The Puritans fled England as an act of Christian devotion. Christianity filled their lives, and at life’s end, they saw death as a step toward resurrection in Christ. It seems strange, then, that in commemorating the dead, colonial graves almost never included explicit Christian imagery. The colonists packed their gravestones with fantastical winged skulls and soul effigies, yet rarely included a crucifix, the central icon of Christianity. Biblical parables filled their daily teachings yet almost never appeared on their graves.
The gravestone of Sarah Swan, who died in 1767, is a striking exception. She died at age twenty, and was buried in Bristol, Rhode Island, on a rocky hill overlooking Narragansett Bay.
The rounded head of the gravestone (called the tympanum) holds an elaborate design in which we instantly see the Garden of Eden. Look at the wonderful detail: Eve and Adam wearing fig leaves, the forbidden tree, the wily serpent, and a Biblical quotation.
The engraving reads: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” The quote is attributed: “CORINts [Corinthians]: CHAP. XV Vears [Verse] 22”. Adam and Eve reach toward the tree, the serpent descends to meet them, the boughs hang heavy with forbidden fruit.
The serpent carries a fruit in its mouth, lifting it to Eve. We see each finger, the bark on the tree, the serpent’s beady eyes, and the scales upon his back. The details remain sharp two and a half centuries after the carver set down his tools.
This has traditionally been understood as an apple tree. The Bible, however, names it “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and merely describes a “fruit.” Scholars trace the association with apples to a 4th century translation of the Bible, from Hebrew into Latin. The Latin term for evil (malus) is the same as the term for apple (also malus). This offered an irresistible pun. Whereas a strict translation would use the word fructus, for “fruit,” instead the authors chose malus malus for “evil apple.” Many Medieval and Renaissance artists rendered this scene:
An interesting detail on the Sarah Swan grave is the sun. Wearing a downcast expression, it simultaneously illuminates and laments this moment of man’s original sin and fall from grace. The sun passes beyond the margin of the stone, foreshadowing the darkness that will follow expulsion from Eden.
As noted above, the colonists rarely used Christian imagery on gravestones. This stemmed from the origins of Puritanism, which sought to “purify” the Church of England of corruption and especially of its ancestral ties to Catholicism. This entailed complex theological maneuvers, but in an outward sense it meant discarding the ornate symbols, icons, artistry, and vestments of Catholic tradition. These were seen as earthly extravagances that separated man from God. In extreme cases, rioting Puritans smashed stained glass windows, pulled down crosses, and destroyed decorative altars. The Puritans built plain churches, wore simple black robes, and preached in unadorned style. Likewise, their gravestones avoided the crucifix, cherubs, images of Jesus, and other icons of Catholicism.
In all the colonial graveyards, with their innumerable flocks of death’s heads and soul effigies, the Swan gravestone stands apart in its explicit Biblical illustration. Even within the same graveyard, where one expects to find work by the same hand, it resembles no other stones. Marking the brief life of Sarah Swan, this unknown, unorthodox carver created a unique and powerful monument.
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