Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History
Themes of Love and Death in a Reading of the Carved Ornament of a Puritan Bed
I want to direct attention for a moment to an important episode in the history of ornament and the decorative arts. These are art forms which rarely come up in the Postmodern fascination with the relationship between words and images. The less regarded decorative arts often convey much but are rarely read.
However, the language is different, in certain significant ways, from that of the arts of painting or writing. More like hieroglyphs, ornamental forms are abstracted from forms in the real world, but then modified, sometimes almost beyond recognition. Sharing factors with both verbal and painted art forms, ornament can be considered to exist at a median point between the two. Perhaps an even more significant difference between literature on the one hand, and what could be called the fine arts on the other, is that ornamental forms normally represent the aspirations of entire populations rather than of peculiar and individual artists. At the same time decorative forms have an added factor; they are patterned in a way to distinctly please the eye of the beholder, comparable to the way that the rhythms and rhymes of poetry please the ear.
The patterns carved on the Puritan headboard, the subject of this article, represent the most that the iconoclastic Puritans could ever offer to the visual arts.1 Curiously, there has never been a serious attempt to interpret as legible symbols the forms that appear on the furnishings of Puritan homes. But to see this painted and carved ornament as merely pretty decoration would be to forget who the Puritans were; would be to forget that it would not have been their way to countenance the frivolity of mere visual enjoyment. The symbols here, carved in oak, the most permanent of woods, function as a constant sermon on the relationship between love and death.
This headboard was part of a bed made for a Puritan, probably by a Puritan, probably shortly after the most famous of all Puritan works of art was created, John Milton’s Paradise Lost . Paradise Lost was offered for sale in London first in 1667. Not long after that the panels of this headboard were carved for a marriage bed. Both creations represent the purest strain of Puritanism, before its evolution into a different kind of religion later in the seventeenth century.
In Paradise Lost Milton wrote of the first marriage. The bed to which this headboard belonged would have been made on the occasion of a Puritan marriage. These Puritans believed that, in a true marriage, the lives of Adam and Eve are replicated, the events of Genesis relived. However, there is one significant difference. The current of the old story is now reversed. Through the rituals of a Christian marriage, played out through a lifetime, Paradise could be regained. That is what the symbols on this headboard say.
To interpret this ornament is not as difficult as it might appear. Simply to realize that a meaning was intended makes these symbols largely accessible to simple common sense supported by a little knowledge of the Bible. At the same time a common-sensical interpretation can be corroborated by a review of the historical context. Originating in Early Christian times, this vocabulary of ornament first became common knowledge in the carved ornament of the Late Gothic furnishings of English churches. It was enriched by the symbolic language of heraldry. Later, many of the forms appeared, along with further additions, on the carved headstones of English and American graves of the later seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, the headstone being considered the headboard of the grave, the grave being the bed in which the deceased slept until the Second Coming. ( The carved headstone, where symbolic meanings were clearly intended, actually developed out of the decorated headboard.)2 Finally, the metaphors in the poetry of the New England clergyman Edward Taylor reflect a common vocabulary of symbolic language that would have been generally understood in the Puritan communities of the seventeenth century.3
The bed of which this headboard was once a part had a solid roof of oak supported by two carved posts at the foot. Curtains closed it off to protect its occupants from the vapors of the night and, on occasion, observation of others in the room. In more common, less expensive versions the ornament was painted rather than carved, though what we know of these beds has to be surmised from scholarship, since almost none survive. Known as a ” great bed,” it was located in the main parlor. The parlor, with the ” hall, was one of the two primary spaces in the Puritan house. The hall was for practical matters, and was the wife ‘ s domain, while the parlor performed a ritualistic function, and was the father ‘ s place, as the households priest.4
At night, activated by the subdued light of candles, the polished ornament of this headboard would have gleamed. Less expensive painted versions would have also gleamed, the paint enhanced by a glaze of linseed oil. One could say that this carved ornament constitutes a visual work of art, a sculpture in low relief, but, being quite flat, it is in some ways like a written text. Like a text, one reads these forms across a surface. Still, they are not entirely temporal as are words, since the actual location of these forms across the surface is critical to their meaning. The arrangement describes an ascent from the mortal to the divine. In the geography of the imagination, if not in theology, God is always overhead, with degrees of relative divinity increasing in an ascending order as they approach the Godhead.
