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Art Nouveau Heaven--the Watts Cemetery Chapel Interior

Entry view, facing altar

Stepping inside the Watts Cemetery Chapel is an altogether different experience from walking about its exterior. The Romanesque Revival of the outside is all-but-completely dispensed with and we are launched into a ravishing Art Nouveau interior, with several gestures toward the Romantic style of William Blake. The palette is all in gold and saturated colors. Sinuous vines run rampant all around the angelic figures, with medallions containing either words or allegorical images as the fruit of these vines. The interior is disorienting because the walls don't obviously correllate to the contours which the exterior of the building suggest. The interior is as strong in its curves as it is in its angles; the ceiling arches and converges so that it is more an egg than a sphere.

This is a cemetery chapel, not a church, so the building's purpose is to perform a ceremony for only one ritual--that of burial. So, the program of the decoration needs to be viewed through the lens of mourning and prayer for rebirth. Fraser-Tytler creates an elaborate heaven across four ceiling-to-floor panels, tied together by the grape vines sprawling at the base of The Tree of Life, meeting at an altar, and arching to the ceiling. Each panel contains a a giant, burning seraphim, whose hands use the Latin gesture for blessing on one side, and the Greek blessing on the other. Cherubim flank the seraphim in heart-shaped aureoles that meet and join in the ceiling.

The Ceiling

The ceiling suggests a transept (something typical of cross-shaped churches), which doesn't really exist on the floor of the chapel. Fraser-Tytler's notes on the decorative program indicate that at the apex of the ceiling is the circle which suggests wholeness, eternity, divinity. I didn't find an explanation of why that center appears to be broken and dark, unlike the domes in many traditional churches, which let in light.

The Altar

Though the chapel was consecrated in 1895, the altar does not appear to be equipped for a requiem mass, so it serves more as a focal point for prayer. It is here, as a focal point, that Fraser-Tytler signs her work, and dedicates it to the community. The retable of the altar has a painting of her husband's (George Frederic Watts) which is a variant of a work which hangs in the Tate Gallery, "The All-Pervading." The base of the altar (terracotta with gilt paint) has three panels symbolizing "The Way, The Truth, and The Life."

Altar base, featuring labyrinth motif: The Life

The panel which depicts "The Life" echoes a motif seen on the exterior of the church: angels bearing the labyrinth as a shield. It contains a fragment of a quote from Revelations 21:3, "...[H]e shall dwell with them." The labyrinth is presented as a mystical representation of "The Life," not just life as a journey. "The Life" is the journey with God, or toward God.

Altar base, featuring "The Way"

The panel which represents "The Way," and contains the beginning of the quote from Revelations ("The tabernacle of the Lord...,") has a shield similar to the labyrinth, but instead of the maze, there is a spiral, like a vortex, which may be suggesting a kind of inevitability of one's path, or the distillation of all that seems spread apart and diverse to an all-encompassing focal-point: eternity. Framing the top of the panel are symbols for two of the evangelists: the angel of St. Matthew, and the lion of St. Mark.

"The All-Pervading," by George Frederick Watts

Watts' painting is in the style of Blake, but by way of Michelangelo's sybils on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. She has wings like an angel, and contemplates the cosmos as it sits like a sphere on her lap. She hovers in space, as though she exists outside of our reality. It's a surprisingly dark painting to represent the idea of an all-knowing being. Watts and Fraser-Tytler created in the Symbolist tradition, which represented abstract ideas in human or animal forms. Watts declared, "I paint ideas, not things," but it seems to me that Symbolist art paints lots of things, and then attaches the ideas to them. In the case of his painting, he brings together components that already have a lot of historical meanings bound to them (woman, angel, sybil, sphere), and reorganizes them to fit his title. In the context of the chapel, the all-pervading is the comforting idea that a (possibly) benevolent force witnesses our life and death, and gives it a meaningful place in the great sweep of time.

One of the four corners, "The Word Was God"

Each of the four panels in the chapel has at its center a tiny medallion which anchors the theme of the wall. The first verse of the Gospel of John introduces the idea of the Logos: "In the beginning was the Word, and the was with God, and the Word was God." In terms of Fraser-Tytler's spiritual program here, "logos" is both God and Creation itself. It is also the idea that Reason organizes the universe.

Nature of The Word

The Word as a creative, spiritual concept organizes all the symbols and concepts in the chapel. Here is a close-up of the medallion with the quote, affixed to the Tree of Life, attended by two sylized peacocks (symbolizing eternal life), and acting as the trunk of the tree, from which branches produce other medallions. These are words/concepts that evolve from Logos as Reason: Law and Truth. The artist's conception of all these ideas growing and sprawling into a garden which reaches toward heaven provides a setting where mourners (attending the coffin holding their dead) can imagine an afterlife for the loved one they've lost.

The angel and its divine concepts

From the center of the floor, one's gaze is drawn by the triangular shape of each panel toward the flaming angel, which hovers in attendance between the mourners and heaven, as though leading the way to eternal life.

Earthly and Divine Power

What a photograph can do for you that is difficult to do when you're observing in person is to pause on small details which might be too high to see clearly, or too overwhelmed by the riot of detail around it. The medallions were made by students of Frazer-Tytler, according to her design. Power here is symbolized by the Sovereign's Orb, which asserts the dominion of the Christian god over the physical world.

