In the more rural parts of Europe, at least until well into the twentieth century, the village church and its churchyard were the centre of the community. This weekend I look at what went on in those country churchyards. This first article spans the period between the middle of the eighteenth century, from William Hogarth, to Louis Welden Hawkins in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Tomorrow I take that through to the early twentieth century with Nikolai Astrup, whose father was a parish priest.
William Hogarth set scenes in his moralistic series in churchyards, although not in country villages.
In his Industry and Idleness, published in 1747, he contrasted the pious and upright lifestyle of his hero Goodchild with the dissolute figure of Idle.
Goodchild worships in church (probably St Martin’s-in-the-Fields) on a Sunday. He stands in a pew, sharing a hymnal with the Master’s daughter.
While Goodchild is inside attending the service, Idle is seen gambling on a tombstone in the churchyard, in the company of three other aspiring minor villains. The church shown here is probably St Michael’s in Crooked Lane, or St Paul’s in Shadwell. In the foreground is an open grave which is planked over, with skulls and other remains behind. At the rear left is an irate churchwarden, with his cane raised, who has come to break up the group and move them on.
His later series, The Stages of Cruelty, uses its churchyard for its association with death, and the downfall of its anti-hero Tom Nero.
It’s now the dead of night, 0105 by the church clock. Nero has been apprehended by local people at the dead body of a woman, who turns out to be his pregnant partner. Her throat has been cut to the point of almost severing her neck, and she also has deep cuts at the left wrist and on the left index finger. That finger points to an open book which read “God’s Revenge against Murder”, and next to that is the book of Common Prayer. By her body is a box of her valuables, bearing her initials “A G” for Ann Gill, and a bag containing stolen goods.
For the Romantic artist, churchyards meant doom and horror.
In his early painting The Abbey in the Oak Wood (1808–10), Caspar David Friedrich offers us a very dark vision of death, gloom, and the depths of Gothic horror. This painting shows the ruins of a church amid gnarled and barren trees, silhouetted against a twilight sky. Hanging low in the sky is a thin sliver of the new moon. In the gathering murk, we can just distinguish the dark shadows of graveyard memorials, and a funeral procession bearing a coffin into the remains of the church entrance. Even the horizon is lost in the cloak of darkness which covers the land.
The same year that Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series was published, Gottfried August Bürger published the ghoulish Romantic Ballad of Lenore, which ends with the young woman riding wildly with the Grim Reaper into a churchyard in the dead of night.
Horace Vernet, in The Ballad of Lenore, or The Dead Travel Fast from 1839, shows Lenore’s dead fiancé William transforming into the figure of Death, as their horse crosses tombs in the graveyard.
Carl Friedrich Lessing, a follower of Caspar David Friedrich, painted The Siege (Defence of a Churchyard During the Thirty Years’ War) in 1848 to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia, which brought that war to an end. Responsible for the deaths of around eight million people in central Europe, it was both a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, and a war between the house of Habsburg and its many opponents.
Lessing shows villagers and soldiers packing the wall of the yard of a burned-out church. A priest is administering the last rites to a soldier lying on his back on a tombstone. In the near distance there is the smoke of a nearby village being attacked, and a column of troops are heading this way through the ripe corn.
Churches and churchyards play important roles in Goethe’s Faust, the first part of which was published as a play in 1808. After Faust’s seduction of the young and innocent Gretchen, she walks to a statue of the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows, by the city wall. Having placed some flowers on the statue, she prays for the Virgin’s help in her anguish, a moment which has proved popular with visual artists.
Adam Vogler’s undated painting of Gretchen Before the Statue of the Virgin Mary shows her in contemplative sorrow outside what appears to be a church or similar.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s view of Faust and Marguerite shows the couple emerging from a cathedral a couple of scenes later. Mephistopheles is skulking behind the monument in the churchyard, looking more an alter ego or doppelgänger than a demon.
I end this first article with three paintings by Louis Welden Hawkins, which feature quite different narratives for their churchyards.
Hawkins’ first successful painting was Orphans (1881), which shares the muted colours of Jules Bastien-Lepage, usually attributed to the light said to be peculiar to Grez-sur-Loing in France. A young brother and sister are in a neglected graveyard, looking together at a pauper’s grave, apparently of one or both of their parents.
This painting was awarded a third-class medal at the Paris Salon that year, and was purchased by the state in 1887 for 10,000 francs. It was later exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
Hawkins continued this style in The Last Step (c 1882), which shows an elderly woman walking slowly with a stick in what may be the same graveyard. In the distance, a gravedigger is digging a new grave through the stony soil. The two engage in conversation, probably discussing where she will be buried in the not too distant future.
Solitude, from about 1890, is a bridge between Hawkins’ Naturalist paintings of the rural poor and his later Symbolism. Read at face value, it shows a young woman reading her Missal or Bible in an overgrown churchyard, in quiet piety. But it’s late autumn already, the leaves have fallen from the tree behind her, and two black crows are above. Are they harbingers of death, or symbols of magic? Its intense quiet is slightly sinister.