The different ornamental patterns of this headboard are symbols in their purest form. There is a recent tendency, not entirely incorrect, to designate almost everything as symbolic that appears in art. A symbol could be defined as something which stands for something other than itself. A simple four letter word might be a symbol, but so could something as extremely unlike the appearance of a word as a full-fleshed image of a human form. However, there is a central meaning to the word “symbol” which these carved forms perfectly represent. Would not the term “symbol” first provoke an image of something highly abstracted, like hieroglyphs, in which we are still able to recognize the source in the natural world?
True symbols of this sort have extraordinary and special properties. Shaped by inner urges of the human psyche, if what Karl Jung implies is true, symbols present even in our own time, can have ancient and obscure origins, and, at the same time, this marvelous facility of passing easily back and forth across cultural barriers. Words stop at national borders, and, over time, rapidly become archaic. A heart from a Medieval heraldic shield, from this headboard, or from last year’s valentine, are recognizable anywhere, and remains unchanged in form and only slightly modified in meaning over time. It is a meaning equally discernible by a scholar or a child.
In the visual arts symbols perform a specific task, more exclusive than the tasks performed by the words and sentences of literature, or by the naturalistic images of painting and sculpture. The art symbol captures and makes tangible that which is too subtle or too grand to ever be confined. A simple circle can refer to an infinite God. A heart, stylized from what began as a bloody lump, can represent the whole range of love, an invisible emotional state. But when a flower, a metaphorical symbol, stands for love it conveys further information. We learn that mortal love begins in beauty, but always wilts and dies.
The most strange fact about true symbols is that they exist without a narrator. While in paintings and poems there is always the sense that the artist is speaking, symbols give no impression that an individual is transmitting the message. Rather, symbols communicate in a more mysterious, transcendent way. When they convey the commands of God as here, it is only his voice that can be heard.
An art of hieroglyphs was critical to our iconophobic Puritans. If they had not had a symbolic language, they would not have had an art. The Second Commandment was their command. “You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” But the passion to control critical meanings with the shapes of art is too strong a human urge to ever be suppressed. If art cannot happen one way, it will happen another. Following a tradition as old as Christian art itself, the Puritans abstracted naturalistic forms to the point where neither God nor anyone else could see them as likenesses of anything on earth.
In the Puritan parlor the great bed itself was a symbol, a simulacrum of the “bower of Adam.” A popular Puritan image, this bower of Adam is described in Milton ’s words:
The plant forms everywhere in the headboard ornament make the general reference to Adam’s bower clear. However, the powerful ritualistic function of the marriage bed goes beyond the connotations of a simple bower. It is the stage on which occur the dramatic sacramental acts of love and death. ( But not for birth. In the Puritan household, this was always relegated to the living hall, the woman ‘ s domain. )
The bottom panels of the headboard are plain and unadorned. At this time it was the custom to sleep in a partially upright position against a stack of pillows. The base of the headboard was largely covered over. In this lowest zone there are four panels, two for the wife’s side, two for the husband’s. Each pair resonates a theme of dualities, a possible reference to the mortality and divinity that pervade this symbolic environment. The direction here is vertical, God-aspiring. From here the symbolic action moves up.
In the panels above this plain beginning, the movement slows and converges on three squares, then terminates at the top in two horizontals. There is a neat progression, starting fast, then coming to a stop.
