I have a confession to make – I love cemeteries. It’s a macabre admission but to me cemetaries are about so much more than receptacles of the dead.
They are the one of the few places where we have to confront the veil of life and death and all things between. Cemeteries are a telling admission of how much one was loved or revered, an attempt to commemorate our dead, and perhaps an even more obscure attempt to leave our mark so we are not forgotten. They are places of quiet, of reflection, of spooky tales and gothic hauteur, of loss and grief and an attempt to communicate with the hereafter by leaving inscriptions with instructions that they hope some cosmic eye may read.
But my favourite cemetery of all time is the Waverley Cemetery, by the sea, which I am obsessed with because of their exceptionally large collection of angel statues mounted atop grave stones or pillars nearby. As you can see, I’ve been visiting this place and taking pictures of these relics for almost two decades and each time I’m struck by their solemn intensity, their range of postures and what are the vestigial intentions behind each arrangement. In every kind of pose we find them, and they are loving examples of a sculptors art. There are guardian angels, seraphs, cherubim, archangels, muses. Most of their expressions are serene and peaceful, or sad and resigned but some are portrayed in a most curious way that allows for wildly different interpretations. These are what I have labelled the curious angels of Waverley Cemetery. They are a tabula rasa whose enigmatic faces suggest so much by giving away very little. Is that a soothing face or a look of condescension ? Is that a patient look or the glare of condemnation ? Is that a gesture of intellectual curiosity or the perplexed point of the permanently bewildered ?
This very ambiguity can lead to all kinds of disturbing implications. For instance – this statue set of an angel and a child in a tight embrace (pictured below) seems to portray trust, comfort, protection. But from some angles, that embrace looks controlling and possessive. And why is the child nude ? Nudity = Innocence ? Deprivation ? Desperation ? Purity ?
Look at these two below. There’s several pics I took of the same statue. On one level it’s a monk being tutored by an angel. But is it tutoring or lecturing, or worse – is he disciplining the monk ? The angel’s face is calm, composed, the monk is bowed. The angel has his wrist up and his hand crooked in a position that is like that of a headmaster. And is the monk’s head bowed in respect, subservience or is it penitence for some sin ? The power relationship implicit in the postures are very suggestive indeed.
In the right light, these stone angels can seem alive. My fascination with angel statues began over a decade ago before angel statues became popularized as the terrifying silent but deadly villains of the Dr Who universe, known as the Weeping Angels. When I saw the first Dr Who episode ‘Blink’ where the scary angel statues were introduced, I did wonder whether Steven Moffat had a scare in a cemetery once after he stared at a statue for too long.
Certainly I’ve had that experience where I’ll turn around and look and something subtle seems to have changed. And then of course there’s that time I visited the cemetery at night and the car headlights lit up a statue right in front of me so that it seemed to be jumping out at me !
Then there’s the amorphous sexuality of the angels to consider. Many of the statues have classical Renaissance Madonna-like faces but no breasts. Flowing, curling hair but no facial hair. Their shapes are softly curved which would suggest their feminine, but lacking the distinct curvature of the usual artistic depictions of ‘fertile’ females one would think they are male but the muscular male depiction is also avoided. In traditional Christianity, angels are genderless or have the qualities of hermaphrodites – and the statues suggest this interpretation. And though the mythology of angels predates Christianity (there’s mention of winged beings of great power who molded or interfered in creation in Egyptian, Sumerian, and ancient Asiatic mythologies), the angel statues in this cemetery are clearly in the traditional Christian molds of old school Catholicism and Protestant ideas.
Whatever one believes, the curious angels of Waverley Cemetary have a haunting and magnetic aura that can’t be ignored. It’s almost like they are from another time and place. Stare at them long enough, and you may feel like you are transported there.