Introduction to Smaller Church Monuments

Typical church monuments, 16th-19th Centuries.

For anyone who likes looking at sculpture, once familiar with the Victorian and Edwardian statues, and having visited the main museums, the next steps need to be into the churches to see the monuments, which take us much further back in time. It is hard to exaggerate the quantity, quality and interest of church monuments, and their significance in British sculpture. On the Continent, by and large monuments were excluded from the churches far earlier than in Britain, and there seems to have been some happy natural tendency of the Anglican church in particular towards having a variety of monuments on the walls. And unlike the museums which are generally found in the larger towns, and the civic statues which also congregate there, churches are everywhere, and the most remote and rural parish church is as likely as not to have some sculptured monuments.

This page is primarily concerned with the smaller and more frequently found wall monuments from the 17th Century onwards, rather than the grand and ancient tombs of the great cathedrals. Further down this page are a goodly number of examples of these smaller wall monuments - around 50 in all. But let us start from the beginning.

Anything pre-Norman is extremely rare outside the museums – the occasional Roman carving dug up (and lots of Roman tile in the structures of certain churches), the odd carved panel or fragmentary cross surviving from a Saxon church replaced by the Normans in the first few decades after 1066. Norman carving per se is widely if sparsely distributed, particularly around the doorways outside, and on capitals of pillars inside the churches, and such carving becomes increasingly frequent as we move to early mediaeval times. But the earliest tombs with sculpture are vanishingly rare outside the Cathedrals, and even there are generally outnumbered by the standing statues of saints.

Cross-legged Temple Church effigies, and rigid effigy with simple drapes, 12th-14th Centuries.

The church monument starts as a stone lid to a coffin, set into the floor of the church, which from very early times had incised lettering, and perhaps a crucifix or coat of arms. Early figure carvings are typically crudely cut, lying full length (recumbent), sometimes carved out of extremely hard stone, with a rounded head with the features lightly cut in rather than with the proper contours of a face with protruding nose and chin and so forth. The pose of the lying figure is usually rigid. The clothing or drapes are simple, without complicated folding, and there is no gravity – the lines of the drapery run horizontally along the lying figure as if a standing statue had been knocked over.

The coffin lid itself, by now the base to the figure, had generally become a complete representation of a coffin in stone, thus a great plinth of box shape with carving on the sides. (Here we say goodbye to the coffin lid, for this website does not concern itself with the floor slabs which continued into later centuries). If the coffin or chest tomb bearing the sculpted figure was set against a wall, there was opportunity for architectural features such as an arch above, as if of a small shrine, perhaps an entablature if of later date, and decoration such as heraldic shields could be placed above or behind, or brasses, or little cherubic heads perhaps. A variety of powerful nobles, knights and clerics are found – rare but not unknown in the less grand churches, and with a few much celebrated, such as the figures in Temple Church, London.

As fashions changed, sometimes a sculpture of a decaying mummified corpse would be placed underneath the recumbent figure, as memento mori. Gradually over time, the recumbent figures grew more delicate in carving, and ornate in their clothing, the effigies sat up or rolled over on their sides to depict living rather than deceased or at least sleeping figures. But the church monuments described on this page took off from the middle of the 16th Century. Firstly, wall panel monuments or plaques became fashionable. Secondly, these could be smaller and so less expensive and thus more people could afford them. And thirdly, there was an increasingly large pool of well off merchants, minor nobility and others who aspired to such monuments.

16th Century alabaster and strapwork, Fulham Church.

The middle of the 16th Century takes us from the end of the Tudor period, with Henry VIII dying in 1547, through to the Elizabethan period, with her long reign ending in 1603. Quite characteristic of this period are heavy wall monuments with a central panel and a wide border with relief carving. This is often in the form of what is known as strapwork – with an upper flat layer of stone cut away into straps and squares with cut out circles, scrolls and other devices above a lower layer of the same stone. Small inset panels or protruding bosses of different colours, borders, heraldic designs and some painting and gilding are characteristic of these monuments. They are often highly colourful, with a variety of coloured alabasters and marbles in orange-and-cream, red with whte streaks, glossy black, serpentinite or other green marble, and various marbles with instead of a coloured streaks, a ‘broken lump’ appearance, known as brecciated marbles. The sculptor-masons of the time had a good eye for design, and the rather solid pieces of carving, without fine detail, fit well to materials where the different colours would make small detail difficult to appreciate, and are scaled well to the larger tombs. Often the best carving is on the shield at arms, which often consists of the heraldic shield of thedeceased, surmounted by a knight’s helm with much by way of falling feathers or plumage, all in a circular frame with loops and scrolls on the outer rim.

