Believing in Unicorns

The unicorn has a fascinating cultural history, not only because many in the West believed that unicorns were real until the 18th century, but also because it symbolizes contrasting qualities.

 

Unicorn in illuminated manuscript, c.1450, France

 

One of the reasons why people believed in unicorns for so long is the narwhal whale, which is found in the Arctic waters around northern Canada, Greenland and Russia.

 

A narwhal, closeup— Source: wildlifeextra.com

 

Narwhal illustration — Source: whale-world.com

 

When northern tribes caught or found a narwhal, they sometimes took its long tusk and sold it on the European continent, where it was thought to be a real unicorn horn.

 

A narwhal tusk — Source: torkild.com

 

At the same time, confusion with exotic creatures such as the rhinoceros led travelers to write that they had seen a unicorn in distant lands, often in India, apparently confirming the unicorn’s existence.

It was only in the early 18th century that knowledge of the narwhal spread in Europe and revealed that all those precious unicorn horns were actually whale tusks, which greatly weakened the belief in unicorns in the West.

By the mid-19th century, the unicorn had become an imaginary animal like the dragon, and it found its way into fairy tales, where it acquired the romantic white-horse image it has today, without changing its symbolism.

Starting with ancient texts such as the Physiologus (2nd century), the unicorn has always symbolized purity and wildness in western cultures.

It was believed that the unicorn was so fast and strong that it could not be caught, except by young virgin girls, who were the only ones pure enough to approach it. In fact, the unicorn was thought to be attracted to virgins and fall asleep in their lap, which was the only way of catching it.

 

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry — Sight — detail, c.1500, Cluny Museum, Paris

 

The association with great purity explains why the unicorn horn was thought to have medical powers against poisons and diseases, including purifying water.

These qualities also explain why the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. It can be seen on the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland, which became part of the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. If you are in Britain, look at any official building and you will see the Royal Coat of Arms with an English lion and a Scottish unicorn:

 

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom by wiki user Sodacan

 

So difficult and so easy to catch, so strong and yet so delicate, the western unicorn has been a symbol of purity and wildness throughout its cultural history.

And for over 1,500 years, that history was based on the belief that unicorns were real.

Nike, Goddess of Victory

Her name is now mostly known as a famous sports brand, but in ancient times she was the “winged goddess of victory,” both in war and sports. The Greeks called her Nike, and the Romans Victoria.

The Louvre in Paris has her most famous representation, which returned to public view this summer after almost one year of cleaning:

 

Winged Victory of Samothrace, c.200 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris — Source: style143.com

 

Winged Victory of Samothrace, c.200 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by AP

 

She can also be seen on many Greek vases:

 

Oil flask with “Nike Pouring a Libation at an Altar,” c. 490 BC, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

 

Detail of vase with “Nike Pouring a Libation at an Altar,” c.470 BC, Tampa Museum of Art — Source: theoi.com

 

Nike / Victoria often holds a laurel wreath, the reward of winners:

 

Statue of Zeus / Jupiter holding Nike, c.1st century, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg — Photo by George Shuklin

 

Victory Column, 1873, Berlin — Photo by wiki user Ailura

 

Because she represents speed and victory, Nike has inspired many logos, including the “swoosh” of the sports brand that bears her name, which is a stylized drawing of her wing, and the “Spirit of Ecstasy” figure on the hood of Rolls-Royce cars, which is based on the Louvre statue.

 

Charles Sykes, Spirit of Ecstasy, 1911 — Photo by Jill Reger

 

The goddess is also the origin of many first names, such as Nicholas and Nicole, Veronica, Victoria, and all their variations.

So if you see an image or statue representing a winged female figure holding a laurel wreath, it’s probably Nike, the goddess of victory, whose name survives in many forms.

The Origin of Candidates

The free citizens of Ancient Rome wore a “toga,” which is a large piece of wool draped over the body. There were different togas for different occasions, and one of them is the origin of the word “candidate.”

 

Roman statue with toga, c.2nd century, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

 

The basic toga for free adult citizens was beige, the natural color of wool.

However, when citizens were running for election to public office, they wore a special toga that was bright white, to symbolize purity and honesty, and to show everyone that they were participating in the election.

This white toga was called “toga candida,” from the Latin word “candidus,” which means “bright white.” Someone wearing the toga candida was a “candidatus,” meaning someone “dressed in white.”

“Candidatus” logically came to mean “someone running for election to public office,” and the word has been used with the same meaning in many western languages for over two thousand years, even though candidates don’t wear a bright white toga anymore.

The Color of Emperors

In western culture, the color that is traditionally associated with emperors is purple, a special kind of reddish purple that was discovered over 3,000 years ago on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Emperor Justinian I mosaic, 6th century, San Vitale Church, Ravenna

 

According to legend, it was a god’s dog that discovered the secret to this purple dye, when it ate a murex sea snail during a walk on the beach.

 

Peter-Paul Rubens, The Discovery of Purple, c.1636, Bonnat Museum, Bayonne

 

The god is Melqart in the Phoenician tradition and Hercules in Greek mythology, but in both stories the dog eats a sea snail that gives its mouth a deep reddish purple color, which gives its master the idea to use these snails to dye clothes.

 

Illustration of Murex sea snail in Martin Lister, Historia Conchyliorum, 1685-1692

 

The beautiful purple that these sea snails produce was one of the most expensive dyes in the ancient world, because it is said to take over 10,000 snails to produce about 1.5 grams of coloring, and the process is difficult and very smelly.

The resulting color is known as Tyrian purple, as its main center of production was the Phoenician port of Tyre, which is in Lebanon today.

Naturally, Tyrian purple was a color for the elite only. Kings, high magistrates, victorious generals, and of course emperors. In Ancient Rome and Byzantium, Tyrian purple clothes were mainly reserved for emperors and their families, so the color simply became known as “imperial purple.”

