WHAT IS A MONUMENT? The word comes from the Latin noun monumentum,
which is derived from the Latin verb moneo. The primary meaning of moneo is "to bring to the notice of, to remind, or to tell of." Monumentum consequently is a thing with this function, specifically something that stimulates the remembrance of a person or an event. Monumentum could be used for anything with this purpose--a text, a building, a work of art; but its primary denotation was a tomb or a funerary memorial. In English, the word "monument" retains this basic meaning; it has special reference to a tomb, a cenotaph, or a memorial.
Monuments provide an enduring physical demonstration of the fact of the existence of a person or an event. It marks a spot and it says who.
And it says so forever. It is an object that serves as the locus of the memories of a person or a group, and it makes those memories tangible--literally so. Hence the most basic component of a monument is its marker: the physical object erected to mark a locus in perpetuity.
Owing to the emphasis on permanence, survival, and continuity, the marker naturally is made of the most durable materials--stone and metal.
Markers come in a seemingly bewildering variety. Consider, for example, monuments to the dead: among the most basic types there are headstones, plaques, slabs, stelae with or without effigies, wall tombs
with or without effigies, free-standing tombs, and statues. Then there are the monuments to the living--a much smaller group of objects, as only an exceptionally finite group of living individuals are ever
honored in this fashion. Such monuments are almost always statues raised on pedestals. They are erected in praise of what sociologist and zoologists (and now politicians and journalists) call alpha males:
rulers and victors, whether in athletic contests or in war.
The simplest form of the monument are giant stones or pillars, known as megaliths or menhirs, a Welsh word meaning "long stone."
Generally, these are aniconic; that is, they do not depict or represent an image in any way. Indeed, often they are completely unworked and unadorned. Sometimes they do not even bear an inscription. Megaliths are thought to be the oldest form of monument known to mankind. The earliest examples data from the Neolithic period. And seven thousand
years later it is still an effective type, as the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial show.
This primordial form of the monument is also perhaps the most revealing about its fundamental appeal. Human beings feel an almost instinctual urge to congregate for remembrance and worship at a stone
marker. If we look at the goal of a pilgrimage or the center of a rite, it is often either a rock or made of rock. Instances of stone worship are found in every culture, all over the world, throughout the course
of human history. It is with us today. In Jerusalem, one may observe the members of the three religions worshipping at rocks: the Christians at the Holy Sepulchre, the Jews at the Wailing Wall, the Muslims at the Dome of the Rock. Each site is the locus of the most profound meaning, the focus of the most intense emotion, the repository and the stimulus of the most central tenets in the collective memory of the faithful.
Yet in all three cases the rock or rocks at the focus of devotion are aniconic. They represent the deepest meanings, and they are surrounded within their precincts by signs of their importance, but the rocks
themselves bear no sign, symbol, or image. The rocks appear to be just rocks, except for the faithful who come from all over the world to worship there.
MANY OF THE greatest anthropologists and historians of religion have written about stone worship. In Patterns in Comparative Religion,
Mircea Eliade began his account of sacred stones by noting their conspicuousness and their permanence. "For the primitive," he remarked, nothing was more direct and autonomous in the completeness of its
strength, nothing more noble or more awe-inspiring, than a majestic rock. Above all, a stone is. It always remains itself, exists of itself. Rock shows mankind something that transcends the precariousness
of his humanity: an absolute mode of being. Its strength, its motionlessness, its size and its strange outline are none of them human. In its grandeur, its hardness, its shape and its color, man is
faced with a reality and a force that belong to some other world than the profane world of which he is himself a part.
Eliade identified a number of special powers and functions that are at times attributed to sacred stones. Three of these powers seem especially relevant to the discussion of the monument.
It was a special function of sacred stones to serve as a witness.
Witness stones were common in antiquity: recall the lithos in front of the Royal Stoa in the Agora in Athens. Witness stones also appear in
the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, it is reported that Jacob and Laban set up a heap of stones, a pillar, or both at Gilead to be a permanent testimony to their concord: "Now therefore come thou, let us make a
covenant, I and thou, and let it be for a witness between me and thee.
And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones, and they took stones and made a heap....
And Laban said, This heap of stones is a witness between me and thee this day." Similarly, at the end of the Book of Joshua, it is recorded
that Joshua erected a witness stone at Shechem after the Israelites re-dedicated themselves to the worship of their God: "So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and Joshua took a great stone, and
set it up there and Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us, for it hath heard all the words of the lord which he spoke unto us, it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest you deny your god."
It was also the purpose of sacred stones to represent the ancestors or the tribal deities of a group. In Genesis, when Jacob wakes from his dream of angels descending on a ladder from heaven, he "rose up early
the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it ... and Jacob said, This stone which I have set for a pillar shall be God's house."
