Stories in Stone – The Obelisk

The obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top. Obelisks were prominent in the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples.

Napoleon’s campaign into Egypt (1798-99) included a scientific expedition resulting in several publications in the early 19th century. These publications led to the incorporation of Egyptian motifs such as the obelisk, hieroglyph, sphinx, and pyramid into architecture and decorative arts.

With its funerary symbolism, the Egyptian Revival style was often seen in cemeteries, most notably in the form of the obelisk which represented eternal life or a ray of sunlight.

In June 1874, a Hartford Courant article noted that “a splendid monument has just been erected at Cedar Hill Cemetery upon the lot owned by Calvin Day, Esq.” The work of Batterson & Canfield Company, the monument design was based on the Lateran Obelisk.

The Lateran Obelisk, located in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, is the highest and oldest obelisk in Rome. Carved in red granite, it originally stood at the Temple of Amun, Karnak, Egypt, and was built by Pharaoh Tuthmosis III in the 15th century BC. More than 1700 years later, the Emperor Constantine, brought the obelisk to Rome as a decoration for the Circus Maximus.

Constantine had to build a special ship to transport the monument. It was first brought to Alexandria where it stood for several decades. In 357 AD, it was brought to Rome. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Circus Maximus was abandoned and the obelisk eventually broke and was buried by mud and detritus. Pieces of the obelisk were found in the 14th and 15th centuries and were eventually fully excavated in 1587. It was re-erected near the Lateran Palace the following year, although 12 feet shorter.

When it was erected in August 1588, it became the last ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in Rome. The obelisk was topped with a cross and the pedestal was decorated with inscriptions explaining its Egyptian history and its travels to Alexandria and Rome.

According to the Courant, the Day obelisk was the largest monument based on the Lateran model in the United States. It measures nearly 8 ½ feet square at the base with a total height of about 40 feet.

Granite and brownstone obelisks at Cedar Hill Cemetery