Discovering Art in a Churchyard

In 2001, Mary Blanche noticed that some of the older headstones in the churchyard of her local parish church St. John the Baptist, Reedham, Norfolk were deteriorating. She wanted to record these stones for future generations before more were lost due to erosion and delamination. In special guest blog, Mary writes about her findings which are featured in her new book entitled ‘Discovering Art in a Churchyard’.

“I have often felt when folk visit churches, they marvel at the architectural features, glass, memorials and rood screens, but often overlook the churchyards. If only they knew how much artwork there is to be discovered.

Just before the first COVID-19 lockdown, I began to photograph many of these old headstones at St John the Baptist churchyard. They were so beautifully sculpted by stonemasons of the past, some as many as two centuries ago and my interest was truly captured.

Great symbolism

I learnt much about the meaning of the symbolisms of the flowers and leaves, angels and trumpets sculpted with such artistic input. This headstone of a man, who died in 1885, shows a sculpted rope, indicating his binding connection with God. In the circle, a wreath of roses represents beauty and virtue.

I noticed that Headstones in this particular churchyard before 1858 all had the same shape, with slightly arched tops. It was also a popular time for angels and they have been sculpted in various ways.

Quality of the stone

From the beginning of the 1800’s draped urns started to appear. No sculpted flowers, bouquets, willow trees or palms during this period. What was striking and significant was the quality of the stone. Far superior than many of the later headstones. They definitely are the survivors, even though they were the oldest in this churchyard.

After 1890, Stonemasons began to sculpt the soft-flowing Art Nouveau style onto headstones as shown on the image below, left. It was a new beginning and an exciting time ahead.

As the Art Deco period emerged, the Stonemasons used that style to decorate headstones with sleek, simplistic lines and lots of sharp edges; even carved roses lost their soft shapes. See image below, right.

Works of Art

As I examined the headstones, I felt, there was some competition going on between stonemasons. And why not; that’s the way to learn and expand your skills. 

On the left we see a large passion flower. The five stamens – the five wounds of Christ on the Cross. The ten petals – the ten faithful apostles with the whipping of Christ represented by the tendrils. A work of art; the lichen make it even more beautiful!

One of the most beautifully sculpted Headstones and one of my favourites is this one which reminds me of one of the sayings of Jesus: ‘I am the Vine; you are the branches’ John 15:5

Enhancements from nature

There is also a natural artistry to be found on the headstones. Over the years nature has provided the headstones with many different colours in the form of lichens.  The most common is the yellow lichen but there are reds, orange, green and whites. On some of the stones it looks as if a painter has been cleaning his brushes on the stone, and this shows even more after rain and in the sun.

I hope, that my churchyard findings may inspire you to have a wander round a churchyard, wherever that may be – at home, on a visit or a holiday, as all churchyards have an abundance of art to show us with the work of stonemasons of the past.”

Details on how to buy “Discovering Art in a Churchyard’, can be found on Mary’s website

Churches are treasure houses of history. Learn what to look for, discover the meaning behind objects and architectural features and uncover their historical significance on our church tourism website ExploreChurches

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