“Man can feel no religious awe more genuine and profound I believe, than the awe he feels when treading the ground where his ancestors – his roots – repose. – Nikos Kazantzakis
The Circular Church, founded in 1681, has the richest repository of 18th century iconic gravestones in the country, according to Diana Williams Combs in her book, Early Gravestone Art in Georgia and South Carolina.
As an artist, I get such a sense of awe walking these paths off Meeting Street, in the heart of historic Charleston. My grandparents of many generations back, Mary Woodward and The Reverend William Hutson, who pastored this church in the mid 1700’s, and whose stones still stand there, with inscriptions in Latin, adds to my fascination, but imagery of putti and skulls and anchors and angel faces watch me, call to me, on these stone pathways.
Ms. Combs asks, “What can the image and the epitaph reveal about our individual and collective histories?” And she argues that early gravestones are an important part of the history of American sculpture, and are not mere folk art.
There is a sense of reverence, like Nikos Kazantzakis so poignantly writes in Report to Greco, about his own ancestors: “Man can feel no religious awe more genuine and profound I believe, than the awe he feels when treading the ground where his ancestors – his roots – repose. Your own feet sprout roots which descend into the earth and search, seeking to mingle with the quiet immortal roots of the dead. The tart fragrance of the soil and the camomile fills your vitals with tranquility and also with a desire for free submission to the eternal laws.”
Places, and certainly this place, and the other historic graveyards in Charleston, tell stories, and call us to know our history. There are ten historic churchyards, in addition to the Circular Church, which provide the most extensive record of eighteenth century iconic gravestones in America. They are St. Philips Episcopal, St. John’s Lutheran, The Huguenot Church, St Michael’s Episcopal, First Scots Presbyterian, First Baptist, Unitarian, St. Mary’s Catholic, and Bethel Methodist.
According to Diana Combs, there is evidence from the surviving iconic tombstones in South Carolina and Georgia, especially the concentration in Charleston, that New England carvers dominated the market in these communities for two centuries. Signatures of carvers, like William Codner, a Boston artisan of unusual skill whose only signed stone (Reverend Nathan Bassett, 1739) is not in New England, but in Charleston. Also the carver, Henry Emmes, known for portraiture. Thomas Walker, a Scots immigrant, too, figures as an important carver.
These stones, standing through hurricanes and wars, are extraordinary examples of our cultural and artistic past. As I walk these paths, my imagination takes me back to the sights and smells and clothes of 18th century Charleston, a place that embraced those of many cultures. People of different faiths and faces lived and worked and often worshipped together.
The 18th century was the era that nurtured American Independence. Charleston today is rich and fresh, with her rock-star chefs, her fabulous contemporary art, the Spoleto festival, the daily pleasure of the drive to Mt. Pleasant over what is only sculpture: the the breathtakingly evocative Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge. It is often said that in order to know where we are going we must know where we came from. In no city, in no place, do I feel this power like I do standing in the sacred places of Charleston’s churchyards. It is a city that sees the future from her past.
The American photographer, Ansel Adams (1902-1984), speaking of photography (the newer than slate-carving art form;) wrote this, about photographs of people: “These people live again in print as intensely as when their images were captured on the old dry plates of sixty years ago….I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me.”
Yes, indeed. I see, exactly.