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  • Writer's pictureIvy Boyd

The Girl in the Shadow Box

"The Girl in the Shadow Box", photo taken by Ivy Boyd

The statue of a woman looks vacantly at you through weathered glass - her gaze is sharp against her soft, stone features. She's stands at the head of a grave in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, but this is not where she is buried. Rather, it is the grave of one Herman Luyties, a man who grew infatuated with a young model in Italy. So much so that he had this statue carved in her likeness, and later taken to his cemetery plot to spend eternity with her...

Portrait of Herman Luyties from his obituary.

Herman Luyties was the first proprietor of a drugstore in St. Louis, acting as an early pioneer in the business. Sometime in the early 1900s, Luyties traveled to Italy where he met the renowned sculptor Giulio Monteverde and one of his models. Luyties, although already married, quickly fell in love with the young woman. After turning down his advances, he commissioned the sculptor to carve a 12-foot statue made of marble in her likeness.

After the statues completion, it was shipped to Luyties home that he shared with his wife on Portland Palace. The statue had been on display in his homes foyer, but the weight of it (several tons) was too much for the homes foundation. It was relocated to his families burial plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery, with Luyties adding a glass screen in front of it after noticing that it began to weather in the elements.

In 1921, Luyties passed away at the age of 50. He was buried at the foot of the statue of the young model whom he longed for, although her identity has remained unknown. But how much of this story is true, and what may be the product of urban legend?

On October 14, 1921, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article titled "Statue of grief for grave in predicament." The sub-headline read "Lack of funds for pedestal prevents removal of Luyties' mortgaged marble figure." This article references the apparent financial struggle Luyties underwent to finance the removal of the statue from his home to be relocated at Bellefontaine, costing an approximate $20,000. Adjusted for inflation, that is about $327,000 today. The same article states that the artist who sculpted it was actually Federico Bringiotti, a different sculptor from Italy. Here, it also states that the commissioned statue was modeled after another statue by the great sculptor Monteverde which is located in the Genoa cemetery, known as the Monteverde Angel. This angelic statue was created in 1882, and is one of the worlds most recreated images when it comes to funerary art.

The "Monteverde Angel" created in 1882 by Guilio Monteverde. Image from Wikipedia.

According to the 1921 printing of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Luyties did spend a good deal on his own version of the statue, costing about $4,300 total: $2,600 to carve, and another $1,700 to transport it to St. Louis. Adjusted for inflation, that is over $68,000 today. The foundations in his home were also reinforced, but finances would wear thin for Luyties and moving the hefty item to their grave site would prove difficult. He had planned on using his life insurance money after his passing to have the statue moved, but the funds had to be placed elsewhere. In 1922 after his passing, the sale of Luyties company would eventually fund the moving of the statue to his families grave site where it still sits today.

The legend really begins to fall apart as we look more into the supposed model herself. Many researchers believe that the young model in question was Lola Mora, a woman who studied under Monteverde, possibly being the muse behind the Monteverde Angel. Mora was born in 1866, and Luyties 1871, making her older than Luyties. This detail doesn't quite match with the account of Luyties falling in love with a younger model. Mora and Luyties were both in Italy in 1899 as she studied under Monteverde, so it is possible that they may have known each other. Perhaps Herman was in love with her, or perhaps he (like many others) was simply infatuated with the Monteverde Angel and the somewhat seductive nature behind her image...

Lola Mora in the 1890s, from Wikipedia

Angel statues are typically modest and simple in their anatomy and posing, but some find the stance of the Monteverde Angel to have a slight sexual nature: the way the shape of her bellybutton can be seen through the detailing of the fabric which clings tightly to her body is atypical for a depiction of an angel, alongside her hip which pops out. The posing of her arms across her chest is also out of character for other angels - her hand positioned under her chin, which is angled down, also adds to her allure. It very well may be that Luyties taken with the imagery of this popular statue, while not romantically in love with the woman who it may have been modeled after.

It is possible that no real woman ever posed for this statue, as some artists didn't have the need for a live model. Others might use a model briefly for the initial carving, but take creative freedoms in the actual features and details as the carving progresses. In short, the Monteverde Angel, which Luyties statue is nearly identical too, may not be based on a real woman for him to have fallen in love with.

The odd (and moderately creepy) romantic tale of the married Luyties proposing to a young model, whom he commissioned an entire statue to be carved in her likeness, was likely a later invention which can be traced back to the book Tales of Bellefontaine, written by Carol Shepley. The source for this story of Luyties was reportedly a groundskeeper who repeated this story as it was orally passed down in his family. But the details and timelines which don't match up, alongside the many other nearly identical sculptures of the Monterverde Angel, which is regarded as a masterpiece in neo-classical religious art, alludes to the truth behind this story being that Luyties simply fell in love with this funerary art trend, having wanted one of these statues for his own families cemetery plot. Maybe he did find the figure attractive, but the love may have been no deeper than that.

Another angel statue based on the Monteverde Angel, located in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO. Photographed by Ivy Boyd.

I have traveled to Bellefontaine Cemetery twice in my life, and always made sure to spend time admiring this statue and the strange tale behind it. A tale which I, admittedly, took part in sharing wrongful information about. But this is why I continue to research these stories as I do, and share them here for others to learn from.

I did reach out to Bellefontaine Cemetery about the sources behind the legend, and was told that a researcher has also been working on tracking down more information on this statue and its story. If their version of this tale is updated on the website as new information is found, I will make edits here as needed. Fingers crossed we learn more about this fascinating (and famous) cemetery tale!

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