And that’s how in the West purple became the color of emperors.

The Origins of Road Sign Colors

With their bold colors and stylized shapes, road signs look perfectly modern, but their color rules were actually defined in the 12th century, in Western Europe.

 

 

Road signs are not the first signs that had to be easy to see and read from a distance.

When metal armors developed in the Middle Ages, it became impossible to identify people on battlefields by looking at them, because their faces were hidden by their helmets and most armors looked the same. The solution was to use their shields to paint bright signs that would represent their identity, which helped avoid confusing friends and enemies in battles and tournaments. Then the designs spread from the shield to robes worn over the armor and on the horse. That’s how coats of arms were born.

 

Knights Jousting in MS Harley 4205, f. 12, c.1446, British Library

 

Because these signs had to be easy to see from a distance, rules were created to make them stand out as clearly as possible, especially regarding colors.

There were six colors allowed: red, yellow, white, black, blue and green. These six colors were divided into two groups: white and yellow in the first group, and red, black, blue and green in the second.

The main rule was that the background had to be in a color from one group, and the large shape on top had to be in a color from the other group. You could not have a background and a large shape from the same color group. For example, if the background was red, the main shape on top could only be white, or yellow. If the background was yellow, the main shape on top could not be white, because white and yellow are in the same group.

 

Modern Rendition of Panel 1, detail, Camden Roll of Arms, c.1280, British Museum, London

 

The same color rules apply to road signs everywhere in the world today.

 

 

In some cases, as in the US, road signs even have the shape of shields:

 

 

And that’s the origin of road sign colors — 12th-century battlefields in western Europe and the rules of color composition for coats of arms, which had to be easy to see from a distance.

What Inspired the Uncle Sam Poster

The 1917 poster of Uncle Sam recruiting for the U.S. Army is one of the most iconic American images, but its design and concepts are actually British in origin.

 

James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for U.S. Army, 1917

 

The design and “want you” concept come from the 1914 poster featuring the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener:

 

Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener Wants You, 1914

 

As for Uncle Sam, the symbol of the U.S., he is modeled on John Bull, who has been the personification of England since John Arbuthnot’s The History of John Bull, published in 1712. John Bull eventually became the symbol of the UK and was famously used in war recruiting posters:

 

British Government, John Bull Recruiting Poster, 1915

 

Combine the designs and concepts of these two posters, and you get Uncle Sam’s I Want You for U.S. Army.

 

That’s the inspiration for the most iconic recruiting poster ever.

The Symbols of Medicine

It all started with Asclepius, the Ancient Greek God of Healing, who was always represented carrying a wooden rod with a snake around it.

 

Asclepius statue, c.2nd century BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

 

In Greece the snake was associated with wisdom, healing and resurrection due to its ability to shed its old skin after growing into a new one. Harmless snakes were even kept in temples dedicated to the God of Healing, where the sick would come and hope to be cured.

It is from these ancient times that the Rod of Asclepius developed into the symbol of doctors in the West.

 

The Rod of Asclepius

 

This symbol is part of the Star of Life, which is found on ambulances and represents emergency medical services in the US and many other countries.

 

The Star of Life

 

Among Asclepius’ daughters is Hygieia, the Goddess of Cleanliness, whose name gave us the modern word “hygiene.” Hygieia was often represented carrying a jar or a cup, with a snake drinking from it.

 

Hope Hygieia, 2nd century AD Roman copy of Greek original, c.360 BC, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

The cup with a snake is known as the Bowl of Hygieia and has become the symbol of pharmacy in most western countries, where it identifies pharmacists and stores selling medication.

 

The Bowl of Hygieia

 

Another daughter of Asclepius’ is Panacea, whose name means “universal remedy” and is still used today to mean “a solution to all problems.” She was thought to have a potion that could cure every disease, and in that sense she represents medicine’s ambition. There is, however, no symbol for Panacea.

A symbol that is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius is Hermes’ Caduceus, a staff with two snakes and wings at the top:

 

The Caduceus

 

Because Hermes was the protector of travelers and tradesmen, his Caduceus became a symbol of commerce.

It had nothing to do with medicine at all until the 19th century, when the US Army started using it on the uniforms of its medical personnel. It is not clear whether this was the result of a mistake or a deliberate choice. In any case, it became wrongly associated with medicine and the confusion continues today.

In the end, there are only two symbols everyone agrees upon. The Rod of Asclepius, one snake around a rod as the symbol of doctors, and the Bowl of Hygieia, a snake drinking from a cup as the symbol of pharmacists. Both are based on the single snake, which represents wisdom and healing thanks to its skin-changing abilities.

The Symbol of Self-Sacrifice

In ancient Europe it was believed that the pelican would cut its breast open with its beak and feed its young with its own blood if there was not enough food, even though pelicans don’t actually do that. Some even believed that the pelican had the power to bring its dead young back to life by giving them its blood.

This belief lasted at least until the 17th century, as shown by this late 16th century work on plants and animals, published again in 1622:

 

Geoffroi Linocier, Histoire des plantes, appendix on birds, 1584

 

The description under the image says: “This pelican lives near the Nile river and marshes in Egypt. It loves its young so much that when snakes kill them it strikes its sides until blood comes out and with its blood brings them back to life.”

Because of that belief, the pelican became a major symbol of self-sacrifice and charity. Early Christians had adopted it by the 2nd century and started using it in texts and images, making it a very special bird.

