Jill Leslie McKeever-Furst
Polish-American baptismal certificate
Philadelphia, PA, 1923 (169K)
Woman in mourning dress
United States, c. 1880 (94K)
Circumcision knife and shield
knife, steel and ivory, Chicago, c.1920; shield, European, 1807 (42K)
Green family Bar Mitzvah
c. 1910-1920 (147K)
silver and enamel. European, late 1800's. (42K)
Cepec (Slovak wedding cap)
maker unknown. Satin and silver embroidery, beadwork on cotton. Slovakia, c. 1870 (85K)
Quinceañera capias (favors)
Philadelphia, 1980's (85K)
Embroidered cotton. Hungary, c. 1927
Bethlehem, PA (86K)
Portrait of Camille (posthumous portrait)
by Shepard Alonzo Mount. Oil on canvas. 1968 (60K)
Posthumous photographic portrait of Amos Barstow III
Providence, RI. 1879 (104K)
"Visiting the Newborn"
by Marijana Grisnik. Oil on canvas. Kansas City, Kansas, 1979 (155K)
"Jewish Stages of Life"
greeting card. Lithograph. New York, early 1900's. (205K)
Plastic, imitation lacquer. Japanese import, 1992 (33K)
Geburts- und Tauf-schein fractur
Geburts- und Tauf-Schein fractur (PA-German birth and baptismal certificate). Lithograph, Tremont, PA, 1869 (178K)
by Ruthanne Hartung, watercolor wash and ink, Reading, 1987 (305K)
two ketubah's (Jewish marriage contracts)
Orthodox ketubah, Philadelphia, c. 1900 and ketubah by Abigail Chapman, recording her own 1961 wedding. Philadelphia, 1987 (259K)
Cotton. West Africa, c. 1975 (45K)
Saint Carlos, AZ (236K)
In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered a cave at Shanidar in Iraqi Kurdistan. Here, the remains of more than a dozen children and adults were buried, and at least one person--a fully-grown man--was interred with flowers. The fine grains of pollen preserved in the soil around his body indicated that his companions laid him to rest in May or June and searched the surrounding hillsides for the blooming early relatives of hollyhocks, bachelor's buttons, grape hyacinths, woody horsetail. Because most of these plants have, and probably had at the time of his death, medicinal uses, he may have been a medicine man and the healer of his group.
The Shanidar burial does not seem particularly remarkable; many people today and in the recent past adorn bodies and graves with flowers. It is unique, however, because it, and the rite of passage it celebrates, predate modern humans by tens of thousands of years. The man was honored some 60,000 years ago by his fellow Neanderthals.
Art, on the other hand, is a product of Homo sapiens. From at least thirty thousand years ago, people have worked and reworked stone, bone, and antler, and some of the resulting objects undoubtedly commemorated alterations in an individual's status or confirmed membership in a community. The ancient, small Mother Goddess figures scattered across Siberia may have represented requests for children, suggesting that our earliest ancestors already had in mind an ideal life cycle in which a person began as child; transformed from careless adolescent to responsible parent, nurturer, and mainstay of the group; evolved to elder and ancient keeper of the group's knowledge; and finally, after death, became an ancestor who watched over his or her living relatives from the otherworld.
It is even possible that the most archaic monumental art--the magnificent larger than life-size paintings of bison and horses in the caves of southern France and northern Spain--was executed by talented boys taken from their families to be transformed into adult men. Judging from recent customs, their period of seclusion must have included intense fasting, frightening isolation, ritual whippings, blood offerings to the spirits, or bodily mutilations. The boys were taught the secret lore of the group, and perhaps they painted, or saw, the impressive figures of the game animals they now would be hunting. The adolescents then returned to the group, not as children but as adults, with the comportment and responsibilities of men. Coming of age to adulthood reinforced their identification with the entire group rather than with their own families because all young men who underwent these trials together were bound in an "age group" as brothers.
As our earliest ancestors passed through stages of their lives
they may have marked their bodies with tattooing, painting, scarring
and removal of small and nonessential body parts. The body itself
became an object of art. Today, intricate patterns expressing
auspicious wishes for future good fortune are still painted on the
hands and feet of Pakistani and Asian Indian brides. (See "Mehendi
Party" case study.) They are joy made visible in highly stylized
motifs. As in most traditional societies, the geometric designs are
abstractions of objects and ideas that enable the people within the
group to read the pattern but convey almost nothing to outsiders.
Other alterations of the body, such as circumcision, are more private
and permanent. The body is ephemeral, however, so unless a custom
continues, we have no way of knowing how often the body itself was
the canvas or clay marked by rites of passage.
Objects, rather than the body, have been used as more permanent reminders of life changes. The physical things used in rites of passages are armatures of memory; the stories of births, marriages, and deaths are woven around them. Despite their diversity, these objects share common features. Generally part of religious experience; they are made within a community setting, and not simply for their private meanings. Often, they are classified as folk, or popular, art produced for the common people rather than fine arts executed for aristocratic patrons. Increasingly, they are mass- produced. Finally, they have become intimately associated with keeping or recreating an ethnic identity.
