What’s on the cover of Closer by Joy Division?

18 July 2019, 06:00 | Updated: 18 July 2019, 06:01

Ian Curtis of Joy Division live in January 1980
Ian Curtis of Joy Division live in January 1980. Picture: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

Unknown Pleasures may be the favourite design for a t-shirt, but who exactly are the mysterious figures on the cover of Joy Division’s second and final album? The answer isn’t all that obvious…

Joy Division’s classic debut Unknown Pleasures features a sleeve design that spawned hundreds of pieces of merchandise and many more parodies. But what about their second album, Closer? What’s that one all about?

Dressed in sober black and white, the cover artwork features the title of the album written in a font that looks like it’s been chiselled into marble, while a monochrome photograph appears to show three cowled figures grieving around a man lying on a bed.

Joy Division - Closer album artwork by Peter Saville
Joy Division - Closer album artwork by Peter Saville. Picture: Factory Records/Press

Released in July 1980, Closer was a posthumous work. Lead singer Ian Curtis had killed himself at his home in Macclesfield, Cheshire on 18 May and the band were no more - they’d agreed long before that if any one member should leave the group, the name should be retired. And that’s how it was, the three surviving members - guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris - would become New Order, alongside keyboard player Gillian Gilbert.

So when Closer hit the shops, some listeners and journalists accused Factory Records, Joy Division’s label, of appalling taste.

The Appiani Family Tomb In The Staglieno Cimitero Monumentale, Genoa, Italy
The Appiani Family Tomb In The Staglieno Cimitero Monumentale, Genoa, Italy. Picture: Stuart Freedman/In Pictures via Getty Images

The truth was rather different - both the single and the album artwork had been created and approved by the band weeks before Curtis died. It was only Factory’s shambolic release schedule that delayed the record getting to the shops - by that point, the tragedy had occurred.

But what was the cover showing, exactly? It appears to be an image of what’s known in religious art as “The Lamentation of Christ” - the prone figure is Jesus after he has been taken down from the cross (you can tell by the halo) and the other figures are people who were present at the crucifixion. These variously included the Three Marys - the mother of Jesus, Mary Magadelene and Mary of Clopas - and even John the Apostle, Joseph and Nicodemus, depending on which version you look at.

Peter Saville, the designer who had worked with Joy Division on the cover of Unknown Pleasures, revealed that the photos came from a very trendy art magazine called Zoom that had been lying around his studio in London.

He later told Mojo magazine: “Bernard Pierre Wolff had done a series of photographs in a cemetery in Italy. I don’t know to this day whether they were real or not - some of them you thought, he’s set that up - that’s just models, covered in dust.”

Well, the image wasn’t staged, it was in fact a beautifully carved tombstone, situated in the Staglieno cemetery in Genova, Northern Italy. The tomb belongs to the Appiani family and the incredible marble work was created by sculptor Demetrio Paernio in 1910.

Peter Saville
Peter Saville. Picture: John Shearer/WireImage/Getty Images

Saville explained that Joy Division manager Rob Gretton brough the band to see him to discuss the artwork while they were making the LP: "I hadn’t heard anything they’d recorded so I said ‘I’ll show you what I’ve seen recently that has thrilled me’." He then showed the band the spread of photos by Wolff that covered several pages in the magazine: “I thought the band would laugh, but they were enthralled. They said ‘We’ - that’s ‘we’ - ‘like that one’.

The image made the cover, together with a font chosen by Saville, a thin white border and printed on soft white card, “like paper used in engraving”, as the designer said. Another photo from the magazine, of a grieving angel sculpture in the same cemetery, was included on the sleeve of the 12” edition of Love Will Tear Us Apart.

A grieving angel on the Ribaudo family tomb, sculpted by Onorato Toso circa 1910.
A grieving angel on the Ribaudo family tomb, sculpted by Onorato Toso circa 1910. Picture: Roberto Conte/Getty Images

After the death of Ian Curtis, Saville suddenly realised the implications: “Tony Wilson broke the news to me and I said, ‘We have a problem. The album cover has a tomb on it’.

“But the band said, ‘We decided it together, Ian chose it.’ The unsettling thing is wondering what was in his mind. I showed them photographs of a cemetery, while the quite writer was penning the closest thing to a suicide note you can possibly get.”

Joy Division fans still make the trip to Genoa to see the sculptures and the excellent Joy Division Central has directions to find the locations exactly.

The Ribaudo family tomb in the Staglieno Cimitero Monumentale, Genoa, Italy.
The Ribaudo family tomb in the Staglieno Cimitero Monumentale, Genoa, Italy. Picture: Stuart Freedman/In Pictures via Getty Images