Monumental Sculpture and Symbols

The inscriptions on many of the monuments in Arnos Vale Cemetery simply record the details of who lies beneath while others tell a more detailed story.  Many monuments contain images which are symbols or have a meaning associated with the person.  There are some interesting individual representations and recurring themes of loss and resurrection. Below are some examples of imagery to be found at Arnos Vale Cemetery, together with an offering of symbol interpretation.



A comforting Angel


Angels act as Gods messengers – the word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek word for messenger. They often have tasks to perform e.g. to punish wrong doers or to give moral strength. There are nine ‘choirs’ of angels divided into three orders: Counsellors (choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones), Governors (choirs:Dominions, Powers and Virtues) and Messengers (choirs: Principalities, Archangels and Angels). Messengers intercede between God and humanity and it is they who are most often portrayed in cemeteries like Arnos Vale as winged humans. Within the order of Messengers the Principalities protect rulers and may carry a sceptre, cross, palms or a lily. This angel carries roses, a symbol of purity and innocence (see Flowers below) and consoles the bereaved.









A young female mourner

This fine statue is of a young woman draping her classical Greek garment around a cross and carrying Lilies might be mistaken for an ‘angel’ but she has no wings. In the Song of Solomon, the lily (see Flowers below) is a symbol of great beauty and is closely associated with the Virgin Mary. The symbolism of grief is obvious as is the high regard with which the children of the departed held their mother.















An anchor

Often indicate an association with the sea – many war graves of sailors show an anchor. However, the anchor was also a pre-Christian symbol of safety and hope;it was adopted by Christians as a symbol the hope of salvation and eternal life.








A dove with an olive branch


Early Christians adopted the symbol of the bird which to the ancient Egyptians was a symbol of the soul. The dove clasping an olive branch in its beak is a universal symbol of peace. In the story of the deluge, when the ark was floating above the flooded earth, Noah sent out a dove and it returned with an olive branch in its beak showing that the waters were receding and that God’s punishment was over: So, perhaps the message here is peace after the end of a long illness or a hard life.








An open book

Here is a simple example of a carved book from the cemetery – there are more elaborate carvings of books on stands. These carved ‘holy books’ then give details of the dead or perhaps a biblical quote.






Broken Columns

broken column

Ionic column broken

There are a number of examples of broken columns in Arnos Vale Cemetery. Some are very realistic like this one. The symbolism is of a life cut short. Columns have symbolism which goes back to pre-Christian times. Columns are like trees and the shape of the earliest known columns suggest mimicry of wood carving with leaf like decorations at the top. Columns are akin to human figures like standing ancient stones – which have long been used to represent people and often have human names attached to them (e.g. the Long Man). There are three styles of columns: Doric,Ionic(like the one in the picture) and Corinthian.Plain Doric columns can be associated with masculinity and strength whereas slender Ionic columns can be associated with femininity, scholarship and wisdom. Another impressive monument of a ‘broken’ Ionic column (insert pic)  this one draped in the fronds of a weeping fig symbolising the grief of the living over a life cut short.










Flowers and Plants


Draped lily

There are many examples of flowers carved on monuments. Laurel holly and ivy are symbolic of eternity and everlasting life – and laurel can also be associated with chastity because it was the plant of the vestal virgins in Rome. Roses and Lilies symbolise purity and the Narcissus symbolizes divine love. Palm leaves are associated with victory for Jesus over death and for Christian’s over sin and the Devil.











Clasped hands in a garland of ivy

Clasped like this are symbolic of matrimony and a wish to commemorate and maintain the relationship perhaps representing the wish of a couple to be reunited after death – here the hands are surrounded by ivy representing fidelity and eternity so we have the representation of a reunion in eternity.








Robert Hall

Portrait of Baptist preacher Robert Hall on his tomb

The great and rich often had idealised representations of themselves in UK church monuments.In southern European countries and with the introduction of photography, there has been a custom of placing pictures of the departed on grave stones – this custom has become more popular in the UK. In the past, portraits were seen as a vanity by non-conformists although silhouettes were more acceptable: here is an unusual example from the ivy softened tomb of the Baptist preacher Robert Hall (who died in 1831, before Arnos Vale ‘opened for business’ – he was originally laid to rest in Broadmead Baptist Chapel but was moved to Arnos Vale and placed in this fine tomb some years later.










shell symbol of rebirth

Scallop shell

The scallop shell is associated with St. James and Christian pilgrimage – pilgrims carried scallop shells to scoop drinking water from streams that they passed. But in pre-Christian times the shell was an ancient symbol of rebirth and they are often found on Roman coffins. A shell is symbolic of the pilgrimage of life leading to resurrection and everlasting life after death.







urn draped

Draped urn

There are many different variations on the theme of urns in Arnos Vale. They first became popular in the 18th century when they were found in ruined Greek graveyards. Some are draped with cloth like this one – drapery over anything indicates sorrow and mourning, others are swathed in flowers or leaves to symbolise death. There are no grieving women draped over Grecian urns in Arnos Vale – more an 18th century confection although there are a few draped over crosses!) but the classical Greek influence is clear.






Trade Tools and Objects

train steam engine

Memorial of steam train driver Harry Edwards and family.

Carvings of trade tools and objects (apart from sailors anchors and other regalia on war graves) are fairly rare. Here is a fine example of a Train. Harry Edwards was born in Warminster in 1852 his father was a mason but Harry grew up to become a steam engine driver for the Great Western Railway in the late 19th/early 20th century.






steam train

Detail of steam train


Main reference source: “How to Read a Church” by Richard Taylor, published 2003 by Rider.