Objects made for rites of passage are primarily tied to religion because the life cycle traditionally is celebrated in the context of belief. Individual lives follow an ideal pattern of behavior lying at the core of the religion. The lives of the leader or founder of a religious tradition and his or her family often form the model for its followers. Usually that model calls for the presentation of a child to a deity or to ancestral spirits in emulation of the founder of the religion at its beginning. In Christianity a child's baptism recapitulates the biblical baptism of Christ. In Buddhism the life of Buddha is the ideal so that a male child is introduced to monastic life for a brief time by having his head shaved and wearing the saffron-colored robes of a priest. In the Akan religion of Ghana an infant is presented to the gods and the ancestors during the traditional naming ceremony.
For Catholics the life of the Virgin forms an important pattern for feminine rites of passage. The quinceañera celebrating a Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Mexican-American girl's fifteenth birthday, for example, traditionally has marked her entrance into womanhood. (See "Quinceañera" case study.) Although it is now a primarily secular and social rather than religious ceremony, it still includes a segment in a church, where the young woman is crowned by her mother or a friend. The girl dresses in a white formal and wears a cloak. Just as at her first communion at age seven, she wears special frilly white clothing derived from artistic depictions of the clothing and crown worn by the Virgin Mary for her coronation in heaven.
Among the most common objects created for rites of passage are grave goods given by the living to the dead to aid them in the next world. Many people believe that unless they provide the dead with items of sufficient quality or quantity, the spirit might return to harass the living. Elaborate artificial floral wreathes called coronas are made by Mexican-American women each year to honor and comfort their dead on All Souls Day. (See "Day of the Dead" case study.) In many cultures special clothing sets apart surviving relatives from the rest of society while they grieve, and rites of passage enable them to channel their grief during stressful times or even may grant them permission to feel and express otherwise prohibited emotions.
Rites of passage affirm membership in a community. When an individual life conforms to a group's primordial pattern, or proto- life story, the person shares a common experience with neighbors and with everyone who has gone before and who will come after him or her. The rites that determine status and position within most communities do not make much difference to other ethnic groups or the surrounding society. For example, ritual circumcision is crucial to incorporating a male child into Judaism although the society at large may practice the same procedure for medical reasons. Many implements made for this ceremonial practice thus are not simply medical instruments, but are finely wrought in precious materials. Because Jewish tradition bars depictions of the human form, the embellishment of ritual items for circumcision often consists of delicately engraved, painted, or woven inscriptions of biblical texts or good wishes for the child.
Community feeling during rites of passage is reinforced bv wearing similar clothing or by using the same objects. The elegantly simple tallit, or prayer shawl, traditionally worn by a boy, at his Bar Mitzvah is like the one worn by all adult Jewish men and links members of the community in faith and ritual action. In many ethnic communities in America, clothing and paraphernalia for rites of passage are the last cultural elements to be lost. People might dress in modern clothing in their everyday lives, but they are often brought into the community, confirmed, married, or buried with some traditional piece of clothing or object if at all possible. Items designed for rites of passage embody human identity in the most profound sense: before a person establishes his or her individuality, he or she comes into the world as a member of a family and cultural community which uses ritual objects to anchor the individual to his or her past.
The use of communally owned objects in rites of passage also affirms solidarity, and in many ethnic communities, rites of passage are celebrated with borrowed paraphernalia. Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox couples are married under the very same icons which were held over their great-grandparents. The torah pointer used by a Jewish boy or girl at his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah is owned by the synagogue and used for many generations.
Giving gifts and receiving special tokens or party favors during rites of passage signal the community's acceptance of the validity of the ritual. The Jordan almond favors that are traditional among Greek and Italian Americans originated in the Mediterranean region at the time of the Roman Empire. Puerto Ricans distribute caplas, favors made with ribbons, feathers, and plastic novelties, at baptisms, quinceañeras and weddings.
Items crafted by family or community members validate the rite of passage. Special wedding clothing or items for a trousseau show the skill of their maker and enhance the prestige of a family in which the women are known to be good embroiderers, seamstresses or bead workers. The woman who receives such hand-crafted apparel marches into the next stage of life with confidence, while those same items give their makers and other members of the community, a stake in the outcome of the ceremony.
The objects made within a community for rites of passage constitute a living tradition of folk arts. Often they derive from fine arts once commissioned by aristocratic patrons. Photographs of the dead, for example, grew out of the ancient Roman practice of making portraits of deceased rather than living relatives. The Roman aristocracy also commissioned sculptured portraits on gravestones, a custom that has continued in some 20th-century Italian-American communities. Commemorative portraits were revived in Renaissance Italy during the fifteenth century, and were popular in Europe and America into the nineteenth century, when photography took over the function of the more costly art of painting. The increasing popularity of photography during the second half of the nineteenth century meant that portraits--including those of the dead--were much cheaper and hence available to humbler and poorer people. Photography democratized the death portrait, just as it made portraits of the living more common. Almost every high school student now has a portrait made for graduation, as it no longer is the prerogative only of kings, counts or dukes to commission a likeness.
