Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meanwhile, in Spain…Pageantry!

Tolomato Cemetery was open to the public as usual on the Third Saturday of the month, this year on April 19.  But that week was also Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter during which the events in the life and death of Christ are remembered, and I was in Madrid, Spain, watching the processions that reenact or commemorate some of these events.  And as always, I thought of St Augustine and wondered what we did back in the days when we were a Spanish colony and had the customs and practices of any Spanish colony.  Spanish customs are very formal.  Here we see a procession of Royal Halberdiers, who guard the Royal Palace, accompanying a Good Friday Procession.


The 16th and 17th centuries are considered the Golden Age of Spanish sculpture, and many of the figures carried on the processional platforms (called “pasos”) date to this period.  They are very beautiful figures, carved of wood that was then finished with gesso (a fine layer of a plaster-like substance to give a smooth finish) and carefully painted. Some processional figures are known as “figuras de vestir,” meaning they were meant for dressing. In those cases, only the hands, feet and heads were carved, and the rest of the body was basically a wooden and wire armature that could be dressed in lavish robes and then posed on the paso.  But many of them were full carvings, such as this beautiful “Cristo Yacente,” Christ Lying Prone, which was brought out on Holy Saturday in Madrid.  This is a mid-20th century figure from Olot, a town north of Barcelona famed for its religious statuary.


Did we have these in St Augustine?  We certainly had our version of them, probably not as sumptuous, but we know from an inventory done in Cuba at the end of the First Spanish Period, when all the church goods were brought from St Augustine to Havana before the arrival of the British in Florida, that we had numerous statues and small pasos, meant to be carried by 2-4 people. The one you see above is being carried on the shoulders of about 14 people; in the photo, it’s actually resting on posts while they wait to move on to the next street.  Big processional floats such as the one below can weigh from one to three tons, and are carried by 30-40 people, but there is no indication that St Augustine ever had anything this large. 


However, mentioned in the Havana inventory is a figure with moveable arms and an “urna de cristal.”   Often a crucifix would have a figure of Christ where the arms were attached with leather straps so that the figure could be taken down for Good Friday and the arms moved to lie at the sides.  The figure was then often displayed in a glass casket, or “urna de cristal.”   Details are a little lacking in the inventory, so we don’t know the size of the figure, but in the colonies, I have observed that they are often about 3/4 size.  Mexico produced a lot of beautiful and elegant religious statuary so ours may have come from Mexico; on the other hand, we were under the bishops of Cuba, and the Cubans generally seem to have ordered their religious goods from Spain.

At that time, at the end of the First Spanish Period, the parish church was Nuestra SeƱora de la Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude or Loneliness, which is an image of the Virgin Mary after the death of Christ.  We certainly would have had a figure representing her, although probably not as magnificent as the 18th century figure you see below, being carried through the streets of Madrid by some 30 people, accompanied by penitentes (hooded penitents), drummers and a large band.


During the Second Spanish Period, when Tolomato Cemetery was active, about a third of the town’s religious goods were sent back to St Augustine from Havana.  Another 3000 pesos worth were ordered by the Bishop of Havana from Barcelona, but the ship was captured by pirates just as it was arriving and taken to Charleston.  It’s unclear whether the Spanish were able to ransom the goods back or get them back in some other way, and whether any of the goods made it to St Augustine. In any case, anything from that period would have been destroyed in the 1887 fire that destroyed the interior of the Cathedral.

Varela Stone 1854-1

And the Varela Chapel at Tolomato, built in 1853, was always simple. As seen in the above 19th century photo, it is described by the Cubans who arranged for its building as having a carved mahogany altar – the elaborately carved parts of the current altar are from that original altar – an ebony cross with silver tips, mahogany candlesticks, a carpet on the floor and a painting of the Transfiguration behind the altar. Everything except the aforementioned carved parts of the altar has disappeared over the years.  But we know that in 1801, when General Jorge (Georges) Biassou was buried, he had clergy in vestments, soldiers marching, and horses with plumes bearing him to Tolomato Cemetery…so perhaps we can assume that St Augustine once upon a time had its modest version of what we see below in the streets of Madrid.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Demise of the Gravestone

