Farewell, Bright Soul

When it came to decorating church and home, the Puritans of 17th- and 18th-century New England shunned any form of religious or figurative art. Anything beyond a stripped-down utilitarianism spoke of dangerous excess, even idolatry. Yet when a loved one died, the Puritans forsook this austerity and joyously celebrated the passage from flesh to spirit with beautifully carved gravestones.

As the seat of the soul, the face was often portrayed prominently on the gravestone, an astonished visage on its journey to another new world. For a century and a half, Puritans both rich and poor, old and young, male and female, were buried under gravestones decorated with eerie faces, and many thousands came to mark the hardscrabble New England countryside. “It’s the largest collection of folk art in the country,” says Vincent Luti, an expert on 18th-century gravestones, “and it’s been long ignored.”

The simplicity and purity of their religious beliefs drew the Puritan stone carvers toward exploring a flat style more akin to woodcuts and engravings than to the full dimensionality that had long been part of European religious art. And thus emerged a vernacular art form of powerful Picassoesque simplicity. By the early 19th century, however, the secular notions of the Enlightenment and the neoclassical movement, with its emphasis on European art, had rendered the gravestone art of the Puritans obsolete. Still they survive in the old graveyards, each carved soul undergoing its own silent vigil, weathering time and eternity.

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