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Today’s essay examines the work of Josiah Manning and his sons Frederick and Rockwell.  They carved gravestones throughout eastern Connecticut.  Josiah Manning began engraving in the 1750s, and with his sons worked until almost 1810.  They were prolific and innovative.  While most stone cutters produced variations of the death’s head, the Mannings perfected the ressurection image known as a “soul effigy.”  Here’s an example, from 1778:

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Nehemiah Ensworth, 1778, Cantebury, Connecticut.

As discussed previously (see here), gravestone design shifted throughout the 1700s, from the foreboding death’s head toward gentler, more hopeful imagery.  The development of the soul effigy was one aspect of this change.  Rather than a grim skull, the soul effigy depicted a quasi-human form.  The design became common in southern New England in the late 1700s, largely due to Manning’s influence.

Manning sent the deceased soaring heavenward on enormous, outspread, billowing wings.  Stars shone above as the soul took flight, leaving swirling clouds of our earthly ashes and dust behind:

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Anna Bishop, 1780, Lisbon, Connecticut.

The Mannings embroidered their stones with fine scrollwork, and cut crisp lettering.  The resurrected soul wore wide-away eyes, an uncertain mouth, and hair blasted upward.  Perhaps this depicted the wonder of resurrection or the first astonished glimpse of divine truth.

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Sarah Holt, 1784, Willington, Connecticut.

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Anne Paine, 1789, Woodstock, Connecticut.

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James Dean, “kill’d by a fall from a hors,” 1778, Plainfield, Connecticut.

The grave of Mary Brewster, from 1783, is a particularly unusual carving (below).  The effigy wears four thin wings, unfurling at the ends.  The departed soul resembles a butterfly escaping its chrysalis, a metamorphosis from earthly to celestial form.  The body is represented as an open ring, perhaps to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of our human frame.

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Mary Brewster, 1783, Scotland, Connecticut.

The Mannings were amazingly productive, and their work remains in nearly every old burying ground of eastern Connecticut.  They also trained other carvers, who produced similar works, such as the stone below by John Walden.  In place of wings, Walden carved upswept arms that seem to rage against mortality:

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Peter Grosvenor, 1791, Pomfret, Connecticut. “A flower cropt in the bud.”

The soul effigy remade the imagery of death and resurrection.  It was another example of authentic American artistry, unconnected from European styles.  Like much of the other gravestone innovation, it developed in rural New England, free from the cosmopolitan influence of cities. The soul effigy was also the last major creative shift in grave design.  As will be seen in the next post, the artistic variety of gravestones soon yielded to a stifling, bland uniformity.  The soul effigy thus culminated nearly two hundred years grappling to capture the drama of death, loss, and divine hope.

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Olive Hall, 1790, Plainfield, Connecticut.

All photos taken by the author.  If you enjoy these posts, please consider subscribing.  Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow this Blog.’

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3 thoughts on “New England Graves: Flight of the Soul.

  1. Although I’ve often visited cemeteries, I haven’t really done so since moving to Cambridge, Mass. But your posts have got me hankering for warmer weather to go visit some of the nearby churchyards.

  2. This is fascinating. While I love going to old cemeteries, I knew nothing about the art and the ways the symbols evolved. I’ll look with new eyes from this point on!

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