The Newtown Pentacle

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sepulchral resonances

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned earlier this week, a recent rip to St. Michael’s cemetery was accomplished on a lovely autumnal afternoon. Affinity for morbid settings notwithstanding, area cemeteries provide one with a peaceful and introspective interlude, free of the nonstop noise which typifies an existence in western Queens. Back home in Astoria, a never ending series of auditory distractions roll past beneath my windows and often elucidated is a desire for a few minutes of quiet. The well tailored grounds and open sight lines of the graveyard serve this purpose, and I was quite alone on this particular day, except for a rough looking trio who were celebrating a cannabis charged tribute to some departed compatriot.

from stmichaelscemetery.com

The original property for St. Michael’s Cemetery was purchased in 1852 by the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters and occupied seven acres. Over the years St. Michael’s gradually acquired additional land to its present size of approximately eighty-eight acres. Because it was Dr. Peters’ intention to provide a final dignified resting place for the poor who could not otherwise afford it, areas within the cemetery were assigned to other free churches and institutions of New York City. These areas are still held for the institutions they were assigned.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

While wandering about, I noticed this magnificent sepulchral portrait attached to a small monument. A once common practice, attaching a photographic portrait of the departed to their monument was accomplished by transferring the image to a ceramic matrix. Modern day mourners seem to be reviving the practice, although modern digital printing techniques involving the four color printing process and laser etching of the monument itself seem to be the preferred fashions. It offends some, referring to such practice as fashion- but if you spend as much time in cemeteries as I do- you discern certain typographic, linguistic, and symbolic patterns which seem to go in and out of vogue. For example- Obelisks, mausolea, usage of footstones or curbs, foliated columns, portraits etc.

The particular sepulchral portrait depicted in these shots is of Maria Concetta Niosi in life. 27 years old, she died on the 1st of April in 1919.

from thehistorychannelclub.com

In 1854 two French inventors patented a method for fixing a photographic image on enamel or porcelain by firing it in a kiln. These “enamels” were used for home viewing well into the 20th century, when the more convenient paper photos replaced them. The custom of attaching ceramic photos to tombstones spread throughout Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian and Jewish immigrants brought this practice to the United States. “Ceramic photo portraits . . . represent the first period in the history of gravestone manufacture in the United States when intense personalization became available—and affordable—on a large-scale basis,” says Richard E. Meyer, a professor at Western Oregon State College who has studied American cemeteries for more than 25 years. During the first decade of the 1900s, Sears-Roebuck advertised: “Imperishable Limoges porcelain portraits preserve the features of the deceased . . .” At “$11.20 for a photograph set in marble, $15.75 for one set in granite,” these portraits “competed with the cost of many burial plots.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Evidence of her life in the United States is scant, and although I have managed to find two people with similar names who appeared at the Ellis Island immigration facility- neither seems to fit the bill as being this individual. Perhaps Niosi was a married or assumed name she gained after immigration, or perhaps she came to the United States via Baltimore or Boston (with NY, all three were common ports of entry for the Italians).What struck me, other than the haunting image of a clearly formidable woman, was the pure physical size of this portrait. Normally, a sepulchral portrait is of a small oval or round shape and seldom larger than a modern 4×6 inch photographic print. The Niosi plaque was large, the size of a sheet of common day letter sized paper. This would have cost a small fortune in 1919, several times the price of the actual grave, and yet it was attached to this meager and barely noticeable stone marker.

Who was this woman?

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 16, 2012 at 12:15 am

One Response

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  1. Ceramic memorial photos of this type are usually called Dedos (which sometimes is inscribed on the perimeter), a short form of J.A. Dedouch and Co. They seemed to be most popular in the 1920′s and have made a bit of a comeback in recent years. Most examples found are formal portraits the family had made into dedos but I have photos of two that are post-mortems and another two that are re-touched post-mortems (made to look the subject appear alive). Linden Hill cemetery and Old Calvary have a good many dedos, mostly popular among the Italians followed by Poles and Czechs. Common among Italians was a dedication from the spouse and/or children. In this case- In memoria di mia cara moglie, which means In memory of my dear wife.

    In this particular case, a check of census records may be tough because sometimes the census taker would misspell the name or Mr. and Mrs. Niosi may have entered the country under assumed names, changed their names or were undocumented- not trying to be politically correct here but that was the official designation I have seen on documents from the turn of the century. Much patience and trial and error is the key to Ancestry.com.

    If you really want to research Maria Concetta, your best bet and best place to start is to request her death certificate from the NYC Dept. of Vital Records. You’ll get her date of birth, last address, names of her parents in addition to cause of death.

    Oh, and she does not look “formidable”. Jeeze!

    Cav

    November 16, 2012 at 10:59 am


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