In his analysis of this episode, James Frazer points to the existence of other sacred stones all over the world. To cite just one example among many, he reports that "there is hardly a village in Northern India which has not its sacred stone. Very often the stone is not
appropriated to any one deity in particular, but represents the aggregate of the local divinities who have the affairs of the community under their charge."
Stones can represent deceased ancestors as well. Discussing the religious practices of aboriginal tribes in Australia, Emile Durkheim observed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life that "it will be remembered that the fabulous ancestors from whom each clan is supposed to be descended, formerly lived on earth and left traces of their passage there. These traces consist especially in stones and rocks which they deposited at certain places, or which were formed at the spots where they entered into the ground. These rocks and stones are considered the bodies or parts of the bodies of the ancestors, whose memory they keep alive; they represent them."
Thus sacred stones serve as the center for the group and as the group's point of contact with the other two realms of being, the immortal and the dead. Such points of contact are sometimes referred to as the axis mundi, the fulcrum of the universe. Frazer, Eliade, and
Robertson Smith agree that the bethel of Jacob must be seen as such a cosmically pivotal location, since it was not just the House of God but specifically the place where, by means of the ladder of angels,
communication took place between heaven and earth. The omphalos or navel stone at Delphi, the Ka'aba at Mecca, the umbilicus in the Roman Forum, and the rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are all stones
that were widely believed at one time to be the center of the world.
Eliade observes, moreover, that it is common to perceive a tomb as such a site. He notes that Erwin Rohde and Jane Harrison, the distinguished
historians of Greek religion, both suggested that the omphalos at Delphi originally represented a tomb, and that the Roman poet Varro specified that it was the tomb of the serpent of Delphi. Eliade elaborates: "A tomb, seen as a point of contact between the world of
the dead, of the living and of the gods can also be a center, an omphalos of the earth."
THE SECOND CONSTITUTIVE element of a monument is the memoranda, or the biographical information preserved by the marker. In ancient Greek, one of the words for monument and the word for memory are the same: mnema. But monuments are a special vessel for memory. They do not record everything about a person or an event--far from it. They seem to exclude the kind of personal memories that most of us recall of the departed, and instead to register only an extremely narrow spectrum of
information about the object of our affection. So what kind of memory do monuments traditionally preserve? What is it that they report and transmit?
Perhaps the most basic fact that a monument typically records is the name of the person, the family, the community, or the event that it commemorates. This primary emphasis on the name was true in antiquity and it is true today. This hardly needs demonstration. Nearly every town in America and Europe has a monument that lists the names of those
who died defending their country. Monuments are witness stones, and the names on them are like names on a public record or a historical document: a kind of declaration of the fact of existence.
The issue of monumental imagery is more complicated. Some monuments have no images. Some have images, but wholly idealized ones: they may
represent a specific person, but they do not attempt to depict his actual features. And some monuments have images that record the features of the person in a more or less accurate and particularized fashion. Of course, there are many degrees of verisimilitude, and
differences of aesthetic skill, between accuracy and idealization.
Sometimes these differences in conception and execution are owed to the relationship that can exist between portraiture and honor. In Renaissance Florence, sumptuary legislation forbade all but a few
highly honored persons from being laid out at their funerals with their bodies and their faces exposed for the mourners to see. Though not regulated by law, the same reservation evidently applied to the decorum
of tomb design, with the result that only a handful of highly placed persons are honored in tombs with portrait effigies. This honor was not simply a matter of wealth and power: no member of the Medici family is
commemorated in this manner, although for much of the period they effectively ruled the city. It was, rather, a matter of station and office. In an age in which the church controlled burial and commemoration, tombs with portrait effigies were typically the privilege of princes of the church, of founding donors of religious
institutions, and of persons honored in civic funerals for their service to the city. One can cite many other instances of restrictions on the right to have a portrait monument: in medieval Rome, only popes and archbishops got them, and in medieval and Renaissance Venice, portrait monuments were reserved, with few exceptions, for doges and
soldiers who deserved special recognition for their service to the city.
PERHAPS ALL PORTRAITURE exhibits a tendency toward conventionality and standardization, but this seems to be particularly true of portraits on monuments. On medieval and Renaissance tombs, more emphasis is placed on the ceremonial garb of office than on the depiction of individual character. In ancient Greece, monumental portraiture was almost wholly conventional. Tomb statuary and stelae
depict the dead as idealized types whose features embody aristocratic
stereotypes of moral good and physical beauty. Convention was the rule as well in statues of athletes, an important genre of Greek sculpture.
