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Sensuality of the Cemetery: The changing shapes of grave monuments

Verdi’s sepulchral opera Un ballo in maschera is a heady mix of the solemn and the sensual – a combination reflected in the history of cemetery sculpture.

By John Lord (Sculptor and art historian)

16 December 2014 at 3.13pm | Comment on this article

Un ballo in maschera is an opera of death and passion. Its first scene opens with Samuel and Tom conspiring in Riccardo’s overthrow and talking of his ‘sad grave’. This is even before the witch Ulrica foretells his assassination. Her words evoke images of tombs and cemeteries and their associated spiritual feelings.

Cemeteries are strange places. They can be melancholy but also engender a sense of relief and release. They are for some disturbing and frightening. All those gravestones stand up as shadowy sentinels in the half-light, and who knows what may be lurking among them?

Cemeteries as we know them – distinct from graveyards attached to a church – are relative newcomers. One reason for their proliferation was that graveyards were becoming full as the wish to have a permanent gravestone became more fashionable. In the 19th century the hygienic disposal of bodies increasingly became another factor.

One pioneering cemetery was the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Laid out by the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart in 1804, it was one of several cemeteries built on the outskirts of the city to alleviate the problem of the disposal of corpses, including those who had been guillotined – corpses which might otherwise end up on rubbish dumps.

With fewer large memorials being allowed within churches, the new cemeteries increasingly became densely filled with imposing architectural and sculptural monuments, giving them a strange atmosphere of other-worldliness.

Funerary sculpture often deals in symbols. Some horrific late medieval ‘cadaver tombs’ show the person both in life and, below, as a decaying corpse. Commonly, and following the pattern of the lying in state prior to the funeral, the figure is recumbent, either dead or asleep, which indicates that there was a ‘good death’; the body lies in peace awaiting the resurrection’s last trumpet.

In time, and deriving in part from medieval ‘weepers’, other allegorical figures came to be added to tombs, which began to show the deceased alive, reclining, seated or standing. These attendant figures might symbolize the virtues Faith, Hope and Charity, Grief or Fame (usually for a man) or angels, indicative of the soul’s acceptance into Heaven.

As sculptures, these often female characters tend to be young and beautiful: after all, if they represent noble concepts then it is appropriate that they be perfect. In the early 19th century sculptors based their figures on idealized classical norms, the idealized features of which weakened any overt eroticism.

As the 19th century progressed, more and more sculptors became interested in a realist approach. You might think this new realism would be quite inappropriate in something as serious and melancholic as a monument – sensuousness, or the expression of life force, should be out of place. However, in the Père Lachaise cemetery it is possible to find allegorical female figures with prominent nipples and some who are bare-breasted.

So, what was going on in those fin de siècle years to cause a relaxation of funerary sculptural conventions? It was a period of contrasts – empire and pomposity, security and prosperity on one hand, and on the other an underlying unease, a questioning of the status quo and a feel for experiment. In this era of spiritualism and its attempts to join together the immaterial to the material, it was appropriate that any mourning figure attendant on a monument – and therefore the deceased – should appear as an emotive, sentient being.

Even though Ulrica’s premonition of Riccardo’s death by the hand of his trusted companion comes true, his death – despite the somewhat sinister and unnerving masked faces of his enemies – is also a good and noble one, for he forgives his enemies, as all Christians are exhorted to do. The question is, will Amelia, in her remorse for having caused her lover’s murder, have a monument raised to his memory?

This is an extract from John Lord’s article ‘Death, Monuments and the Sensual’ in The Royal Opera’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

Un ballo in maschera runs 18 December 2014–17 January 2015. Tickets are sold out, but there are 67 day tickets for each performance and returns may become available.

The production is a co-production with Theater Dortmund and Scottish Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

By John Lord (Sculptor and art historian)

16 December 2014 at 3.13pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Katharina Thoma, cemetery, graveyard, otherworldly, Père Lachaise, Production, sculpture, spooky, Un ballo in maschera

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