Pennsylvania German Tombstones: A Study in Folk Art [Part I of II]

Cover of the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society’s XVIIIth Volume, Pennsylvania German Tombstones: A Study in Folk Art

Cover to the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society’s XVIIIth Volume, Pennsylvania German Tombstones: A Study in Folk Art

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…Pennsylvania German folk art has in the last two decades received nation-wide recognition, but of its various phases that on Pennsylvania German tombstones has received only casual attention. They share of course the same motifs that one finds on Pennsylvania German fraktur birth and baptismal certificates and house blessings, on stoveplates, buttermoulds, ceramics, textiles and needlework, and of course on painted barns. Always there are sun-wheels, radiating half-suns and quarter-suns, six-point compass stars, confrontal birds, hearts and tulips, only that these designs, by the very nature of the medium, receive a broader and more simplified treatment on tombstones. At the same time the usage of them distinguishes these tombstones from others throughout our country. This does not however preclude the sudden discovery of a star, a heart or a tulip in some New England cemetery, but the sum total of impressions the writer has gathered after visiting a hundred Pennsylvania German graveyards is unique. The familiar motifs are especially abundant in the old graveyards of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. There are no similar designs on the tombstones of the Amish, only rarely on those of the Mennonites, and we know of only one among the Moravian tombstones. Could it be that the sectarians looked upon them as pagan signs and symbols? The Latin cross, the very symbol of our Christian faith, is notably absent.

But why, someone inquires, are there always sun symbols, trees of life, confrontal birds, hearts and tulips? Why this tenacious adherence to a few basic forms? Does this not indicate a dearth of invention and imagination? Why are these particular designs characteristic of Pennsylvania German folk art rather than some others? How did they come to be used in the first place? And why? These questions, naive as they may seem now, confronted the writer when he first started out on the long trail in search of satisfying answers two decades ago. Certainly a people that for a full century and more continued in the new world to cling to their own dialect and the ways of their fathers did not originate these designs. It seemed therefore a matter of course to seek their origins in the ancestral homeland. Although there is a goodly sprinkling of other elements in the makeup of the Pennsylvania Germans the Rhenish Palatine influence dominates. The writer several times sojourned in the Palatinate where he found the same designs and symbols on every hand, on doors, on lintels and farmyard gates, on keystones of arches, on baptismal certificates and on tombstones. But he also found them elsewhere, and nowhere more abundantly and in greater diversity than in the Low Saxon lands, in Westphalia, Lippe-Detmold and Herford, areas that held out longest against conversion to Christianity. The trail then continued to other areas, but now became divided and obscured. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to find the same motifs in Persia, in distant India, yes, even in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Assyria and Sumeria. It became apparent that such motifs expressed certain basic concepts that had emerged from out of the elemental experiences and observations of mankind before recorded history. However modified such motifs may have become through the accidents of time and place, they have found expression on the tombstones as well as in the other manifestations of folk art among the Pennsylvania Germans.

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Let us regard briefly the general nature of folk art, a term which came into usage only toward the end of the nineteenth century. When we consider the extensive pioneer work done by Gottfried Herder, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the romantic poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano in the German dialects, in folk song and balladry, and in the folk literature of other peoples, as the very voice of those peoples, it is indeed curious that a field so closely related as folk art should have remained so long unexplored. It is true that Schiller had already pointed the way in his essay “Ueber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung” (1795) when he conceived of “folk” as an organized unit and pointed out the distinction between that which originated directly from the soul of a people as the voice of nature over against that which is recognized as personal or individual art. But the words “folk” and “art” expressed concepts that remained in opposition to each other as long as art was looked upon as an individual achievement without any more immediate national, racial or sociological relationship. Until recently works on the history of art did not even include any consideration of folk art. Such exclusion was not due to any planned disregard but rather because of a lack of understanding. Since it took the form of applied art it was difficult to grasp its deeper significance. Also the fact that it receded so rapidly under the impact of our technical and industrial civilization was accepted as proof of its inferiority. However, in the last few decades we have acquired a better understanding of the nature and the origin of German folk art through the far-reaching discoveries archaeologists have made in the countries of northern Europe and particularly in the Scandinavian countries and northern Germany. There was a time when we only associated archaeology with Rome, Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor. Today a new world is revealed to us, that of our own remote northern European ancestors. We have had in consequence numerous interesting publication about the origins of the designs and symbols common to the folk art of the Germanic peoples. However they may vary from each other the consensus is that the principle of folk art, as of folklore and folk literature, is associative rather than logical thinking. We must consider folk art as a result and not a product, instinctive and communal. It is a living link in the long chain of a people’s social existence. Its inner nature is not determined by individual expression; the individual is only the medium or vehicle for the common expression of a people. It is impersonal and must remain folk-bound. It possesses a tenacious uniformity, allowing only diversity within the framework of such uniformity. That which gives it uniformity is the employment of certain age-old motifs or patterns. These motifs, antedating the recorded world, were the simple ideograms of our remotest ancestors. They held for succeeding generations a continuity of concepts which united them as a folk with their long past. If in the course of time racial or communal continuity should be broken by far-reaching social, religious, political or economic changes, folk art must of necessity languish and perish, which is what has happened to the folk art practiced by the Pennsylvania Germans.