Surrounding the panels is a closed grid of vertical stiles and horizontal rails, an architectonic form corresponding not merely to the controlled structure of the Puritan life on earth, but to their entire seventeenth-century universe as defined by Rene Descartes, where the divine scheme manifests itself in the strictest kind of order. An order quite superior to the chaos of the earth is visible in the strong pattern of this arrangement of symbolic ornament. The overall design itself has meaning here, as well as aesthetic import. Conceived of in artistic horror vacui, without empty void or solid mass, those key attributes of material existence dismissed, this ornamental field defines a solely immaterial and spiritual realm.
Beginning at the lowest level of ornament, we see the vastness of the heavens expressed by a series of little arcs, studded by the faintest suggestion of stars. For meaning only a single arc was necessary. For art, however, four were required for the sake of harmony and rhythm. The arc of heaven is an ancient and universal representation of the divine, a meaning that can be traced in a unbroken line from ancient Sumer to the gravestones of New England , to any modern back-yard shrine enclosing an image of the Virgin Mary. This particular arc has a modified meaning. It encloses a simple plant form resembling somewhat that acanthus Milton described as on the sides of Adam’s bower. It sets the action in an earthly garden of love presided over by the arc of the divine. This image of a garden as the appropriate setting for love has pervaded Islamic and Christian imaginations since the discovery of Eden . Through the force of symbolic reference the great bed recreated Eden , setting the stage for a nightly reenactment of the intimate drama of the first erotic encounter.
A thought comes to mind of how this tough and severe environment of carved oak; hard, dark, flat, and covered with tightly organized form, would have set off in Baroque contrast the actual heaving occupants in the softness and the roundness of their living flesh, and would have set off the softness of the heaped up feather beds and pillows, and the disarray of bed clothes. The memory of the original context of any work of art contributes to its sense.
In the second zone are entwined flowers, standing for the love of the husband for the wife, the wife for the husband. Rough, almost crude, the carving is direct and to the point. The flower itself is such a universal and ancient symbol of love it needs no explanation, except to repeat its message about the mortality of earthly love. In the Puritan doctrine of love, the feelings that the husband and wife hold for each other are required to end at the grave, where God’s love takes over. It is very clear that, for the Puritans, earthly love, even the sexual part, is a version of divine love, similar in kind but less in degree. One encounters this in the erotic lines of the Reverend Edward Taylor, in writing of his experience of God in West Springfield , Massachusetts .
“The Soul’s the Womb. Christ is the spermodote
“Oh! let him kiss mee with his orall kisses.
The simple idea is that sexual love is the cause of life on earth, while God’s love is the cause of eternal life. The more complex sense is the final union with God has much in common with a sexual union on earth…actually, to the Puritans, a greater and constant orgasm.
In his poetry Edward Taylor continually refers to “true loves knot” which these entwined flowers represent. The entwined form is of course erotically suggestive, provoking a specific image of the married couple entwined in bed. At the same time this symbol stands for love in a universal sense. The floral forms are arranged in one of the great archetypal patterns of art and religion, the quincunx in a square, forming four corners and a center, an ancient designation of the four corners of the universe with God in the middle. We might have here the Stoic interpretation of love as a force pervading all reality, as it appears in the De Rerum Natura that great philosophical poem by the Roman Stoic Lucretius. Of pervasive influence in the seventeenth century, De Rerum Natura was the book blind Milton most often requested his daughters to read to him aloud.
The quincunx is a variant of Karl Jung’s favorite archetype, the mandala. If the form of a mandala appears in a dream, Jung sees it as a yearning for a unity of self, and for completeness.
The very lines that interweave these floral forms are endless, and therefore timeless, signifying the universal. Some of the meaning here may have extruded from the collective unconscious of the Puritans. More likely they were clearly conscious of what these forms could mean.
