In my post about the urn motif in 19th century funerary art, I traced its origin to the late 18th century and said it was probably copied by rustic stonemasons from grand houses. That may be its origin in England, but the motif has been associated with tombs for a lot longer than that – in fact for over a thousand years.
In the Basilica of St Apollinaire in Classe, if you can turn your gaze away from the stupendous mosaics for a moment, you will see sarcophagi from the 5th to 8th centuries containing remains of the Bishops of Ravenna. Urns are depicted on three of them, like the one on the left. On the upper panel are two peacocks flanking an urn, out of which a vine grows, in the lower panel, two small birds flanking an urn topped with a shell.
The iconography of peacocks, urns and vines was common in early Byzantine art. In the Archepiscopal Museum in Ravenna, there is sarcophagus with a similar peacock-and-urn decoration. The motif is found on floor mosaics as well, as in the 6th-century mosaic pavement of Chersonesos (below). In some images a fountain flows from the urn. A 4th century mosaic pavement In the Episcopal Basilica of Stobi (bottom) shows peacocks, deer and quails arranged around fountains spouting from urns. Some of the mosaics in Ravenna show doves around a basin of water.
The peacock, like the dove, is one of the earliest Christian symbols, found in the art of the Roman catacombs. It represented immortality and resurrection, an idea Christians took from pagans, who thought the flesh of the peacock would never decay. In The City of God, St Augustine reported his experiment on a peacock carcase: “I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell.”
The symbols of the peacock, dove, urn, vine and fountain were a gift to artists, who made them into beautiful patterns in mosaic and wall paintings. In Ravenna, in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a motif of of doves drinking from a basin (top), has been designed and executed with superlative skill. The artist has arranged the birds so that one is drinking, the other looking away, making a dynamic and lively figure. He also put a band of red on the white basin to echo the red feet of the doves, knitting elements of the motif together. Everything is done in a free, lively and engaging way – and this is merely a motif at the bottom of a large panel. Just for fun, artists depicted birds that may have had no particular significance, like a quail and parrot round an urn of grapes in the catacomb of St. Sebastian (above).
But what about the urn? What did it stand for? It seems to have been just a container for other symbols – the vine which represented Christ or the fountain, which represented life. Its symmetrical form, accentuated by the handles, lends itself to pleasing arrangements on sarcophagi, in niches or on pavements.
As a footnote, I mention C.H.Reilley‘s neo-Byzantine church, St. Barnabas, Dalston (1909), which I visited for a concert last week. It’s a peculiar building made in the form of a basilica but completely plain inside, not even plastered. Its bare brick made me think of St. Apollinaire in Classe. The dome over the altar (left) cried out for decoration. Obviously, the church couldn’t afford to have it covered in mosaic, but, despite our technical superiority over the artists of the 6th century, I doubt if we could find an artist capable of it today.
Watch out for my upcoming post about Vasemania in 18th century design and how it led on to the gloomy urns in Victorian cemeteries.