From about the 1580s, a type of wall monument with figures became widespread, often loosely referred to as ‘Tudor monuments’ or, more reasonably, Elizabethan, or sometimes as ‘kneeler monuments’. They typically show a husband and wife, both kneeling on cushions, facing each other across a small prayer desk. They are generally under round-headed arches. Their children are usually ranked behind them – boys behind the husband, girls behind the wife, or underneath them in a separate panel, and are always much smaller than the parents. Often they are painted, or in coloured alabaster with some highlights painted and gilded. Such kneeler monuments are among the most familiar of earlier church monuments, and are widespread through to the 1630s, then petering out. More on kneeler monuments on this page.

Turn of the 17th Century - Kneeler monuments.

The figures on these kneeler monuments wear contemporary clothes – armour or dark or red robes for the men, black or dark skirt and upper garment for the women; both generally wear conspicuous ruffs. The carving is skilled, with careful drapery, often extreme detail given to ruffs and ruffled hems, hair, and sometimes the contouring of face and hands. But some seem less well carved, or perhaps many layers of paint have filled in all the subtle detail and given a bland thick covering. Well or not well carved, little attempt at flattery is made, and the women particularly are often shown as rather old and rather plump.

Example of reclining Elizabethan figure, and kneeler facing forwards.

We do have some figures of the period which are similar in terms of physique and sculptural treatment and clothing and painting, but who are not kneelers. They may face the viewer as portrait busts, or lie or recline alone or in couples. We might reasonably term them Elizabethan.

Tight lettering on an unornamented panel, late 17th Century.

At the much more humble end of the scale, spanning almost all of the 17th Century are plain monumental slabs of marble or stone with no border or carving, but simply inscribed lettering packed very close over the whole surface – often there is almost no margin at the edge of the slab. Perhaps some of these were once surrounded with rich borders, and the inscriptions are all that survive, but it seems generally less likely.

Now, returning the richer monuments – strapwork and kneelers – these are classical monuments, with side pillars or pilasters (the shape of a pillar against the background wall), supporting shelves and friezes (entablatures) above, with on top of those, perhaps a pediment, but more usually a large coat of arms. At the base is a section that hangs down below the inscription and the lower shelf, called the apron. Because parts of the monument –shelves, bases of pillars – project forwards from the backing, there are supports – brackets, which themselves are often carved. From these Classical architectural elements, we can see the basis for the less grand wall monuments which followed.

Baroque church monument of the 17th Century.

Here is one, still grand enough, in St James Garlickhythe, to the memory of Seagrave Chamberlain, who died in 1675. It is of the era of Wren, and like a Wren church, it is baroque. The inscription is on a central rectangular panel. Around it are the classical elements of pilasters to the sides, pediment on the top, shelf as a base, and an apron below. But the side pilasters are curved and curly, hardly pilasters at all, decorated with carve leaves and flowers. The pediment is curved, and broken in the centre (although the terms are used fairly casually, strictly speaking a ‘broken pediment’ is broken at the top, as here, and an ‘open pediment’ is open at the bottom, so that its bottom shelf has the centre or all of it missing). The part below the lower shelf – the apron – has a carved cherub’s head and festoons of flowers.

Example of the Classical monument: John Berry, d.1689.

At the more austerely Classical end of the scale is this one in the church of St Dunstan's Stepney, to John Berry, d.1689, so rather early for the type, with a central wigged bust of the deceased in front of a strictly Classical niche. The side pilasters are Doric, and the entablature above has recessed parts to the sides, called ‘receding’ – receding pilasters become very common in such monuments. Above is a severe pediment, containing nothing - for excess decoration is here seen as frivolous. The bust stands on the top of a further curved pediment, with the inscription underneath, below a succession of layers each with head and foot in strict proportion. The only sculptural decoration other than the bust itself is the little bracket at the base below the shallow, curved apron, which is carved as a bunch of grapes enclosed by a leaf, and the shellike structures to left and right of the inscription.

