Prior essays in this series examined the famous death’s head and soul effigy (see, for example, here and here). These were the most common New England grave symbols, and only occasionally do we find original designs. Among this handful of innovators, the work of Elijah and Joseph Sikes is perhaps the most daring and beautiful.
The Sikes were likely father and son, though we don’t know for sure. They worked in central Massachusetts, from the 1770s until about 1805. Their graves feature a forlorn feminine face, presumably representing the departed soul, placed in a recessed field of stone.
They followed two basic patterns. The first enclosed the frowning effigy in angular geometry, seen above and below. The lines suggest post-and-beam architecture.
The second and more striking design wrapped the figure in sinuous patterns, often carved as grape vines. The grave below features the grapevine and also a serpentine ribbon that suggests a pulsing aura, or perhaps simply a grave cloth.
They often added slogans and admonishments. The following grave features another vine, with leaves like downcast hearts, and an hourglass with the reminder, “As runs the glass, man’s life doth pass.”
In viewing the Sikes’s work, it’s important to recall that their designs fully abandoned the traditional iconography of winged skulls and cherubs. And in a final move, they changed the shape of the gravestone itself. The preceeding pictures feature the traditional design: a rectangular stone topped by rounded shoulders and a larger central tablet (called the tympanum). On the stone below, the Sikes extended and broadened the tympanum until it overhung the entire grave like a mushroom cap. The stone is packed with vines, pinwheels, rosettes, and a scalloped border:
These innovations must have greatly increased their labor. Here’s another example, with tall vines upon an extravagant double-tiered tympanum.
A similarly complex stone, nearly perfectly preserved, is seen below. This is a masterful combination of the forlorn effigy, geometric panels cut like bevelled glass, curtains, vines, flowers, and finely cut leaves. Presumably Elijah Sikes recognized the stone’s artistic force, for in an unusual decision, he signed the stone at the base “E.S.”
Working against two centuries of skulls and cherubs, Elijah and Joseph Sikes created a new artistic repertoire, a more human and naturalistic expression. To display their novel designs, they cut gravestones in daring new shapes. Any one of these changes would have been a noteworthy evolution. Taken all together, their work was something entirely new. Their gravestones remain fresh, powerful, and instantly recognizable.
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