Our study of Pennsylvania German tombstones is therefore confined to the years between 1750 and 1850, from the burials of the first pioneers down to the threshold of the new industrial era.

In the following pages we shall consider briefly those motifs that underlie and characterize German peasant art no matter how diversified such motifs may have become in the course of their manifestations in the folk art of the Pennsylvania Germans with special reference to that on their tombstones.

The Sun

Thou material God!
And representative of the Unknown,
Who chose thee for his shadow! Thou chief star!
Centre of many stars! — which mak’st our earth
Endurable, and temperest the hues
And hearts of all who walk within thy rays!
Sire of the seasons! Monarch of the climes,
And those who dwell in them!
BYRON: Manfred. Act III, Sc. 2.

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For early man the sun was the hallowed force which affected his life from birth to death. It measured his days and years and the seasons of his years. Its warmth and light caused the earth to bring forth fruit and grain for his sustenance. Traces of sun worship are to be found among all the ancient civilizations and are the earliest evidences of religious expression. The Egyptians looked upon the sun as the creator of the universe and the source of all life. Heliopolis, city of the sun, was the center of their cult, from which it exerted far-reaching influence. Moses had found it necessary to exhort Israel: “And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest unto the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship (Deu. 4:19). In Persia the sun cult of Mithras took deep root and even spread to Rome, where it became a rival of early Christianity.

But especially for our primitive pre-Christian ancestors in northern Europe, with its long winters and short summers, the greatest phenomenon in nature was the sun, and observation of its ever-recurring annual course across the sky was life’s profoundest experience. In the light of the warmth-giving sun Nordic man saw the manifestations of a benevolent Life-giver. Perhaps he too sensed the challenge that came to Job out of the whirlwind: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth: declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof? . . . Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place?” (Job 38:4-5 amd 12). The Druidic cromlech at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and the numerous cromlechs and menhirs erected in the Bronze Age in Ireland and Brittany bear silent witness to the place the sun occupied in the spiritual life of primitive man. Caesar, on his invasions among the Germanic tribes, observed their reverence for the light- and warmth-giving sun. Tacitus, the Roman historian, records that the Teutons honored their gods invisibly. That Nordic man did not deify the sun in anthropomorphic form but expressed his reverence in the use of symbols is indicated on the rock writings in southern Sweden with their circles, sun-wheels and sun-chariots, and on the rock carvings of the Externsteine, an early center of the sun cult in the forest of Teutoburg in Westphalia; and especially in the ancient Roman quarries near Bad Dürkheim in the Palatinate, on the stone surfaces of which Teuton laborers employed by the Roman legions in the third century of the Christian era carved sun-wheels and swastikas. The study of these ancient monuments makes it clear that primitive man in northern Europe practiced heliolatry.

The moon played a less significant part in the lives of our primitive ancestors. They recognized that the course of the moon determined the months and the number of the months in the year. Their deep-seated belief in the influence of the moon upon the weather and upon their crops is still reflected in the lore and the customs of the Pennsylvania German people today, although symbols of the moon are of minor importance in their folk art (see pp. 55, 171).

p. 55

p. 55

p. 171; A waning moon with face done in rounded relief is the only adornment on this tombstone without date or inscription.

p. 171; A waning moon with face done in rounded relief is the only adornment on this tombstone without date or inscription.

It was the sun that remained paramount in the lives of the people of northern Europe. The annual course of the sun around the earth (apparently so), the directions of the heavens, North, South, East and West, the winter and the summer solstices, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and the changing seasons that came with them, all these deeply stirred primitive man to express himself in signs that denote these changes. Circles, spoked wheels within circles, 6-point compass stars, spirals, radiating half- and quarter-suns, the Ur-bogen, these were letters in a sign language in which he expressed his adoration. In his own obscure way he beheld in the sun the glory and effulgence of Divinity. In the course of time he placed these signs upon the objects of his everyday life, upon the lintels of his doors, upon his beds and cradles, upon his barns and upon his tombstones as a benediction, a benison or invocation, yes, even as a defence or talisman against the powers of evil and darkness, just as many centuries later the cross of Christ also came to be used.

Let us consider briefly the most significant of these sun symbols.