 

Edward Burne-Jones, Pelican stained glass, 19th century, Saint-Martin’s Church, Brampton — Source: roseandphoenix.wordpress.com

 

The representation of a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood is called a “Pelican in her Piety.” It can be found in illuminations, stone reliefs, gold jewels, paintings, stained glass windows and more, from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

 

Pelican Illustration in MS. 89/54, Folio 5, late 12th century, Grootseminarie Library, Bruges

 

Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, Montréal

 

Restored Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Saint-Etienne Cathedral, Metz

 

Pelican in her Piety pendant, c.1550s, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

One of Queen Elizabeth I’s most famous portraits is called The Pelican Portrait, based on a similar pelican jewel in the painting (just above her hand), which suggests that the Queen is like a mother pelican, sacrificing herself for her country if necessary.

 

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

 

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait — detail, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

 

Pelican in her Piety stained glass window, Saint-Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Centre Island — Source: karenlaw.ca

 

Sometimes the bird doesn’t really look like a pelican in such representations, but if it’s feeding its young with drops from its breast or if its beak is piercing its breast, it’s definitely a pelican, and it represents self-sacrifice and charity because it was believed to feed its young with its own blood.

Black, the Color of Opposites

Black has been favored by monks, princes, pirates, anarchists, judges, fascists and fashionistas, just to name a few contrasting groups. It is the color that was a color and stopped being one when Newton analyzed light. Then it became a color again, and remains the color that has been most often associated with opposite values throughout western history.

 

Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 222×628 cm. avril 1985, Grenoble Museum

 

The association of black with sadness, death and mourning in the West is well-known, but black is much more than that and it is part of a fascinating network of contradictory values, superbly explained in the works of Eva Heller and Michel Pastoureau, among others.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is between authority and rebellion. Black is the color of many uniforms that represent authority, the law and other forms of control. Think of judges, for instance, who have been wearing black robes in court since the late 13th century.

 

George Romney, Portrait of Judge Sir John Wilson, c.1782, Town Hall, Kendal

 

The most extreme example of black as the color of authority and control gone mad is in the uniforms of fascist groups in the 1920s and 30s — the Blackshirts in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.

 

Benito Mussolini with Blackshirt Legion, 1922 — © Underwood / Corbis

 

At the same time, those who reject authority and the law in the most violent ways also made black their color. Think of pirates and their black flags, most of which were just plain black until the introduction of the skulls and crossbones in the late 17th century, which kept black as the background color.

 

Skulls and Crossbones Flag

 

Anarchists, who reject all forms of government, also use a black flag, as well as a more recent half-black half-red variation.

Another major opposition has to do with the religious symbolism of black. In the Middle Ages, black became the color of sin and of the devil, as in this painting depicting Christ resisting the devil’s sinful ways:

 

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, c.1311, Frick Collection, New York

 

Despite this association between black and evil, many priests and monks wear black, as the monks of the Order of Saint Benedict, who are known as the Black Monks.

 

Philippe de Champaigne, Anna of Austria and her Children Praying to Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, 1640s, Versailles Palace, Versailles

 

Then in the 16th century Protestant Reformers also adopted black, which became the color of Puritan clothes in England and in North America, confirming it as a sober, moral color.

In parallel, bright colors had been banned for anyone except the nobility in 14th-century Italy. Rich Italian merchants responded by wearing the most expensive black fabrics and furs, which associated black with wealth and made it fashionable in Europe for the first time. As the fashion spread, black even became fit for kings.

 

Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Philip II of Spain, 1565, Prado Museum, Madrid

 

This led to another opposition, between black as a sober, humble color and black as a color of luxury.

Today, black continues to be worn by religious orders throughout the world as a sign of humbleness and to be the color of choice for tuxedos and other glamorous evening garments, such as the iconic black dress. Not to mention the “black label” trick that can make any product appear more luxurious.

Unlike blue, which started as a minor color and then became Europe’s favorite, black has always been in conflict with itself, as the color of authority and rebellion, morality and evil, humbleness and luxury — the color of opposites.

How Blue Became Popular

Blue used to be a minor color with negative connotations in much of Western Europe, but now it’s the favorite color of over 50% of Europeans, and the color they wear more than any other. How did that happen?

 

 

In Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the noble colors in the arts were white, black, red, yellow and green. For clothes, red and purple were the colors of emperors and kings. Blue was also widely used, but it was not seen as a positive or noble color.

For the Romans, blue was actually the least civilized color. For them, it was the color of Barbarians, the color of the blue-eyed Germanic invaders and of the Celts who painted their faces and bodies blue to frighten their enemies in battle.

According to Michel Pastoureau’s work on the history of the color blue, this negative view continued until the 12th century, when two major changes happened.

First, blue became the color of the Virgin Mary in Christian art. It is not clear exactly when Mary started to be represented wearing blue, but by the 12th century it had become her color, giving it a highly positive image in the Christian world.

 

Comnenus mosaics, 12th century, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

 

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation – detail, c.1435, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Blue therefore appeared in stained glass windows, following Abbot Suger’s pioneering use of cobalt blue for the windows of the Saint-Denis Basilica around 1140. This had such an impact that the shade of blue he used became known as Saint Denis Blue, featuring in many Gothic cathedrals after that.

 

Moses Window, c.1140, Saint Denis Basilica, Saint-Denis

 

Secondly, Philip Augustus, King of France from 1180 to 1223, started to wear blue and saw the development of the design of the French coat of arms that would be used for 600 years, with golden fleur-de-lys on a field of azure blue.

 

Jean Fouquet, Crowning of Philip Augustus illumination in Grandes Chroniques de France, c.1455, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

 

First French coat of arms with blue field, official French arms from 1211

 

This was the first time a European king had worn blue or had a coat of arms with a blue background.

His grandson Louis IX, aka Saint Louis, King of France from 1226 to 1270, then became the first king to wear blue most of the time. This started a trend that spread throughout Europe and made blue a noble color, which eventually became known as Royal Blue.