17th and 18th Century monuments - tendency to the severely Classical.

We see both of these types – the more Baroque wall plaque and the more severely Classical one – throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, with the Baroque being rather less favoured as the decades go by. Above are some examples of the more strictly Classical tendency. The compositions are cleanly rectangular, with pilasters to the sides (including the far left one having receding pilasters), and upper and lower shelves, and nothing fanciful. The example with a figure is by Flaxman, a master of the cool, unexaggerated correct Classical. In this case, the pilasters are reduced to the sides of a rectangular frame. Above is a plain pediment. The other three cases have a flat top and a small Greek pot at the summit; the case on the far right may once have had that pot within a pediment. The example second from left has a Classical apron below.

Below are examples of the more Baroque wall monuments. The side pilasters may be adorned as in the first case to the left, or entirely replaced with flowers and other ornament, as in the second example, which has carved rams' heads in place of the capitals (note there is a page on this site on carved pillars). The rectangular field of the inscription may be encroached upon at the top, as in the leftmost and rightmost examples, or at the bottom, as in the second example. Baroque tops to such monuments include pediments which are broken (4th example) or curved (second example), or the pediment is replaced by some more curvaceous structure (first and third examples). Aprons below the lower shelf are carved into a range of curvy Baroque shapes.

17th and 18th Century Classical monuments - tendency to the Baroque.

There are other variants. Not particularly frequently we find an entire monument based upon a pillar, which like as not will have the inscription on the pillar itself. More frequent, but deriving from the Baroque, is the monument with instead of a pediment at the top, an obelisk. The obelisk recollects Ancient Egypt, long associated with the Necropolis and the reverence for death (see pictures lower down page). Though obelisks, usually as backings rather than free-standing elements of a monument, appear from the end of the 17th Century to the 19th Century, they seem to be most frequently found in memorials of the latter half of the 18th Century (see this page for lots on obelisk monuments).

Church monuments based upon circular or oval compositions.

All the way back with the strapwork monuments, there was scope for circles as part of the design, and monuments based upon circular and later oval compositions also became most noticeable in the second part of the 18th Century, often very elegant, sometimes sparingly so with the absolute minimum of ornament, like some Robert Adam design, other times more decorated. They were never that common as a proportion of all memorials, but are widespread.

Cartouche monuments of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

A particularly elegant development of the oval is to make it slightly domed in the centre, and surround it with a delicately carved border of scrolls, Classical leaves of the variety called Acanthus, or dreancy to the Baroque, sometimes the very Baroque, and allows scope for the sculptor to demonstrate much ingenuity and virtuoso carving, including perhaps fruit, or winged cherubs among the foliage or drapery, or even whole figures. As well as Cartouches which form a whole monument, in miniature form, particularly in the earlier examples, they are often used to enclose the coat of arms of the deceased. They seem to appear as full sized monuments from the early 1600s, with their peak in the later 17th and earlier 18th Centuries, though again, never common. Having a natural curve, they were sometimes favoured for monuments to be attached to pillars in churches, between nave and aisles. Definitely to look out for.

Hanging drape wall monuments.

And another type – the wall monument made to look like a hanging drape. This would be like a small sheet, tied at the top two corners so that there would be a gently curving fold between them, drop-folds to the sides, which would act in place of the side pilasters in the monument, and in between a flat surface on which to cut the inscription. Typically, the base of this sheet would be another curve, and the edging would be fringed, and typically gilded. The elegance of the drop folds, the delicacy of the fringing, the complexity of the knots and the cords which were often carved to tie them, were all opportunities for the sculptor to demonstrate his invention and skill. At the top, there could be a backing, a place for a shield of arms, or some carved cherub’s head or other decoration. This style seems to have always been quite unusual, but is perhaps most often found in the first few decades of the 18th Century, though examples are occasionally found from far later.

18th Century cherubs in church monuments.

Without wanting to diverge to those monuments which have full figure sculpture, we have already noted that many monuments have winged cherub heads included in them (there is a separate page on architectural cherubs on this site), and full figure cherubs and putti are common in the 18th Century. I am no fan of the breed in general, but it must be admitted they are of long pedigree within sculpture, particularly during the Renaissance, and many of these later English cherubs hearken back to that style. A pair of such cherubs at the sides of a monument can do for figure sculpture when an allegorical figure would be too tall and slim for the composition. The pictures above show free-standing cherubs and winged cherubic heads. The grouping of cherubic heads into pairs and triplets is common. The free-standing examples include a mourning cherub holding a skull, a rather jolly one holding a knight's helm, and one with an upturned torch, symbolising the snuffing out of the flame of Life.

