I recently read an article on Atlas Obscura about the Merry Cemetery in Romania. What makes this cemetery unique, and merry, are the elaborate and colorful gravestones created by Stan Ioan Patras. Patras, a wood carver and epitaph poet, used colors to represent everything from fertility to freedom, black birds to symbolize suspicious or tragic deaths, and white doves to depict an individual’s soul. He carved approximately 600 markers in his 50+ year career.
Symbolism in art is a funny thing. In art history classes students learn about the symbolic elements of the artwork covered and many times paintings which initially seemed straightforward become incredibly complex and as seemingly indecipherable as the Rosetta Stone. This is, in no small part, due to the associations people attach to objects changing throughout time. In extreme cases, the objects tucked away in corners and resting on shelves in Renaissance era paintings which, at the time they were painted, were universally understood to mean specific things are not even recognizable to modern day students. So while art may be timeless, messages conveyed in the art are not.
Patras’ markers, however, use a personal system of symbolism which ratchets up the difficulty even more. Some symbols seem intuitive and natural – his use of green to represent life for example. Others not so much. For me, a white dove symbolizes peace not the spiritual essence of another previously living creature and a black bird, as long as it’s not a buzzard circling overhead, arouses no suspicion at all. And there is, of course, the possibility that there are even more symbols in the gravestones that have not been recognized.
But the article made me think about personal symbolism in art and to consider what symbols, if any, I use as well as what other artists use. And to question if it is even possible in a modern age for some items to be universally understood to symbolize specific things without actually being symbols. There is some small, perverse part of me that is tempted to purposefully create a system just so I can obsessively and secretly tuck symbols away in my artwork.