The positive image of blue was reinforced in the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the excesses of the Catholic church, reformers identified two groups of colors: honest colors and dishonest colors. The dishonest colors were red, yellow and green. The honest ones were white, black, gray, brown and blue.

In about 400 years, blue came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, royalty, honesty and morality.

Then new pigments were invented, such as Prussian Blue, and the palette of blues became even richer, setting the stage for the rise of blue as Europe’s favorite color.

And that’s how blue became so popular.

The Global Story of @

Starting in the early Renaissance and still developing in the digital age today, the story of the “@” sign is in many ways the story of globalization itself.

 

The most famous part of that story is of course the creation of email addresses. In 1971, an American computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message from one computer to another. For this to work, he had to create a unique kind of address, linking each user’s name to the name of their host computer.

He needed a sign that was not used in the names of people or host computers, so he could not use letters, numbers or common punctuation marks. When he looked at his keyboard for what was left, he saw that “@” was the only sign that was almost never used, so that’s what he chose, and the email address was born.

The question is, why was there this “@” sign on his keyboard? What was it for?

It turns out that the “@” sign can be found in European documents as early as the 14th century, used for many different purposes.

It was, for instance, a short form of the syllable “an” at the beginning of a variety of words, such as “anno,” which means “year.” An early example from 1391 shows the sign used in the French word “anciainnes” written “@ciainnes”:

 

Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 37 minutes 24 seconds)

 

“@” was also used in the Renaissance in Spain and Portugal as a short form of the word “arroba,” which is a unit of weight, and in other European countries for various units of measure.

At the same time, it was used as a preposition to introduce the date, the day, the place, or the name of an addressee or beneficiary in commercial and diplomatic documents from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Here’s an example from 1487, in which “@” introduces “nineteenth of November”:

 

Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 46 minutes 16 seconds)

 

And, most importantly, “@” also became a sign introducing the price per unit, for “at the price of,” or just “at.” For example, “2 apples @ 1$ = 2$.” This is the use found in English-speaking countries and the origin of the “commercial at.”

Because this sign appeared frequently on bills, it featured on the keyboards of typewriters in the US, the earliest known example being the keyboard of the Caligraph No. 2 typewriter from 1883. The first computer keyboards were based on typewriter keyboards, and therefore included the “@” sign, which by 1971 was almost not used anymore.

So the many uses of the “@” sign developed in the early Renaissance through commercial and diplomatic communications among European countries, then reached their American colonies, and the sign eventually spread to the rest of the world over the internet in the 20th century. A perfect illustration of the globalization process.

The Lady with a Wheel

Not all ancient gods and goddesses disappeared with the spread of Christianity in the West. In fact, there is one that continued to be represented throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Renaissance, one we still refer to today. That goddess is Fortune.

Her Ancient Greek name was Tyche, and her Roman name Fortuna, which is the source of the word “fortune” in many European languages, including English. She was also known as Lady Fortune and is still referred to as Lady Luck, especially by gamblers.

 

“Lady Fortune” illustration in Christine de Pizan, The Book of The Queen (Harley MS 4431 f. 129r), c.1410, British Library, London — Source: bl.uk/manuscripts

 

Since Ancient Roman times, Fortuna has been associated with a wheel, which represents the changeable nature of chance. As she turns the wheel at random, some are carried up, all the way to the top where one becomes a King or Queen, but even Kings and Queens must fall:

 

“The Wheel of Fortune” illustration in John Lydgate, Troy Book and Siege of Thebes (MS Royal 18 D II  f. 30v), c.1438, British Library, London — Source: bl.uk/catalogues

 

Fortune was often, but not always, represented with a blindfold over her eyes, to suggest that she does not discriminate and that she distributes both good luck and bad luck equally.

 

“Fortune, Good and Bad,” illustration in Pierre Michault, MS Français 1654, 1466, French National Library, Paris — Source: gallica.bnf.fr

 

The Goddess of Luck is also often represented with a ball, sometimes even standing on it, showing that things can roll in any direction at any time:

 

Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna, 1541, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam — Source: rijksmuseum.nl

 

Tadeusz Kuntze, Fortune, 1754, National Museum, Warsaw

 

In time, she naturally came to be associated with gambling and games of chance. Her nickname was even the name of a casino in Las Vegas from 1964 to 2006:

 

Lady Luck Casino — Source: viewlinerltd.blogspot.com

 

And yes, the game show Wheel of Fortune is named after Fortuna’s wheel, which must have brought it good luck, as the show has been running in the US since 1975.

Most civilizations in the world have their own idea about how luck works. The Western one happens to be a blindfolded lady spinning a wheel at random.

The Graces and the Fates

Groups of three female figures are quite common in Western art, but they can represent very different ideas. In fact, the two most common groups, which are the Fates and the Three Graces, are both associated with life, but the Fates represent destiny and death, while the Graces represent life at its fullest.

 

Unknown tapestry maker, The Three Fates – The Triumph of Death, early 16th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum

 

The Fates were considered to be the ones who decide of birth, life and death for each person. They were called Moirai by the Greeks, Parcae by the Romans, Norns by the Scandinavians, and share very similar features across those three civilizations.

The first was the spinner who made the thread for every human life, the second was the one who measured the length of that thread, and the third the one who cut the thread, deciding how the person would die.

 

Giorgio Ghisi, The Three Fates, 1558, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

They usually have a serious, old or sad appearance, and they hold the rod on which the thread is spun, the thread itself, and most of the time, but not always, the scissors to cut the thread.

 

Alfred Agache, The Parcae, 1880s, Fine Arts Museum, Lille

 

The Fate’s appearance greatly contrasts with that of the Three Graces, who are usually young and playful. Their best-known representation is in Botticelli’s Primavera:

 

Botticelli, Primavera, c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera

 

The Three Graces represent beauty, joy and plenty. They are usually shown holding hands, smiling at each other, dancing or hugging, forming a close-knit group.