Skull as memento mori, veiling a pot and a monument

We should say something about the additions – accoutrements if you will – emblematic of death and rebirth which were charactistic of the 17th and especially the 18th Centuries. The skull was always popular as a reminder of death (memento mori) and that the most noble and proud person would come to dust. Often the skull would have no lower jaw, particularly if free standing rather than carved in relief. Sometimes there would be crossbones under the skull. The counterpart of the winged cherubic head, indicative of going to heaven, was the Deathshead, a grinning skull with bat wings. From early in the 18th Century, and much more as time went on, small funereal urns make an appearance, typically in high relief on a backing or simply against the wall, or on the larger monuments, free standing ones. These might be draped, either symmetrically, or with the drapery in front on one side of a classical pot, and behind on the other, and often falling asymmetrically far down one side of the monument, as in Death veiling Life. Instead of urns, there may be lamps, of Roman or Aladdin style, often with carved flames, indicative of the flame of eternal Life, or Faith. The use of the Egyptian-style obelisk as a symbol of death and reincarnation has already been mentioned (and see this page).

Obelisk monuments, recollecting the Ancient Egyption preoccupation with mortality.

Crossed branches also appear in the 1830s, which may be visibly broken, as in plucked from their family tree and thus to die, or indicative of peace. Carved sunbursts near the top of the monument indicate Heaven. Winged cherubic heads also indicate Heaven, but cherubs and putti may also be mourners, weeping with handkerchiefs to their eyes or gesturing melodramatically, popular in the mid and later 18th Century. Drapery itself indicates repose, collapse into stillness, or simply recalls the funeral pall. Larger monuments may have drapes near the top and sides as if pulled aside from some pavilion erected above the deceased so that mourners can glance within. Wreaths are common marks of respect for the dead, and there are many on church monuments from the later 18th Century and onwards, and cut flowers of various types recall the fragility and short span of Life. The occasional broken pillar generally indicates the extinction of the male line of some noble family.

Wilting plants as symbols of death.

We should also mention the sculptors themselves, such as we know them, though that is not the focus of this page. Medieval sculptors are overwhelmingly self-effacing, and all the way through to the end of the 17th Century, it is very rare that the sculptor of any particular church monument is known – and where they are known, it will usually be from records of who was paid for the work rather than any signature, except in rather rare cases. The 18th Century was the first time that it became common to sign sculptured monuments, and it is from about 1740 that we first find it fairly common to see signatures carved on the monuments, sometimes discretely, in other cases with almost as much prominence as the name of the deceased.

By around 1800, with the Napoleonic wars, the supply of much foreign coloured marble was cut, and there was a change to overwhelmingly white-on-black monuments (see this page for lots about them). But this predominance of the monochrome continued through the 19th Century, even when trade with the Continent became free again. Many churches are dominated by small black and white wall monuments from the 1820s-1840s. From this period, there are many very simple monuments with white marble in front of a rectangular or cut-to-simple-shape black marble backing. Some are simply two cut panels, or one white panel inset into a larger black one, and belong entirely to the mason’s craft rather than the sculptor’s art. Many of these are monuments for the burgeoning well to do middle classes, where the expense of serious sculptural treatments would have been prohibitive. However, often there is a compromise, with a bit of sculptural adornment.

Black and white church monuments with tomb-chest end or casket end designs, 1810s, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

One of the most common designs hearkens back to a much earlier type of free-standing monument, the tomb chest. These came in two varieties – a great outer coffin in stone on four short legs at the corners and with a lid above a lip, and caskets, similarly with short legs, but where the sides were angled outwards as they rose, and on top would be a lid which was raised in the centre like a shallow roof. The new wall plaques then, look like one of these tomb chests or caskets seen end-on. They actually began to appear in about the 1780s, but really took off around 1810, and thereafter were a staple of the monumental mason’s oeuvre. The inscription could be cut on the centre, the little legs could be carved if desired, and at the edges of the side seen by the viewer, pilasters could be added – though in a casket design, these would be angled outwards rather than vertical. The angled lid looked rather like a pediment, and by putting a shelf below it rather than a line for the lip, a pediment space was created which could hold some small carved shield or wreath. To the sides of this lid or pediment, it was common to put small carved ‘ears’ or acroteria, often carved with a striated simplified anemone flower pattern. Many variations of these tomb chest ends and casket end monuments are found - the set above, one from each decade from the 1810s to the 1850s, are all from St John Maddermarket in Norwich.