In this section of the panel, you can see how the painted terracotta pieces affixed to the wall like a bas relief have a curious, thick quality, less refined than much religious stone carving. The painted clay looks to me almost like impasto, where the thickness is like that of oil or acrylic paints thickly applied. From a distance, the panels look like large paintings, but the appliques of the subjects give them more weight and dimensionality on the wall. When you look closely, you can see how the wall is put together, but from a few feet back, the images are more ethereal than sculpture, but more subtantive than painting.


I wanted to show you this medallion for Obedience because it is a good example of the interior referencing the exterior. On the exterior of the building as well, obedience is presented as a virtue that can be witnessed in nature. The worker bees cooperate for the good of the Queen and the hive. (I think that this is a rather disturbing religious message, but here we are.) For the Symbolists, and many other earlier philosophers, finding a pattern in nature for humans to emulate suggested a harmony in creation and a consistency which points to an all-knowing Creator.

The Angels Below

As we look at the angels closer to our eye-level, they are presented as more individual, differentiated. The angels at this level range around the chapel like a choir for the mourners. Fraser-Tytler notes they are the lower orders of angels (Thrones, Principalities, Powers), who are farther from the face of God, but closer to Earth. She further works the symbolism by having the angels alternate facing the center of the room. The ones facing the viewer are angels of light, and the ones facing away are angels of darkness. By pairing the angels in this way, she unites light and dark as parts of the same creation. In a cemetery chapel, this would be an empowering or comforting idea.

The Angels with Image Medallions

The angels at this level hold nets which capture medallions of symbolic images (most without words). These are paired, as with light and darkness, to emphasize the wholeness found in binding opposites. These angels hold medallions signifying good and evil as explained through the Parable of the Tares. Good spreads seeds which sprout into wheat, which is nourishing. Evil's seeds produce tares (useless weeds which resemble wheat), which are not nourishing.

The Struggle with Evil

This medallion is used to symbolize Conflict (as opposed to Union, which is, much to my proletarian alarm, exemplified by a ruler on a throne). It takes the ancient motif of the hero wrestling the monster (in Christian legends, the archangel Michael and the Dragon, or George and the Dragon) to suggest inner struggle. I have some qualms about this one because of a shift. If Christian goodness is union (the people under one ruler, presumably), this representation of conflict as evil doesn't quite fit as its opposite. Wrestling with the beast has historically been a motif for conflict within oneself, or between a good people and their demonized enemies. I think that the disjunct in Fraser-Tytler's program here might be found in the stated values of the Arts and Crafts movement, which rejected (ostensibly) hierarchy (elitism, robber barons exploiting workers in factories) for communal values (more agrarian and theoretically egalitarian). Many of the evocations of Christianity in the chapel's medallions point to being ruled by God (and King), and the more abstract medallions about one's spiritual journey are supposed to be universal (communal), but ultimately they run into the submission of the individual to the leader. There's a tension here between contradictory values--elevating the individual's place and journey, and picturing one's salvation as coming into accordance with a ruling god.

Stages of Life in the Medallions

The idea of being both communally supported and individually on an heroic path to salvation is handled nicely in this trio of medallions.


The individual begins with the blessings of nurturing hosts. It's (purposely?) ambiguous. Fraser-Tytler's notes suggest this is the beginning of the ideal "mental conception." The baby begins with the gift of its five senses, and is pushed off one shore into the sea of time.

One's Journey

This medallion shows the soul traveling through life, where the ideal must contend with the reality of experience. Fraser-Tytler writes that the five senses are (somehow) held back by the real, and calls this "sensuous perception." I can see where her artistic and social philosophy would have to work out the conflict between the ideals of the senses (including art), and the realities which threaten the ideal. However, there's nothing ideal exists without some material work.

The End

Fraser-Tytler ends this sequence with the figure's death, experienced as separating what birth unified. Death sunders the real (material) from the ideal (spirit). In the medallion above, angels lay the dead body in its ship as its final bed, the voyage done. There's a whole bunch of proto-Jung and proto-Freud manifesting in Fraser-Tytler's work, very much part of a point in time where English artists were critical of the traditions which entrenched ideas of sacrificing one's self and sensuality to duty and command. She seems in this chapel to be trying to break down and re-configure ideas in a way which would be more freeing and progressive in a context (death) where people are inclined to revert to tradition for comfort.

The Children's Contributions

Day Lily

So, all of that is very heavy, but there is plenty in the chapel which is more simple, and more joyful. Fraser-Tytler involved more than 70 members of her community in making the terracotta pieces which ornament the chapel. This included several children who took her art classes. Grounding (no pun intended, but maybe it's apt) the elaborate and lofty figures of the chapels panels are several small flower pieces, poking out among the Tree of Life and its attendant vines. They are delightful, and don't rely on a lot of heavy-duty meaning to contribute to the chapel. Like children, they're wonderful in their purity of being.



These flowers rise up, affirming life and renewal, and they dwell closest to the mourners in the chapel, perhaps offering comfort in what grows, even in the midst of death.

If you go to the Watts Cemetery Chapel, be sure to visit the Gallery and Arts Center, which support artists on land given by Fraser-Tytler. The Center sells a wonderful book by Mark Bills for decoding the Chapel, which was indispensible to me in writing this post. You can find it in the shop on their website: Watts Gallery Artists Village.

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2 commenti

28 dic 2023

Such a wealth--almost a confusion--of details--wonderfully photographed. Wonderful exposition of so man of the images, but the works so rich it leaves me still wanted more, more. Thanks!

Mi piace

18 dic 2023

I love the details. Thank you for sharing and showing the three-dimensionality of the "paintings." It's so interesting to see how materials are used to reinterpret ago-old concepts.

Mi piace
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