 

Smile of The Three Graces, Roman copy of Greek statue, (c.2nd century, then restored in 1609), Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1814-1817, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum

 

So if you find yourself in front of a group of three female figures in a painting or sculpture, look at what they’re holding and doing. If they’re holding something that has to do with thread, they’re probably the Fates, representing human destiny and death. Otherwise, they’re probably the Graces, representing beauty, joy and plenty, in a great celebration of life.

The Atlas Connection

The Atlantic Ocean, the Atlas Mountains, books of maps, architecture and statues, vertebrae and legendary islands are all connected by Atlas, the titan who appears in a wider variety of fields than perhaps any other character from ancient Greek myth.

 

Lee Lawrie, Atlas, 1937, Rockefeller Center, New York — Source: cmiper.com

 

In the myth, Atlas is one of the first gods, the Titans, who fight against the new gods, the Olympians led by Zeus, to decide who will rule the world. The Olympians win, and Zeus punishes Atlas by sending him to the western edge of the world to hold up the sky on his shoulders.

 

Vase with Atlas and Heracles, c.480 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

 

For the Ancient Greeks, the western edge of the world was the north coast of Africa, starting in the area that is Libya and Tunisia today, so everything there was related to Atlas for them.

Naturally, they gave the name Atlas to the massive mountain range that starts in Tunisia and goes all the way to the ocean on the coast of Morocco in the west, even creating a myth according to which these mountains are Atlas himself turned into stone by Perseus with the head of Medusa.

 

Atlas Mountains (red) on satellite image — Source: commons.wikimedia.org

 

Also naturally, they gave the name Sea of Atlas, in Greek Atlantis Thalassa, to the ocean at the western foot of the Atlas Mountains, which has given us the name Atlantic Ocean, and because a powerful ancient island was supposed to be in that area, Plato called it Atlantis.

In the oldest known statue of Atlas, which is a Roman copy of an older Greek statue, the sky is represented as a sphere with a map of the stars and constellations known to the Ancient Greeks, which they represented as objects, animals and mythological creatures and characters:

 

Farnese Atlas, 2nd century, National Archeological Museum, Naples

 

Because of the sky map, and perhaps because it looks like Atlas is holding the Earth, 16th-century map-makers started using the image of Atlas holding a globe to decorate their books of maps. Here is the first example in history, at the top of this title page:

 

Antonio Lafreri, Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori, 1572

 

By association, an “atlas” became a word referring to a book of maps. Also by association, a column with a male statue holding up part of a building is known as an “atlas” as well, and so is the vertebra that holds the skull at the top of the spine.

 

Atlantes (plural of Atlas), at 116 rue Réaumur in Paris — Source: fr.academic.ru

 

Atlas Vertebra Diagram — Source: ffcpc.org

 

So if you see a statue or image representing a male figure holding up something big and heavy, it’s probably Atlas, the titan who was forced to hold up the sky and whose name is still used today in geography, architecture and more.

The Scales of Justice

Even though all Western cultures represent justice in the same way — a female figure holding scales and a sword, sometimes wearing a blindfold — only the sword and blindfold come from Western sources. The scales of justice originated in a more ancient civilization, and today’s common representation of justice only came together gradually over centuries.

 

A typical representation of justice

The most recent addition is the blindfold. It did not feature in the early Roman representation of justice called Iustitia, but appeared later to represent impartiality, as justice is supposed to be the same for everyone, regardless of appearance, gender, wealth or any other characteristic. The blindfold, however, is the one feature that is not always present, even in more recent representations.

F. W. Pomeroy, Lady Justice, 1880s, Old Bailey, London

 

Unlike the blindfold, the sword was a key attribute of Roman Iustitia, which cut through conflicts and punished the guilty. Ironically, the sword of justice was and still is a double-edged sword in every representation.

The Ancient Greek goddess of divine justice and order, called Themis, was not clearly said to carry a sword, nor was her daughter Dikē, goddess of human justice, but modern statues of these two goddesses often include one, perhaps by association with Iustitia.

As for the pair of scales, it represents the weighing of evidence, first recorded not in Ancient Greece but in the Ancient Egyptian myth of the Weighing of the Heart.

 

Papyrus of Hunefer, detail, c.1285 BC, British Museum, London

 

In Ancient Egyptian culture, Maat was the goddess of truth, justice and order. When someone died, it was believed that their heart was weighed by the god Anubis against the feather that Maat always wore in her hair, an ostrich feather representing truth and justice.

 

Statue of Maat, 6th-3rd century BC, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

If the person had committed a crime, their heart would be heavier than the feather and Ammit, the demon with the head of a crocodile, would eat the heart, dooming the person’s soul to stay forever in the underworld and never find rest.

 

Papyrus of Ani, detail from Plate 3, c.1200 BC, British Museum, London

 

It is not clear to what extent Maat and the Weighing of the Heart influenced Greek and Roman representations of justice, but the first version of the scales is definitely Egyptian.

Everyday Symbols from Alchemy

Alchemy, the ancient mystical study of the transformations of matter, may not have reached its goals, such as changing lead into gold and finding a universal cure for all diseases, but it did make contributions to ancient sciences and cultures that are still used today. Two of the most common symbols in the West, for instance, come from Alchemy:

Left, the symbol for “female” — Right, the symbol for “male”

 

In alchemy, each of the seven moving objects that can be seen in the sky with the naked eye — the sun, the moon, and the five classical planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — is represented by a symbol and associated with one of the seven metals known to the ancient world — gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin and lead.

The symbol for iron and the planet Mars, named after the Roman god of war, is the symbol that still represents “male” in the West today, and the symbol for copper and the planet Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love, still represents “female.”