The Swastika

The hooked cross, or swastika, is believed to be the oldest symbol of the Aryan race and at the same time the most widely spread of all sun symbols. It was revered as a sacred sign in India, China and Persia, three millenia before the Christian era. There are instances of it in the Stone and Bronze Ages. In Greece it occurs in the second millenium B.C. Heinrich Schliemann exhumed objects on the site of ancient Troy with this symbol upon them. It was known among the aborigines of pre-Columbian America. The early Christians used it as a mark of benediction presumably to disguise the true Christian cross. It is found both with rectangular arms of equal length and with curved arms. In later centuries it was often used in northern Europe as a talisman and placed on houses, barns and household objects invoking blessings or warding off evil. It is today the universally favored amulet or good-luck charm.

The name “swastika” is of Sanskrit origin and is derived from su, well and asti, being, with the suffix ka meaning “It is well” and implying resignation to things as they are.

The rounded, four-lobed whirling swastika is familiar to all of us as one of the two basic signs on our painted barns. However, the swastika, whether with four or more arms, is an uncommon symbol in Pennsylvania German folk art. One finds it occasionally on buttermoulds and waffle irons, but only rarely on tombstones (see p. 215).

p. 215; From a heart, under an arch with saw-tooth edge, springs a tree of life, primitive in design. Pendants of the two drooping branches are sun-wheels containing each a five-lobed swastika. This oldest and most universal of all sun symbols occurs infrequently on Pennsylvania German tombstones.

p. 215; From a heart, under an arch with saw-tooth edge, springs a tree of life, primitive in design. Pendants of the two drooping branches are sun-wheels containing each a five-lobed swastika. This oldest and most universal of all sun symbols occurs infrequently on Pennsylvania German tombstones.

The Six-Point Compass Star

Although less ancient in origin the six-point compass star is next to the swastika the most widely disseminated symbol. The writer has seen it on the temple steps of ancient Ephesus; on the heterogeneous panels inserted in the walls of the little Byzantine Metropole Church of Athens; on the bronze doors that open to the shrine of Eyoub Ensari, standard-bearer to Mohammed, on the Golden Horn at Istanbul; on an old outdoor bakeoven not far from where this is being written; on the walls of a new synagogue in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

In German folk art the swastika yielded in popularity to the six-point compass star centuries ago. One sees it everywhere, but especially in the Low Saxon area, in Lippe-Detmold and in the counties of Herford and Minden, on the beams of half-timber houses, on door lintels and farmyard gates, and on household furnishings. In conjunction with the heart it frequently decorates wedding gifts such as spoon holders, mangle woods and bridal chairs. Like the swastika it is frequently used as a benison or talisman.

Since its form is dependent upon the compass this design lends itself especially for use on flat surfaces and is rarely used in textiles and ceramics. Together with the whirling swastika it forms the two basic designs on our painted barns. It is of frequent occurrence on our tombstones (see pp. 153, 207).

p. 153; This rude fieldstone bears only the ancient sun symbol, the 6-point compass star within a circle, seen so frequently on Lehigh County Barns.

p. 153; This rude fieldstone bears only the ancient sun symbol, the 6-point compass star within a circle, seen so frequently on Lehigh County Barns.

p. 207; The most frequent design on the tombstones of the years approaching the middle of the 19th century is the 6-point compass star. It is the period when this popular sun symbol begins to appear on the painted barns of the Pennsylvania Germans.

p. 207; The most frequent design on the tombstones of the years approaching the middle of the 19th century is the 6-point compass star. It is the period when this popular sun symbol begins to appear on the painted barns of the Pennsylvania Germans.

The Spiral

The spiral occurs among the Bronze-Age rock writings of southern Sweden and has remained a favored sun symbol among the Indogermanic peoples of northern Europe. The peasant working in his fields from early morning until late evening, could not help but observe the movements of the sun, now rising each day further north and higher until the summer solstice, then reversing its course as it approached once more the winter solstice. For him the spiral would seem a natural symbol of the sun’s course. Although it occurs singly it is most frequently seen as two spirals joined in opposing movements and sometimes connected by a small arch, forming the so-called Brille or eye-glasses, common on the arches of Low Saxon farmyard gates. Of this latter the tombstone on page 39 may show a faint trace. For two opposing spirals representing the ascending and descending movements of the sun upon its annual course see pp. 63, 67, 93.

p. 63; Cherubic wings and sprays of tulips do not lessen the grimness of the death's head. Of special interest are the sun spirals at the foot of the stone.

p. 63; Cherubic wings and sprays of tulips do not lessen the grimness of the death’s head. Of special interest are the sun spirals at the foot of the stone.

p. 67; This elaborate tombstone, one of the most beautiful in our collection, has sun spirals, quarter-suns, a tree of life with entwining double trunk (wedded life?), confrontal roosters, symbols of fertility, topped with a quatrefoil sunburst, all within a Georgian architectural framework.

