The edges of the brooch are enameled in white with the small gold dots as a border. White in mourning jewelry symbolizes one of two things: Either an unmarried woman or a child. White means purity, innocence or virginity. An unmarried person was seen as socially and morally unblemished and was often depicted in white to show virtue. It is why Christian brides still wear white in modern wedding ceremonies. It is also why children are painted in white in neoclassical paintings- they are pure and innocent. Just based on the white color, we can’t determine which of those two ideas is being expressed in this pendant- an unmarried woman or a child- yet. We need to look to the other symbols for more clues.
The next symbol is the angel carrying a banner with the motto: “Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In mourning symbolism, angels are seen as bridging the gap between the heavens and the mourner here on earth. Angels carry the prayers to heaven for the departed. They are our intercessors. Since they can exist here on earth (the world of the living) and in heaven (the world where the departed go after this world) angels are seen as the liaisons between life and death.
Sometimes, in funerary art, angels are depicted as specific Virtues. Most commonly one of the Classical Virtues of: Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Moderation. Using the mourner herself as our gauge, I believe in this case, the angel is not the artist’s rendering of a Virtue, but simply an angel. I think this because the mourner is all but ignoring the angel, choosing instead to focus on the three cherubs.
There’s more to be learned here though. The children aren’t the only message coming across in this brooch. There are Cyprus trees in the background. The Cyprus, or “Graveyard Cyprus” as it has been known, is another of the oldest mourning symbols also stretching back to ancient Greek and Roman symbolism. If you visit a cemetery today, you will still see Cyprus trees growing around the perimeter of the space in most countries. They were known as the “mourning tree” to many ancient cultures and were sacred to the Fates and Furies, representing gods of the underworld. The tree is long and thin and is seen as reaching to heaven.
The artist wants us to look toward the heavens in this brooch. Along with the angel and the cherubs, and the banner with the words, “as such is the kingdom of heaven,” the most prevalent underlying symbol here is “heaven” even though it is implied and not shown. We are reminded not to weep because the three children are in heaven.
With mourning jewelry, most often, we are presented with standard scenes, a plinth, a woman, an urn etc… That is because most mourning pieces were made en masse with the standard symbols and then customized. Customization meant an engraving on the back of the piece for most people, leaving the scene on the jewel untouched. With this piece, while we see the standard symbols, we see those symbols depicted in a very personal way. This piece was made specifically for the children. I can’t imagine that a jeweler would just happen to have a mourning piece with three urns, three cherubs and an angel carrying a banner of heaven just lying around in a display case waiting for someone to come in who needed that exact scene. No, this scene was thought out in advance and then created for the person who needed it. It is not known if the three children left the family at once or at different times. Since it was not uncommon to have one piece memorializing different people who passed on at different times, we may never know.
I did discover, after my initial assessment of the jewel, that family lore confirms the idea that this brooch is for three children. Without knowing the meaning behind the symbols, the family retained the idea of the brooch representing children though the last 200+ years. It is interesting that some secrets persist in that way. Most people don’t understand the meanings of most of the symbols we see today, but for some reason, the things that are important manage to be retained and passed down through a family. The important thing here is that these children were never forgotten.
Indeed, they never were. The fact that we can look at this brooch today and think of three children being missed by a family means that the lingering love of our children is eternal.