So, the idea that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” may have been popularized in the early 1990s by the book using that sentence as a title, but the association is actually much older, and we have alchemists to thank for the symbols, which started to represent “male” and “female” in the late Renaissance.

The seven days of the week, by the way, are also named after the seven visible moving objects in the sky and the gods whose names they bear, as shown here.

The Liberty Hat

This is the story of a common hat from Ancient Turkey that became a major symbol of freedom in Western cultures, a hat that can be seen in the United States Capitol, in representations of the French Republic, and more generally in flags, paintings and sculptures from Ancient Greece to the modern age. Here it is at the top of the Official Seal of the United States Senate, still used today to authenticate documents:

 

Worn in ancient times in Phrygia, a region that is part of Turkey today, the soft hat known as a Phrygian cap was seen by the Greeks as a sign of non-Greek people from the East, including heroes such as the Trojan prince Paris:

 

Helen and Paris on a red-figure krater, c.380BC, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

In Greece itself a relatively similar cap was worn by travelers. Called pileus by the Romans, that hat was later used for a special ceremony that is the main source of the association between this simple hat and freedom. When Roman slaves were given their freedom, there was a ceremony during which their master touched their shoulder with a special stick and gave them a pileus to wear, which showed they were not slaves anymore.

This is the symbol that features on the coats of arms of Argentina and Haiti today, as well as on the emblem of the US Department of the Army, and the flags of several states, including New York:

Coat of Arms of Argentina

 

Coat of Arms of Haiti

 

US Department of Army Emblem — Source: www.army.mil

 

Flag of New York State

 

Because the pileus and the Phrygian cap look similar, they were eventually both associated with freedom and mixed up, resulting in the liberty hat, which became an important symbol in the 18th century during the French and American Revolutions.

 

Illustration of French revolutionary

 

The Phrygian cap even became the official hat of the female representation of the French Republic, Marianne:

 

Bust of Marianne, second half of 19th century — Photo by Laurent Lecat

 

Logo of the French Republic

 

Delacroix also used this figure in his painting about the Revolution of July 1830, representing Liberty as Marianne with her freedom hat:

 

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Guiding the People, 1830, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

The same hat can be seen on the head of the figure representing Young America and on Lady Liberty, sitting next to Washington, in Brumidi’s 1865 Apotheosis of George Washington in the US Capitol Rotunda:

 

 

Through association with heroes and freed slaves, a simple hat became a major symbol of freedom in the West. It may not look like much, but it signifies a lot.

Connecting Rainbows

From a great snake to a sign from God, the rainbow is one of the most varied natural symbols in cultures worldwide. In European and North American cultures, however, the rainbow has a common function that is found in Scandinavian mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Judeo-Christian traditions. That function is to connect. More specifically, to connect the human world with the world of gods.

In Scandinavian mythology, the bridge that connects Asgard, home of the gods, with the Earth is a rainbow that can only be crossed by gods or the souls of those who died bravely in battle. Described as having only three colors in the 13th century poetic Eddas, the Bifröst is now commonly thought of as a complete rainbow:

 

Sally Cutler / Rob Sheffield, illustration for Francis Melville, The Book of Runes, 2003

 

In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the rainbow is associated with the goddess Iris, whose main function is to deliver the gods’ messages to humans and other gods. Depending on sources and times, Iris is described as having golden wings and rainbow-colored robes, or rainbow-colored wings, or leaving behind her a rainbow as a sign of her passage.

Iris’s name used to be the word for “rainbow” in many languages and still is in some. In Spanish, for instance, the word for rainbow is “arcoiris.” Her name is also still used as the basis of words that describe rainbow-like effects, such as “iridescence.” Descriptions of Iris therefore often include shimmery wings or a rainbow, to clearly show who she is, including in Disney animation:

 

Screenshots from the Pastoral scene of Fantasia, originally released in 1940

 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the rainbow appears to Noah after the Flood as a sign of the covenant, or agreement, between humankind and God. More specifically, it symbolizes God’s promise not to destroy life on Earth with a flood again, as long as Noah’s children follow God’s laws.

 

Joseph Anton Koch, Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering, c.1803, Städel, Frankfurt

 

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831, The National Gallery, London

 

Sometimes these traditions seem to be mixed, as in Brumidi’s Apotheosis of George Washington. “Apotheosis” literally means to “make into a god,” so the painting depicts George Washington being taken up to heaven as a god. How does he go up? On a rainbow:

 

Constantino Brumidi, Apotheosis of George Washington – detail, 1865, Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.

 

So if you come across a rainbow in relation with European or North American cultures, chances are it represents the Bifröst bridge, Iris the Ancient Greek messenger of the gods, the agreement between God and humankind, or possibly a mix of those. In all such cases, the rainbow connects the Earth with the heavens, the human with the divine.

The Art of Stripes

Stripes have had complex and sometimes contradictory meanings throughout Western history — think the American flag vs. prison uniforms — but in modern visual arts, stripes are less complicated. They’re all about rhythm, division and unity, as evidenced by their use on canvas, installations, and even warships.

 

Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

 

Stripes are powerful because they unite and divide in equal measure. They unite through repetition, while forming boundaries that sharply divide planes and colors at the same time. In the process, they create rhythm like no other pattern.

 

Daniel Buren, Les Deux Plateaux, 1986, Palais-Royal, Paris — Photo by Pierrot Heritier

 

Daniel Buren, Color and its Reflections, 1996, Odaiba, Tokyo — Source: 4.bp.blogspot.com

 

While Daniel Buren is known for always using the same 8.7cm stripe in perfect regularity, Sean Scully is famous for creating clashing rhythms through the combination of different stripes:

 

Sean Scully, Aruba, 1998, Private Collection

 

Sean Scully, Blue, 1981, Irish Museum of Modern Art

 

In the case of Agnes Martin, the stripes are always much lighter, more balanced and quieter:

 

Agnes Martin, Untitled #10, 1991, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

 

Moving from the slight irregularity of the first line to the perfect order of the following ones, Agnes Martin manages to create a sense of calm and quiet that is found in every one of her minimalist works.