p. 67; This elaborate tombstone, one of the most beautiful in our collection, has sun spirals, quarter-suns, a tree of life with entwining double trunk (wedded life?), confrontal roosters, symbols of fertility, topped with a quatrefoil sunburst, all within a Georgian architectural framework.

p. 93; At the head of the stone a quatrefoil sunburst for which the stone-cutter seems to have had a preference. The upper half of the panel is adorned with a five-branched tree of life, free in treatment and again with drooping lower branches (cf. 89, 115, 181). Especially interesting are the spirals below an architectural detail in the lower half of the panel. Such spirals are common in the folk art of the Nordic races and are symbolical of the sun's journey from the winter solstice (when the earth is in aphelion) up to the summer solstice (perihelion) and its descending course in the second half of the year.

p. 93; At the head of the stone a quatrefoil sunburst for which the stone-cutter seems to have had a preference. The upper half of the panel is adorned with a five-branched tree of life, free in treatment and again with drooping lower branches (cf. 89, 115, 181). Especially interesting are the spirals below an architectural detail in the lower half of the panel. Such spirals are common in the folk art of the Nordic races and are symbolical of the sun’s journey from the winter solstice (when the earth is in aphelion) up to the summer solstice (perihelion) and its descending course in the second half of the year.

The Ur-Bogen

The descending arc that the sun describes against the sky as it approaches the winter solstice is known to German folklorists and archaeologists as the Ur-bogen. Its name derives from the Ur, the name of the second letter in the futhark, the runic alphabet. In shape it is associated with the horns of the Auerochs (the extinct bison of northern Europe). That the runes were used as signs and symbols before they functioned as letters is indicated in the Norse Eddas and the sagas. According to Herman Wirth (Die Heilige Schift der Menschheit, Leipzig, 1931) the Ur-arc is the most sacred symbol of the Nordic peoples and denotes the great mystery of creative life. To those living in other latitudes this idea may seem fantastic, but for the inhabitants of the extreme north the arc of the winter sun became daily smaller until finally it seemed to sink into the lap of Mother Earth. The Ur-bogen became identical with winter, earth’s season of barrenness and death. But now the people rejoiced and celebrated their Holy Nights (it is interesting to note that Weihnachten, the German for Christmas, is a plural noun), for, in the words of the poet, “When Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” It was the time of the winter solstice. Now the sun would be reborn from out of Mother Earth. It would rise daily higher against the sky and shed its increasing light and heat. Mother Earth would once more bring forth her fruits to gladden the heart of man.

Even though this aspect of the sun changed for those of the Indogermanic tribes that migrated southward the symbol remained firmly fixed in their traditions. The Ur-bogen is common in German folk art, but occurs less frequently in Pennsylvania, where it is usually presented with a tree of life growing from it. A beautiful example is on the tombstone shown on p. 117, but see also pp. 75, 111.

p. 117; The reverse side of this tombstone shows a very effective use of the arc of the winter solstice, the ur-bogen (see Introd.), found quite frequently in Pennsylvania German folk art.

p. 117; The reverse side of this tombstone shows a very effective use of the arc of the winter solstice, the ur-bogen (see Introd.), found quite frequently in Pennsylvania German folk art.

p. 75; The decorations shown here are on the reverse side of the tombstone. Observe the lower 6-point compass star within a circle as sun symbol. On either side is a tree-of-life motif, a tulip growing out of the ancient sun arc, or ur-bogen, with diamond-shaped stem. The diamond occurs frequently in illuminations as an age-old symbol of the birth-giving feminine. From out of the heart, also a symbol of motherhood, grows a tulip.

p. 75; The decorations shown here are on the reverse side of the tombstone. Observe the lower 6-point compass star within a circle as sun symbol. On either side is a tree-of-life motif, a tulip growing out of the ancient sun arc, or ur-bogen, with diamond-shaped stem. The diamond occurs frequently in illuminations as an age-old symbol of the birth-giving feminine. From out of the heart, also a symbol of motherhood, grows a tulip.

p. 111; The illustration shows only the simple design under the arch at its head. It consists of three trees of life, each growing out of the ur-bogen, or lowest arc the sun describes against the sky at the time of the winter solstice, thence to rise upon its new course.

p. 111; The illustration shows only the simple design under the arch at its head. It consists of three trees of life, each growing out of the ur-bogen, or lowest arc the sun describes against the sky at the time of the winter solstice, thence to rise upon its new course.

The original significance of the Ur-bogen has become obscured, but in modern times it still lingers tenaciously in the superstition of the horseshoe as a bringer of good luck. Who on finding a horseshoe will not pick it up and place it over the door of his house barn or garage with an inescapable feeling that it is well to do so? But be sure to place it arch-upward!

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