMOUS SCULPTOR ARTHUR BROCK CARVED THIS SENSUAL ANGEL IN 1903. IT SHOWS THE IDEA OF BEAUTY CONQUERING GRIEF

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.

Cemetery Art earns commissions for purchases made through links in this post, which are used to offset the costs of building and maintaining this site.

Related Posts

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.