On a bolder note, stripes were used during World War I to make large ships more difficult to track by creating confusion about their size and the direction they were going. The patterns were so bold and confusing that they became known as Razzle Dazzle Camouflage.

SS Osterley, November 11, 1918 — Source: camoupedia.blogspot.com

 

Source: history.navy.mil

 

Whether Razzle Dazzle Camouflage actually worked is a debated question, but the sailors thought it worked and that’s what mattered, as it made them feel safer and therefore more confident, which is why it was also sometimes used in World War II despite the advances in tracking technology:

French Cruiser Gloire — Source: oobject.com

 

Loud and bold or calm and quiet, stripes can create almost any rhythm. That’s their power in the visual arts.

The Dove and the Olive Branch

Why is the olive branch a symbol of peace in the West, and what has the dove got to do with it? The answers take us far into the past, before the Bible, then bring us back to the modern age with Picasso.

 

Pablo Picasso, Dove, 1949, Succession Picasso/DACS 2010

 

Because it is one of the most easily tamed birds, the white dove has been a symbol of peace, innocence and love since Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it was the bird associated with Aphrodite / Venus, the Goddess of Love, in Ancient Greece and Rome.

As for olives, they are such an important crop for countries around the Mediterranean Sea that the branch of the olive tree has been a highly positive symbol in their cultures since ancient times.

According to mythology, the city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena because it was her who gave the people of Athens their best gift — olive trees, which produced the city’s most precious oil. This actually featured on their coins:

 

Athenian Coin, c.430 BC; Left: Athena wearing olive leaf wreath — Right: Olive branch and owl, the bird that always goes with Athena — Source

 

 

The olive tree was so important that the reward for winning an event in the ancient Olympic Games was not a gold medal, but a wreath of olive leaves with which the winner was crowned, just like Athena on the coin above.

The olive also appears in many ancient texts in relation with peace. In Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, the main character holds an olive branch to offer peace, and in other texts there are records of Roman generals holding up an olive branch to ask for peace after being defeated in battle.

These symbols were used in Judaism as well and put together in the Old Testament story of Noah’s ark. After the Flood, Noah released a dove from his ship and when it came back, it was holding an olive branch in its beak, showing that there was land again. The dove also appears in the New Testament and in Christian art as a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God, the innocence of Mary, and as a messenger from God.

 

Nicolas Poussin, The Annunciation, 1657, National Gallery, London

 

So a combination of tameness, precious crops, mythological and religious factors from the ancient world brought the olive branch and the dove together. Their association then went beyond the religious, especially with the World Peace Congresses that took place after World War II, which used Picasso’s doves as logos.

 

Poster for the first World Peace Congress, 1949

 

Poster for the 1962 Peace Congress

 

Picasso created many variations of his dove with olive branch, and it became one of the signs of the peace movement of the second half of the twentieth century, adding one more chapter to a story of symbols that began over three thousand years ago.

What Cupid Represents

In the West the God of Love is most often depicted as a winged boy with a bow, sometimes blindfolded. Here is a good example, at the very top of one of Botticelli’s most symbolically complex works:

 

Botticelli, Primavera / Allegory of Spring, c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

The Greeks called him “Eros,” which means “intimate love,” but their version of his story as one of the first gods has been replaced by the Roman version, which describes the God of Love as a little boy, the son of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. Renaissance artists used his Roman form for inspiration, and he continues to be represented that way today:

Cupid Clip Art

 

The Romans called him “Cupid,” which means “desire,” and gave him the nickname “Amor,” the Latin word for Love. Each one of his characteristics or attributes reveals one aspect of love and can be seen either as positive or negative.

Cupid’s most important attribute is his bow and arrows. He always has arrows made of gold, and sometimes also arrows made of lead. If he shoots someone in the heart with a golden arrow, that person will fall in love with the first one they see. That is the origin of the arrow-through-the-heart symbol, meaning someone is in love:

 

 

If Cupid shoots someone with a leaden arrow, then that person will never be in love with the one they see after being shot. Here is Cupid up to no good, with his bow and both kinds of arrow on the floor:

 

Jacques-Louis David, Mars Disarmed by Venus — detail, 1824, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

 

While some think the arrows represent the fact that love hurts, they can also be seen as the symbol of the pangs one feels when falling in love.

But why is Cupid a little boy? Because, like most boys, love is mischievous. Love plays with people’s hearts like a boy plays with his toys, without thinking of the consequences.

 

Pompeo Batoni, Diana and Cupid, 1761, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Cupid also always has wings. Is it because some lovers are like birds and quickly fly away? Or is it because love gives you wings? Again, that depends on your point of view, and your experience, but the wings are always there:

 

Alfred Gilbert, 1893, Shaftesbury Monument, Piccadilly Circus, London — Source: Tumblr user Antonio-M

 

Cupid’s blindfold is also variously interpreted as positive or negative. For some, “love is blind” means that appearances don’t matter in true love. For others, the blindness means that people in love don’t know what they’re doing, or that love is careless and uncontrolled.

 

Piero della Francesca, Cupid Blindfolded — detail, c.1460, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo

 

In the end, Cupid has all those characteristics because love is often thought to be irrational, painful, blind, playful, uplifting, and a lot more depending on how you see it.

The point is that Cupid represents love in all its forms, with all its complexities and contradictions.