Conversely, the fine and folk arts sometimes depict the customs associated with rites of passage. The Croatian-American folk painting "Visiting the Newborn" records how neighbors traditionally visited the birthing room to bring gifts of food. From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, paintings by European artists often attributed the same practice to neighbors who visited Saint Anne when she gave birth to the Virgin Mary.
Objects celebrating rites of passage frequently are mass-produced because they serve not the rich but the common person. Tibetan refugees living in California can buy inexpensive religious prints of the "Wheel of Existence" pulled from large wood blocks which were brought to this country from Tibet. The subject is the soul's passage from death to the afterlife and its subsequent rebirth in different realms and bodies. Printed in a single color, the image is a poor man's version of the tanka, an elaborate and delicate religious painting, chased with gold and mounted on strips of brilliant, imported Indian silk. Each tanka was a unique work made by monks, to be used in temple rituals and in meditation. The costly tanka shares its symbolism with the less expensive wood block print. Traditionally, humble people have bought the prints, hung them in their houses, folded and worn them in amulets, or sewn them into their cloting for protection against evil spirits, and sometimes they even have hand-colored them to give them the beauty of their more expensive counterparts.
In the United States during the nineteenth century, objects for rites of passage were increasingly mass-produced as populations shifted from farms to manufacturing centers. People in smaller communities continued to make much of what they needed, but for working people in urban centers, manufactured objects and printed materials such as the lively, lithographed Jewish "Stages of Life" cards were treasured items that were carefully displayed and preserved.
Today, traditional items may be made of less expensive synthetic materials. Japanese wedding cups made of plastic rather than lacquered wood are an excellent example of this substitution. On the other hand, people of the late twentieth century often prefer handmade things, which have now become more costly and rarer just as manufactured goods were more difficult to obtain in the last century.
Perhaps the best example of changes in attitudes about machine versus hand-made goods can be seen in the fracturs associated with Pennsylvania Germans. Early fracturs often were hand painted by local teachers, who supplemented their incomes by producing elegantly lettered and fancifully embellished wedding and birth announcements. As printed reproductions became common in the nineteenth century, fracturs often were purchased with standard introductory texts and blank spaces for entering the names of the significant participants. Purchasers of the printed fracturs then had them embellished further with color tints and additional painted figures. Today, the form is experiencing a lively revival, in elegant and beautiful hand-painted and lettered modern examples. The custom has traveled outside the Pennsylvania-German ethnic group as the appreciation of hand-crafting and traditional folk art has grown, and as the prices of original fracturs at antique shows and auctions have soared. The revival of handmade ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) has followed something of the same pattern although the art has remained within the Jewish community.
Finally, objects for rites of passage are more than devices for maintaining family folklore that confirms the cycle of life. They are visible signs of people's desires to maintain ethnic identity and to mark the stages in their lives in a time-honored fashion. The buckskin dresses worn at Apache Sunrise ceremonies are still made in traditional form, although sometimes incorporating non-traditional motifs. They are complete with danglers and the intricate, lacy colored beads worn by the Apache and Mojave of Arizona, Nevada, and western California. The Sunrise Ceremony which commemorates the coming of age of a young woman also celebrates the ancient Apache custom of counting descent through the mother's line.
Traditional items also have been used for recreating rituals and retrieving a sense of ethnic continuity and heritage. Kente cloth, for example, is included in many African-American rituals, including a "coming-of-age" ceremony celebrated recently in Philadelphia. (See "Unyago" case study.) Woven in both vertical and horizontal bands by the Ashante people of Ghana, some patterns of kente cloth traditionally were reserved for the upper classes or the king. The patterns themselves had names which often commemorated great events in the past, or referred to the ruler's power to discover fraud or deceit. One weave was dubbed "liar's cloth" because the monarch wore it when speaking with people known to be less than truthful. The cloth was a clear reminder that they were known to the king by reputation and that their words would be carefully scrutinized to determine their veracity. In the United States the cloth no longer is used in its original context, but its use helps to reconstruct ethnicity and to link African-Americans to the great artistic and social traditions of their past.
As long as people marry, bear children, age, and die, they will commemorate these life changes in rites of passage. The rituals themselves may change dramatically over time, but they continue to address needs that have endured for as long as sixty thousand years. Ritual objects validate the ceremonies, and are tangible reminders of who we have been, who we are and who we may be.
Dr. Jill Leslie McKeever-Furst is Associate Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art and Design and consulting scholar at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of numerous articles and books on Native American and ancient Mexican arts and ideology. Her current project is a book on Native American beliefs about death and afterlife.