Walking through old St Mary's Cemetery in Charleston, SC, I was touched by all the stories told by the gravestones. Burials started there sometime in the late 18th century; the current church was built in 1836, but that was after the first one burned. It in turn had replaced a “wooden shack” located on the site that was used as a church by the small and somewhat ostracized Catholic population of 18th century Charleston.  IMG_4008  But the old headstones remained - in English, French, Italian, German and Latin, to enumerate those that I saw – and gave me an interesting glimpse into early Charleston life.  The majority of the gravestones were those of Irish or French inhabitants, the two main Catholic groups in early Charleston, but there were several that showed birthplaces in different parts of Italy, one from Switzerland, some from Austria, and one man from Transylvania, a state that doesn't even exist anymore. (Back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was located in a part of what is now Romania.) There were place names of all kinds, names of distant places that have been swallowed up by time, by wars, or simply by changing tastes.  IMG_4013  The Transylvanian traveler’s stone was in Latin, and told a rather long story: His name was Matheus Leopoldus Stupich (aka Mattias Leopold Stupicz), and he was a medical doctor and botanist. It tells you that he was a Roman Catholic from Transylvania, although he is described by some historians as German and by others as Hungarian. The stone informs you in large letters that he had been sent to America by the IMPERATOR JOSEPHO SECUNDUM, referring to the Emperor Joseph II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And indeed it was Joseph II who sent Stupich, along with four other men who were gardeners, artists or botanists, "IN AMERICUM" in 1783 to collect plant samples with the mission of finding new, hardy American plants to replace plants from the Imperial Gardens that had been killed by a severe freeze that winter. The five men set out together but before long, the artist, Bernhard Albrecht Moll, split off from the group and ended up in Charleston.   Boos  Moll, who was from a noble family and readily accepted by snobbish Charlestonians, supported himself by teaching art and doing the cut-out paper silhouettes popular in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, and was soon joined by Stupich and one of the gardeners, Franz Boos.  Their story is told on the Clemson University website, where Stupich was named the "South Carolina German American of the Month."  Above is Moll’s silhouette of Boos, which also appears on the website. They collected plant and animal specimens in the Charleston area and shipped them back to Austria, and also kept travel journals and wrote an interesting account of the Goose Creek area near Charleston.  Stupich also decided to remain in Charleston and resume his work as a doctor; he lived and prospered the rest of his life there, much to the annoyance of the Emperor. He died there at the age of 62 and his stone is one of the oldest in St Mary's Cemetery.  IMG_4011  And then of course there are the graves of children and the graves of people who died "of a fever," since Charleston was subject to frequent outbreaks of mosquito borne yellow fever, just like St Augustine. There were also the graves of clergy ordained in a variety of European countries and the early US. Of course, many clergy are buried under the floor of the church itself, and the lovely painting in the dome was donated in memory of one of them, the Rev. Dr. Corcoran, by his students at the seminary in Philadelphia.  IMG_3989  When I looked at these stones, I thought that people of our generation will never be known this way. Since modern people are either cremated and scattered or buried under small neutral "name and date only" plaques in giant lawns designed to be easily trimmed by riding mowers, we'll never know where  they were born or anything about the circumstances of their lives, such as that of the young man who lies under the stone below: born in Tarbes, France to die in Charleston in 1819 as a victim of the “prevailing fever,” he was “sincerely lamented by all who knew him.”   IMG_4004  This to me is a real loss. Perhaps we don't need to have the giant self-aggrandizing 19th century monument gone mad, but it is sad to slip into anonymity and uniformity, wiping out these unique little footpaths of history that we see here in a historic cemetery such as old St Mary's or Tolomato. The custom of detailed, individualized grave markers has come and gone throughout history. At Tolomato, for example, we have fewer gravestones than many cemeteries of the same size because the early custom was simply to put a small wooden or metal cross above the grave. Spanish grave markers for the average person at that time tended to be simple, at least in part because burials were often somewhat temporary and remains would be removed to an ossuary or another place after a certain time. In addition, until the mid-19th century, the economic situation of St Augustine was a little more fragile than that of Charleston (see the mid-late 19th century photo below). Yet we see throughout human history the desire to commemorate the deceased and preserve a few facts about his or her life so that passing strangers years later may see them and think about that life. 1880s photos_Kear_chapel2  An examination of the gravestones at Tolomato will also tell us these stories. Think of the story of our earliest marked burial, that of Elizabeth Forrester who died at the age of 16 in 1798, or of the sad Benet-Baya monument, commemorating the loss of an entire family. Or the happier stone of Fr. Miguel O’Reilly (d. 1812), which tells of his Irish birth, Spanish education, and New World labors.  IMG_1063
Perhaps gravestones will someday come back into style. By coincidence, one of our board members, Janet Jordan, was surfing her way around and came across a group called the Association for Gravestone Studies. If you’re interested in gravestones, take a look at their page! But I noticed that the topic of one of their recent meetings was this very issue: will there be no gravestones to tell these stories in the future?