Thus Pliny writes that "it was not usual to model likenesses of men unless for some reason or other they deserved lasting honor, first for a victory in the sacred contests, especially at Olympia, where it was
the custom to dedicate statues of all who were victorious; and if they won there three times, their statues were modeled in their own likeness." As Pliny so clearly states, the right to a portrait was an
honor, and the right to have an accurate and individualized portrait was an even greater honor, vouchsafed only to those thought most deserving of enduring recognition.
The biographical details preserved and expressed by inscriptions likewise tend to be limited and inventionalized. In addition to the name, such description is usually confined to a list of offices and
honors, often in an acknowledgment that the deceased has served the public good in a noteworthy fashion. Even people of remarkable complexity and achievement are often reduced to the briefest of
honorific terms. Thus the tomb of Cosimo de Medici simply records that he was called the father of his country, and the monument to Bartolomeo
Colleoni states, "In recognition of his military authority, perfectly served." In ancient Greece, the inscriptions on monuments often said little more than that the departed was agathos kai sophron aner, "a
good and wise man." Such brevity is still typical today.
As these examples demonstrate, the language of inscriptions also tends to be highly formulaic and standardized. Like the language of
ritual, it shows a great respect for established norms inherited from tradition, and little interest in innovation or variation. By means of this standardization, it often limits the commemoration of an individual to a single aspect: how the dead personified a social ideal
that is regarded as a central and permanent value. Writing of archaic Greek monuments, Joseph Day has observed that the man was dead and gone, but the marker and the epitaph provided a substitute for him; that is, they reduced the complexity of a man to a
simple, permanent, monumental form that represented to the community of
the living what he had now become, i.e., one of their ideal dead. This state of idealized death could not be portrayed as a biographical moment like actual death in battle. It was a state of moral and physical perfection, artificially created by verbal and visual motifs any contemporary would recognize from previous acquaintance with literary encomium and commemorative art.
I think that this tendency is often true of monuments and points to a widespread feature of them: they commemorate the dead and other figures from the past as personifications of the values of the group.
They do not emphasize personal detail and idiosyncratic data; they promote the exemplary. According to the rules of both classical and
Renaissance rhetoric, funeral oratory was intended to be a kind of instructive praise that inspired the audience to emulate the virtues of the deceased. Monuments often serve the same function. This points to an interesting fact about monuments. Often they are meant to preserve not only the identity of the departed, but also the identity of a social group--the family, clan, city, nation, or religion--to which the deceased belonged.
THE THIRD CONSTITUTIVE element of the monument is the precinct.
Monuments are not placed just anywhere in a city or a landscape. They tend to be erected in two kinds of sites. The first is along major thoroughfares, so that the greatest number of people can see them and
remember the persons whom they commemorate. Thus the roads leading in and out of Athens, Rome, and other major cities were major sites for
monuments in antiquity. The Greek soldiers in the Odyssey declare that the ideal spot for a tomb is a promontory overlooking the Hellespont, so that "it might be seen from far over the sea both by men that now are and that shall be born hereafter."
The other typical site for a monument is a space of some kind that has been clearly demarcated and set off from the world at large. To emphasize their distinction, such spaces are often geometric in plan,
and often marked along their borders with a fence or a barrier of some kind. Examples of spaces of this kind that regularly serve as the sites of monuments are graveyards, churches, or temples (including their
grounds), chapels, battlefields, and central public or civic spaces such as town squares. Such locations serve to provide common ground for groups. Specifically, they are places where individuals can go to experience membership, to re-establish their identity as parts of a special and distinct social body.
Monuments are erected for groups, such as the family, community, city-state, nation, or religion, and they are erected specifically in the particular sites where the members of these groups go to affirm
their commonality or common identity. Thus, the tomb of the patriarch of a family is set in the church or the chapel of his clan, and a statue of a national hero is placed in the central square of his country's capital. But that is not the end of the story, or of the monument's ambition. Since Durkheim, it has been widely acknowledged that a clan or a nation defines itself not only horizontally--that is, in relation to itself--but also vertically: that is, in relation to God and the sacred.
This notion may now make us uncomfortable, living as we do in a secular society; but it is important to stress that historically the spaces of the kind that I am describing have been sanctified. They are
places of high symbolic significance, exceedingly rich in meaning, and often the sites of group rites or rituals. Owing to the sacral and symbolic character of the precinct, the members of the group approach a
monument with a high expectation that the monument will provide an epiphany of meaning, and specifically that it will be an expression of the identity, the history, and the philosophy of the group. Today this
is still obvious in the case of sites such as graveyards, temples, and chapels; and, until the modern era, it was equally obvious in the case of central city squares. We can see that it is true as well of battlefields. We speak of a battlefield as Lincoln spoke of it, as ground that has been hallowed by blood spilled for the sake of a common cause or a common identity. Like Lincoln, when we visit Gettysburg and its monuments, we recall our special history and identity, and honor the sacrifice of the men who died to establish and to preserve it.
