Sleep in Jesus: a dedication to a child, 1876

July 22, 2011

Sleep in Jesus Locket / In Memory Of Black Enamel

Gold back and front memorial lockets with various designs were ubiquitous mourning jewellery items in Victorian England and the United States. Here we have a 9 carat gold mourning locket with intricate engraving on the back and front, bold black enamel Christian cross motif metamorphosing into stylised ivy and the familiar ‘In Memory Of’. These types of lockets could be purchased from jewellery stores with photos, hair and other personal dedications added later. The locket is of its time, reflecting the fashion of the day and steeped in Christian belief and symbolism, but let us open it up and see what more we can learn.

Sleep in Jesus Locket / In Memory Of Black Enamel

The original glass on both sides is intact. The Left side has reverse,  hand-painted text reading: ‘Hannah Taylor born June 23 1872 died July 30 1876’. The naive quality of the writing reveals to us that this was undertaken in the home as opposed to a professional jeweller / engraver. On the right side purple silk is visible; a square piece of paper has been sewn on to it. The paper reads ‘Sleep in Jesus’ and this appears to have been mass printed – possibly a church or local paper or perhaps businesses offered such paper dedications for home memorials.  Atop the paper, most beautifully sewn, are separated curls of delicate brown hair – that of the cherished 4-year-old Hannah.

Sleep in Jesus Locket / In Memory Of Black Enamel

This locket represents a meaningful glimpse into the world of the unknown Taylors. Why did they need to paint the dedication themselves – was it desire or necessity? This locket was purchased from the US, is that where it originated from? Were these people from a remote rural area who ordered in the locket, but with no services, or perhaps no further money, for a professional to create the dedication? Can you imagine the feelings of love and loss while touching & sewing the hair, all that remains on this earth of your beloved child?

One thing we can be sure of as there are so many clues – their Christian belief in life after death.

“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” – I Thessalonians 4:14.

Sleep – the ideal death, a Victorian obsession with death, to sleep and pass peacefully – to live in God. Sleep is a euphemism for death which we are all still very familiar with. The use of the text ‘Sleep in Jesus’ is most telling, one can assume the mother (logically the one who crafted the dedications?) is aware of I Thessalonians and she believes that her child will also go to God, sleeping in this life but alive in Heaven; hopefully gaining much needed comfort in this belief.

However, she may also be familiar with this phrase  through popular hymns, notably ‘I know of a sleep in Jesus’ name’ by M.B. Landstad (1802-1880) of Norway but published in official Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal books in the US. Also, ‘Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep!’ by Margaret Mackay of England, but printed in the Protestant Episcopal Church Hymnal of the US in 1871.

Now, let us re-introduce the ivy and the cross from the front of the locket. Ivy, in the Victorian era, symbolised fidelity and undying love, it was also associated with femininity. Traditionally (pre-Christianity), ivy symbolised rebirth and eternal life due to its evergreen properties. Here, we have the Christian cross, the most potent symbol of resurrection and eternal life, combined with ivy – a strong image of enduring love and spiritual life after death.  In addition, we have ‘Sleep in Jesus’; the message is clear.

A mother’s loss unfathomable to bear, but perhaps made easier by touching, keeping and cherishing the tiny locks of hair, which is all that remained with her worn atop her heart; and the belief that Hannah now sleeps peacefully in Jesus where once again they may meet.

“Asleep in Jesus! Far from thee
Thy kindred and their graves may be;
But there is still a blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep.’ – Mrs Mackay, from US Hymnal 1871.

R.I.P. Hannah Taylor and those who loved her!

        Marielle Soni, 19th July 2011

One Response to “Sleep in Jesus: a dedication to a child, 1876”

  1. […] is another little photo I stumbled across which is quite pertinent to our recent post. We discuss symbolism in jewellery and here is one in the graveyard with a most beautiful […]

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