Friday, July 31, 2009


What do these 3 seemingly disparate images have in common? Cenotaphs. A cenotaph is a memorial - often in a cemetery - that does not mark a grave. The word comes from the Greek kenotaphion, an empty tomb. The 1st is a watercolor drawing by French architect Etienne-Louis Boullee (1728-1799) of a cenotaph that was never built. Intended to memorialize English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), it was designed to be a giant perfect sphere with a dark interior illuminated only by holes in the walls that would simulate the stars to represent the night sky. "The confines of the space would disappear and the visitor would be engulfed by the vastness of the universe." While researching cenotaphs, I learned that there are many in India because they are a basic component of Hindu architecture. Called chhatris [canopies], they may consist only of a dome atop 4 pillars or several domes over a basement with several rooms. Hence the 2nd image, which shows a boy jumping into the Betwa River in Orchaa, an Indian town known for its chhatris (there is one in the background). The 3rd image shows the many cenotaphs placed in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to honor 120 members of congress who died in office. These cenotaphs were designed by British-born American architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), who also designed the U.S. Capitol. From the photograph, it's easy to see why cemeteries are sometimes called silent "cities of stone." And with 50 senators and 435 representatives in office at any one time, it's easy to see why the practice of erecting cenotaphs didn't continue.

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