5 Morbid Monuments

basilique-saint-denis

Monuments have become so common these days that they blend into the background: the Pyramids are postcard fodder, the blue plaques of London are largely unread, and the Pantheon is hemmed in on all sides by apartments. But, amongst the famous, the forgotten, and the frankly quotidian, nestles a group of morbid and terrifying statues.

The Hannah Duston Statue – Boscawen NH

hannah-duston

 

Set in the midst of overgrown lawns, isolated on an island in the middle of a river, the Hannah Duston statue is a reminder of a piece of American folklore that is now almost forgotten. Atop a 30ft granite pillar stands a statue of a woman: she is frozen mid stride, her shoulders are bare, a tomahawk hangs loosely in her right hand, and in her left, she grips a bunch of scalps. This is the statue which commemorates the bloody night when Hannah Duston murdered her kidnappers as they slept (a murder where she went so far as to kill ten sleeping Native Americans – men, women and children – with the aid of two other captors). It is a gruesome monument to a harrowing story. And it is believed to be the first statue in America to honor a woman.

The Vigeland Sculpture Park – Oslo, Norway

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In the early part of the 20th Century, Gustav Vigeland was hailed as one of Norway’s greatest sculptors. He was even granted studio space by the city of Oslo. His work was strongly influenced by Neoclassical aesthetics, and following the conclusion of WWII some of his work was denounced for its similarities to that of Arno Becker, and for his own controversial personal politics. Nonetheless, much of his work remains in a large park in central Oslo, and amongst the otherwise innocuous work hides Man Attacked by Genii. The towering bronze sculpture depicts a man fighting off a horde of angry babies, and kicking one with his foot. The Genii are apparently small malevolent spirits, but why Vigeland chose to depict them as children remains unclear.

The Rape of the Sabine Women – Giambologna

abduction of the sabine women

 

It should be noted that the episode depicted in Giambologna’s sculpture is taken from the legend of the Sabinae raptae, which in translation actually equates to ‘The Abduction of the Sabine Women’. The legend dates back to the founding of Rome, when Romulus and his cohorts, being mostly male, found themselves somewhat short of women. Romulus wished to expand his population, and the nearby Sabine tribes, fearing the growth of a rival faction, forbid marriages between Romans and Sabines. The classical historian Livy maintains that their eventual abduction during a festival did not result in their sexual assault, but there is considerable doubt surrounding this particular point. Giambologna’s sculpture was carved from a single piece of marble, and whilst morbid in its content, is undeniably beautiful in both its execution and form.

The Capuchin Crypt – Rome

capuchin crypt

 

Set a little ways off the Via Veneto, not far from the Piazza Barberini is a crypt containing the remains of close to 4,000 skeletons believed to be the remains of the Capuchin Order, friars who died between roughly 1530 and 1870. The ossuary is not the largest – that honor goes to the Parisian Catacombs – though it is breathtakingly (pardon the pun) beautiful. It is best to visit during the week and in the middle of the day when there are fewer visitors and the natural light is particularly striking. Famous visitors have included the Marquis de Sade, and Mark Twain (the former of whom found the experience particularly moving). The crypt bears the haunting legend: “Noi eravamo quello che voi siete, e quello che noi siamo voi sarete” – We were what you are; and what we are, you will be.

Transi de René de Chalon – Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc, France

Transi de René de Chalon

 

The statue was commissioned by the widow of René de Chalon, Prince of Orange, to memorialize his death at the Siege of Saint-Dizier. Carved in white stone by Ligier Richier (a former pupil of Michelangelo), the work is notable not only for its complexity, but for the choice to depict the Prince’s body in decay: his skin is in ribbons, which peel away from his bones, and in his outstretched arm he holds his own heart. To add a further level of gruesome detail, it is said that Chalon’s heart was actually placed inside the statue’s hand and remained there for years, until it was stolen during the French Revolution. The statue remains as one of the most exceptional examples of the “transi” genre of tombs – works which seek to show the body in its transient stage of decomposition.

Featured Image: Tympanum, North Portal, Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris. Depicting the beheading of Saint Dennis, rumored to have walked six miles after his decapitation, carrying his head, preaching repentance.