Even on the most simple wall monuments, many masons and sculptors sign their names from the 1780s onwards into the 19th Century, and it is always worth a look to see if you can see the signature on a monument from this period. Among the mason sculptors, there were a few whose work is found all over the country, such as the firm of Gaffin of Regent Street, and many whose signed work is found only in a few churches in some very local area, for example Woodiss of Sheen, South London.

Monumental sculpture of girls with pots, 1800s-1840s.

For more ostentatious monuments, the inventive 19th Century mind meant that endless possibilities opened up for sculptural adornment. The sculptured plaque or frieze makes a strong reappearance, with scenes from the deceased’s life, or deathbed scenes (see picture at bottom of this page), often rather cool and severe in their Classicism. From the later 18th Century and with more in the first part of the 19th Century, we see the classical girl mourning against a pot. There are many excellent examples, as full figures, or as high relief, and these are surely among the most enjoyable church monuments to discover. Typically we might have a central pot, or casket, with a girl standing leaning against it, or seated against it, or even hugging it. In some cases the figure is clearly allegorical, in others she may be taken as the mourning wife. We may have two figures, or one might be mortal, the other an angel – an interesting combination of the Christian symbology with the essentially Pagan Classical. There was also a vogue to include a carved portrait of the deceased, often on a roundel on the base of the pot or side of the casket, but sometimes as a plate carried or held by the girl or an angel. The figures may be severely Classical Hellenic, shown in calm repose with faces often in absolute profile, or Hellenistic and Baroque, with twisting bodies and swirling drapery, so that the once flat wall plaque becomes an extremely three dimensional work which can be appreciated from a range of different views. Some very notable sculptors specialised in church monuments of this type, such as John Bacon and the junior Westmacott.

The monument as a scroll, landscape and portrait format.

Some of the monument types have disappeared by this time, such as cartouches, but even at the simplest level there are new ones. Aside from the tomb chest ends and casket ends mentioned above, there are monuments carved as unrolling scrolls, the 19th Century equivalent of the hanging drapes of the 18th Century, and something not really seen in church monuments since late medieval times – the return of the Gothic. This would be typically as a Gothic window style monument, with one or three lights but the stone inscription where the glass should be. Often these monuments incorporate side pillars in a different coloured stone or marble. Although this website is not particularly concerned with brasses, we should note that from mid-Victorian times, there is the renaissance of brass memorials, as typically rectangular or Gothic arch panels, with lettering, often highly Gothic, in black and with initial capitals and important names in red; more an exercise in calligraphy than sculptural.

Return of the Gothic monument, mid-19th Century.

The end of the 19th Century brought something else back which had mostly disappeared since the 18th Century – the use of coloured marbles and alabaster. Art nouveau and Arts and Crafts memorials appear in the 1890s through to the late 1900s, with a brief revival after World War 1, with rather more of combinations of the coloured stone and gilding than much carving per se. The large number of memorials to garrisons and groups of soldiers who perished in WW1 include some with cast bronze designs, of wreaths, small figures of Britannia and Peace, and Garrison coats of arms.

Early 20th Century and the revival of the coloured monument.

And then, with the last of these war memorial slabs, sculpted church monuments come to an abrupt stop. Later monuments are few indeed, often confined to vicars and other ecclesiastics of the church, and typically extremely plain, as if to have ornament or excess expense on such things was felt to be inappropriate or embarrassing. There are of course a few exceptions, but in general, by 1930, we have to mourn the demise of the church monument.

The pictures of monuments inside churches are taken from a variety of churches in London and elsewhere; grateful thanks to the churches concerned for permission to use on my website.

Bob Speel.

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Churches in London // Other places (some with churches described)

Churchyard and cemetery monuments // Carved skulls in monuments // Angel statues

Kneeler monuments // White-on-black monuments // Cherubs // Winged cherub heads // Queen Eleanor Crosses

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