Thursday, June 2, 2011

Secrets of Cemetery Monument Revealed

While every tiny tombstone and each magnificent cemetery memorial must have a story associated with it, the Gardel monument in Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery is, in my opinion, highly unusual. Why? Because every aspect of its mysterious symbolism is documented.

The monument is the most conspicuous sculpture in the cemetery, being twenty-five feet high, pyramid-shaped and adorned with white marble statuary. Its right side can be seen from Lehigh Avenue, if you peer through the trees and weeds. Mount Vernon Cemetery is a strange place, whose story is a mystery to most people (even the folks who run Laurel Hill Cemetery across the street). It is kept locked up, and rarely do you see anyone at the gatehouse inside the entrance. In summer, the foliage is so overgrown that all you can see of the magnificent monuments are the tops of the obelisks here and there. Winter is the only time to see anything through the fencing. If you're very lucky, someone might answer the phone and you might schedule a time to be allowed in. Or, if you happen to drive by and see the guy with the truck inside the gate, you can accost him and see if he'll let you in. You're not allowed to walk around by yourself, either!

The Gardel monument with its brownstone pyramid and white marble figures seems to be an exercise in symbolism run amok. But how often do we get a precise description of such symbolism? Not very. The monument was constructed in the memory of Julia Hawks Gardel, who died in 1859, while "on tour" in Damascus, Syria (which I take to mean she was on a trip).

Author and historian Tom Keels says in his book, Philadelphia Cemeteries and Graveyards, “For many years, the Gardel monument was featured extensively on Mount Vernon brochures…today the monument stands guard over a derelict cemetery.” I located a brochure (circa late 1800s) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in which the monument is described as a "splendid work of art." And it is that. To get an appreciation for the size of its marble statuary, note Frank, my photographer friend standing amidst the statuary. The sculptures are quite beautiful, albeit weathered and worn, with trees and vines growing in the cracks between the pyramid's brownstone blocks.

 Stereoscopic photograph of Gardel Monument, c. 1865  (ref.)

A friend of Frank's recently happened to acquire a vintage stereoscopic ("3-D") photograph of the Gardel monument (shown above), which has a printed explanation of the memorial on its back.While some mourning art is expressed with symbolism of a general kind (for example, a pyramid usually signifies 'eternity'), the Gardel monument was instead designed very purposefully to relate to the life - and death - of the deceased, Julia Gardel. In my experience, it is unusual to find such specifics in funerary art, where typically the highly personal meanings of statues and monuments have been lost to the ages. I've transcribed the description word for word, so please excuse the misspellings and odd terms.


The Gardel family, while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, was attacked by the Bedouins,causing the death of Mrs. Gardel soon after arriving in Damascus.

Representatives of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America were present at the funeral, hence the artist’s idea – a funeral procession. A figure, representing Europe, preseded by a Genius with torch and key, who deposit the cineary urn in the pyramid.

Asia, represented by a female figure, seated on a camel in a kneeling posture.

Africa, a beautifully posed Egyptian female, reclining on a sphinx, an Egyptian emblem − head and chest of a woman, posterior portions the lion − typical of the overflow of the Nile, which always occurs under the signs of Leo and Virgo.

 The bas-relief over the door contains the bust of Mrs. Gardel, inclosed in a medallion, supported in the hands of hope and faith − emblems of the religious character of the deceased. The two figures are in the act of raising the medallion to the crown above it.

The uppermost figure represents America, surrounded by the emblems of the physical sciences, cut on both sides of her socle, and with one arm resting on the Bible, deposits with the other, on the head of the deceased, the crown of Immortelles, awarded to her long and earnest labors in the mental and moral education of American youth.

                Sculptor, G. Geef, Brussels, Siolvar of the King of Belgium. Cost, $31,000.

Julia and her husband Bertrand Gardel were teachers in Philadelphia, and must have been quite well off to afford such a cemetery memorial and a trip overseas (especially on a teacher's salary!). Bertrand Gardel, a French teacher and patron of the arts, was kind of mentor to the artist Thomas Eakins (at the time also a Philadelphia resident). According to author Sidney Kirkpatrick, Gardel "exposed Eakins to sculpture while supervising the construction of a 25-foot high monument he commissioned for his wife’s burial plot at Mount Vernon Cemetery." Further quoting Kirkpatrick from his book, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, "the imposing pyramid-shaped memorial, gathering allegorical figures in mourning after a design by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, inspired Tom to try his own hand at funerary design." Bertrand Gardel himself was immortalized as one of the chess players in Eakins' painting, The Chess Players (1876). Bertrand is buried with Mrs. Gardel, having died 36 years later in 1895.

References and Further Reading: 

The Gardels on 
What are Stereoscopic Photographs?