Some of the most elaborate carvings on headstones are scenes from the bible. Judgement day is sometimes shown with parts of Revelation illustrated or a simple angel with a trumpet. Other images are rarer, and contain more symbolism that is revealed at first sight. I’ll explain more of this later, but first lets explore the reasons for the images.
History of Biblical Scenes on Headstones
During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century England various acts of parliament were introduced to outlaw practices that were seen as the idolatry of the Catholic faith. One of these was the Putting away of Books and Images Act 1549. It:-
‘commands all persons to deface and destroy images of all kinds that were erected for religious worship’
This meant that churches could not contain any religious imagery or symbols for fear of being considered as practicing Catholicism. In Thomas Barlow’s book of 1714 ‘The case concerning setting up images or painting of them in churches’ He states:-
‘That the Church of England absolutely condemns all Images of the Trinity, or any Person in it, (Father, Son, or Holy Ghost) as absolutely unlawful, and expressly condemned in Scripture. Such Images are not to be tolerated neither in nor out of Churches.’
This would explain the predominance of Memento Mori representations on Headstones in this period and the absence of Christian iconography.
As Old Testament scenes do not contain saints or Jesus they could still be used and could imply New Testament themes. This was a long established practice as demonstrated by Bede writing in around 725AD:-
‘He also brought with him pictures out of our Lord’s history, which he hung round the chapel of Our Lady in the larger monastery; and others to adorn St. Paul’s church and monastery, ably describing the connexion of the Old and New Testament; as, for instance, Isaac bearing the wood for his own sacrifice, and Christ carrying the cross on which he was about to suffer, were placed side by side.’
Abraham and Isaac on Headstone
From this, scenes of Abraham and Isaac represented Christ’s crucifixion and sacrifice he made for mankind. Abraham showed the power of faith and that the viewer must trust Gods plan for them.
The Fall of Man shows that the pain and suffering that was all around, leading eventually to death, was the price to pay for the sin of Adam and Eve. Only through religious devotion and avoiding sin could they claim the promise of eternal life in heaven.
In Catholic countries there was no prohibition on religious imagery so scenes from the Old and New Testaments are found on headstones and crosses.