In the central panel the generalized quincunx/mandala metamorphoses into a very specific form. The converging hearts are a powerful emblem of coitus itself. They focus their energy upon a center, from which life streams forth in the form of plants. Observe that each heart encloses a small plant form, a bud. The little cross in the center is a soul coming into being. Equal-armed crosses appear commonly on New England headstones as a symbol of the soul. The directional heart is a common symbol in the writing of the Puritans. Michael Wigglesworth writes Mrs. Avery to persuade her to marry him. ” My thoughts and heart have been turned toward you.” Countless times the Puritans write of someone’s heart turning toward God. You have the image of the heart as some kind of dial, turning this way and that in the rib cage. The heart symbol itself is like an arrowhead. Could it have originated in Cupid’s arrow? The two directions in which these hearts point signify the two aspects of earthly love. One aspect, carnal, points towards the earth. The other, God-aspiring, points to heaven. Upside down hearts were one of the Puritan’s favorite symbols.
Reading the ornament of this headboard, it becomes a silent but articulate sermon, admonishing the husband and the wife to love each other and to make love. In Puritan theology this was a Christian duty. If either abused the other, it was a punishable offense. Kindness and affection were required by law. As a consequence, Puritan women had a great number of advantages lacking in the lives of their Catholic and Church of England counterparts.
Above this zone, a horizontal band of ornament represents twenty symbolic sheaves resembling sheaves of wheat, but modified to reflect the leafy forms appearing elsewhere on the headboard. This motif stands for the fertile consequences of marital love. It is a variation on an ornament common in later Gothic churches, where sheaves of wheat indicate the life-restoring powers of communion bread. At this time, at weddings, it was the custom to shower the bride with wheat as a symbol of her expected fertility. God’s command is obeyed: be fruitful and multiply. But here, bound as sheaves, this multitude represents the harvest that occurs at death.
In the center above the row of sheaves stands the strongest symbol in the group, the Tree of Life. As trees go, this is a strange species. Common in the carved symbolism of headstones and the decoration of quilts, it combines in a single form, connotations both of a tree and of a palm branch. Growing in the center of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life was the source of eternal life in Paradise . The palm branch signified the victory over death of those chosen by God. In a passage in the Book of Revelation, a palm branch is carried by all those who have been saved.
The panels of compass-drawn stars that flank the Tree of Life represent heaven itself and, in a symbol with an ancient past, stand also for the souls who populate the heavens. One can follow this interpretation of the soul as an “astral” body, for at least as far back as the ancient Near Eastern cult of Astarte, goddess of love, fertility and salvation. ( Love and death have always been paired in religious history.) Astarte presided over a sky full of stars representing departed souls. In headstones carved by the Early Christian Copts of Egypt , and by the Puritans of New England twelve hundred years later, compass-drawn stars convey the same idea. But it is a symbol that lacks any metaphorical sense. Either intuitively or with purpose, the artist chose the opaque pattern of an abstracted star, which says nothing of the mystery of the life that follows death.
The ornamental carving of this Puritan headboard is a form of non-spacial visual art existing at a half-way point between images and words. Across a flat surface, flat like the page of a book, one follows a direction beginning at the bottom and advancing to the top. At the lowest stage four panels divide the husband and the wife. In three panels above, love exists passively in the entwined flowers to the right and left, then comes together actively in the central converging hearts. All the life engendered by this love is arranged neatly in sheaves in a band above, harvested by God in death. In the top-most zone this progression has a happy ending in Paradise , presided over by the Tree of Life. But what this life might be remains a mystery to those below, and is only signified by a row of stars. With all this going on above their heads it is a marvel that the married couple for whom this bed was made ever had the temerity to make love.
 To the Puritans the only church was the Puritan home itself. In America the typical house plan signified the duality of earthly existence. On one side of the great chimney was the hall, which functioned as the kitchen and the workplace, and was identified with the life of labor that was a consequence of the original sin. On the other side was the parlor, both a place of formal worship and a place of rest. The principal items of furniture, the carved and painted decoration, and the bright colors of the walls, posts and beams of the parlor emphasized its function as a sacred space. These bright color schemes, now completely gone from surviving Puritan houses, originated in the brightly colored interiors of the English medieval parish church.
 See Schucking, Levin L., The Puritan Family , New York , 1970 ed., p. 37ff. Much of the poetry of Edward Taylor demonstrates, in dramatic and powerful form, how intense can be the erotic nature of divine love.