In the modern world, it is has also been common to place monuments in civic parks. These may seem like an exception to the rule, since although parks are public land, they rarely have the communal or sacral
associations of the sort I have been discussing. The parks of New York City are filled with statues of writers, statesmen, and heroes of the past. But none of these monuments, so far as I know, now serve as the
focal point for any group. Nor were they ever meant to do so. Perhaps that is one reason why they have failed as monuments, in the sense that the individuals whom they seek to commemorate are often forgotten.
BY THEIR FAILURE, such weak or low-functioning monuments point to the fourth constitutive element of the monument: the act of commemoration. There is a tendency among historians and critics to
treat the monument purely as a thing. They often discuss it in strictly formal and typological terms, or merely as a category of sculpture. But like many other things in the world, the monument can only be
understood in terms of its use. It is a tool and an instrument in a series of extraordinarily complex personal and social processes. The monument cannot be understood without looking at its dynamic,
immaterial dimension--at the acts of remembrance for which it is used.
Throughout history, high-functioning monuments have been conceived in relation to regular and even programmatic rites of memory. Before the modern era, these acts often had the character of religious ritual.
The Medici tombs at San Lorenzo in Florence were placed at sites where the dead whom they honored would be officially and ceremonially commemorated throughout the year, and these rites involved not only the members of the family but also officials of the state and other institutions, as well as the canons of the church, whose chief professional obligation was to say masses in memory of the Medici dead.
While perhaps exceptional in scale, the Medici practice of memorialization was otherwise typical in late medieval and Renaissance Europe.
The connection between the monument and the rites of memory can be so strong that many monuments even feature reliefs that depict a ritual, a ceremony, or a procession. An obvious example is the Ara
Pacis in Rome. It was commissioned in 13 B.C.E. by the Roman Senate to celebrate Augustus's victories in Gaul and Spain. The two long sides of the Ara Pacis are filled with reliefs that show a procession led by
Augustus and including the imperial family and other top civic and religious officials. Scholars differ about exactly which procession is depicted, but they generally agree that it is a procession related to
the foundation of the Ara Pacis. Indeed, many Roman monuments illustrate the ritual or the ceremonial that took place at the foundation of the monument itself. Triumphal arches often bear reliefs showing a triumphal entry through an arch; and funerary monuments,
whether for emperors or freed slaves, show the honorific rites that the dead received at his funeral.
This practice was not confined to antiquity. The tombs of bishops
and popes in the Middle Ages often depict or allude to elements in the official ceremonial of their burial. This tradition continued into the Renaissance. The depiction of the dead lying in state on a bier and beneath a funerary catafalque is fairly common on Renaissance tombs.
All such representations are honorific. They show that the represented person received the full measure of acclaim to which his station and his achievement entitled him. And they are an absolute sign that the
person is or was exemplary, worthy of imitation. Moreover, such representations are prescriptive: they establish a model or an ideal of the rites of remembrance that should take place at the site in the
The most basic rite of remembrance is for the visitor to leave something at the site as a mark of love, remembrance, and respect. It is a universal practice. Around the world and throughout time, people
have poured libations or placed rocks or flowers on the gravestones of their ancestors, and pilgrims have left votives at the tombs of saints.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visitors leave so many things--flowers, photographs, letters, medals, even a Harley-Davidson motorcycle--that there is an entire warehouse to preserve them all. At
Ground Zero, there arose a tradition of bringing banners and T-shirts with handwritten messages to the fence at St. Paul's Chapel.
I do not mean to be merely nostalgic. Plainly our existences are not like ancient or medieval or Renaissance or nineteenth-century existences. We lead lives that are less formalized and less sacralized,
and our acts of remembrance typically do not take the form of religious rituals. Yet the stubborn fact remains that, even in our secular and disenchanted and accelerated times, the most successful monuments are
still those that become sites of regular commemoration. For many Americans, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most powerful monument in the country. There is no liturgical calendar of rites there, nor is there a prescribed routine or custom that the acts of remembrance must follow; but the commemoration is regular, and every day people go there to remember those who fought and died in the war. It brings us together on common ground, and it gives us a place where we can literally get in touch with the past.
A monument is both a personal experience and a collective experience. "Collective sentiments can become conscious of themselves," Durkheim instructed, "only by fixing themselves upon external objects."
A monument is one of the means by which an aggregate of individuals transforms itself into a community that feels bound together by a
common moral experience and a common historical framework. It is proof that the past is real, and that the past is still present. A monument is where the mythical and historical memory of a person or an event
comes to earth and, by adopting material form, lives on. A dolmen in lower Manhattan? We could do worse. We probably will.
Excerpts from an article by Andrew Butterfield