The Muses’ Gifts

The words “music” and “museum” are connected by their common origin: the nine muses. In the ancient world the muses were the goddesses thought to be the source of artistic knowledge and inspiration, as well as history and astronomy. Nine sisters, each representing and inspiring an art or science, including different forms of poetry, drama, singing, and dance:

 

The Muses Sarcophagus (c.2nd century AD), Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Some of the muses were thought to be the source of rhythm and melody in poetry, singing and instrument playing. Hence the word “music,” the art of the muses.

 

Antonio Canova, Terpsichore (1816), Cleveland Museum of Art

 

The musical muses are usually represented holding an instrument. It can be a string instrument, such as the lyre above or a kithara, which is the origin of the word “guitar,” or a wind instrument, such as a single or double flute:

 

Johann Heinrich Tischbein, The Muse Euterpe (1782), Neue Galerie, Kassel

 

Since the muses are goddesses, they were worshipped at a temple or shrine, which came to be known in Greek as a “mouseion,” a “seat of the muses,” which became “museum” in Latin.

So museums are not just places where objects are kept. They have always been places of inspiration, where knowledge and creation go hand in hand.

 

Claude Lorrain, Apollo and the Muses (1680), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

In addition to being sources of inspiration themselves, the muses had a special friend, which can be seen in the top right-hand corner of the painting above — the winged horse Pegasus. Among its many attributes, Pegasus was said to have created a water spring on Mount Helicon by striking the ground with his hoof. This spring, which can be seen flowing in the paintings above and below, became the source of inspiration for all writers.

 

Joos de Momper the Younger, Minerva’s Visit to the Muses (17th century), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

 

So, if you find yourself looking at a female form holding a tool of art or science in painting or sculpture, you may be looking at a muse. If there are nine of them, you can be sure they are the nine sisters, whose gifts are many.

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

The word “laureate,” as in “Nobel Prize laureates,” comes from the ancient tradition of honoring exceptional achievement with a wreath of laurel leaves worn as a crown, which can be traced to the Pythic Games held from 582 BC to 394 AD in the ancient city of Delphi.

Laurel wreath

 

The Pythic Games, also known as the Pythian or Delphic Games, were to the performing arts what the Olympic Games were to sports. They also included athletic competitions, but their specificity was their focus on the arts, including music, acting, dancing, and painting.

Unlike today’s gold medal, the only reward for winning an event at the ancient Olympic Games was an olive wreath, and at the Pythic Games the only reward was a laurel wreath.

The laurel wreath tradition was then taken up by the Romans, who crowned a successful general with laurels to reward great victory in battle. The victorious general would parade through Rome, wearing his laurels, in a ceremony called a “triumph.”

 

Carle Vernet, The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus (1789), detail, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Then in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, great poets of the past such as Ovid and Dante were portrayed wearing a laurel wreath, which is the origin of the phrase and position of “Poet Laureate.” It refers to the person officially chosen to be the monarch’s poet in Britain, and to honorary positions for poets in the US and other western countries.

 

Botticelli, Portrait of Dante (1495), Private Collection

 

Napoleon revived the Roman tradition in France and had himself depicted with a laurel wreath in portraits and on coins:

 

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806), Army Museum, Paris

 

Napoleon Coin (1812)

 

The wreath continues to appear worldwide on medals, badges, flags, diplomas and many other symbols of achievement.

Initially, once laureates had finished their careers, they could retire and “rest on their laurels,” meaning they had earned their retirement and could be satisfied with a successful life.

Later, however, the meaning of the phrase changed. “Resting on one’s laurels” now means being lazy after being successful once.

Achieving a measure of success at anything is hard enough, but if you do, don’t rest on your laurels. There’s always more you can contribute.

Why Christmas Becomes Xmas

The “X” in the short form of Christmas is not the letter x. It is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, the letter “chi,” which looks like an x but is pronounced /kai/( rhymes with “sky”).

The second letter in the Greek word for “Christ” looks like a capital p but is pronounced “roh.” The first two letters together form the “Chi-roh,” which looks like a capital x with a capital p on top:

The Chi-roh has been used for over 1,500 years as a symbol of Christ. It can be seen here in the central part of the Hinton Saint Mary Mosaic, a representation of Jesus Christ that was found in England and has been dated to the early 4th century:

 

Hinton Saint Mary Mosaic – central roundel (early 4th century), British Museum, London – Photo by J Miall

Hinton Saint Mary Mosaic (early 4th century), British Museum, London – Photo from britishmuseum.org

 

Simply put, “XP / Chi-roh” or “X / Chi” are the initials of the word “Christ” in Greek, and that’s why Christmas becomes Xmas.

Arches of Triumph

How did European emperors and kings celebrate their victories? They built an arch, and sometimes the building took so long that the victor died before the arch was completed. This is the case of one of the most visited arches in Europe, the Arc de Triomphe, or Arch of Triumph, in Paris:

 

 

Started in 1806 at the request of Napoleon after the victory at Austerlitz, construction was only completed in 1836, 15 years after Napoleon’s death.

The source of the design is the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built in 82 to honor all of Titus’s victories. Like Napoleon, Titus did not live to see the arch, which was commissioned shortly after his death:

 

 

What Napoleon did see is the Triumphal Arch of the Louvre Carrousel, a smaller arch also designed in 1806 but completed by 1808:

 

Photo from Zia Mosaic

 

This arch is also inspired from an Ancient Roman design, the Arch of Constantine, built in 315, during Constantine’s lifetime, to commemorate his previous victories:

 

 

Ironically, the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine are not only the inspiration for Napoleon’s arches, but also the models for the two arches built in London to commemorate Britain’s victories against Napoleon:

 

Wellington Arch (built 1826-1830) – Photo by Carlos Delgado

 

Marble Arch (built 1827-1833)

 

So when you come across one of those triumphal arches in Europe, especially in Rome, Paris, or London, take a look at the sculptures and details. These monuments are not just ornate gates. They do not refer to myths or legends, but to actual events — the kind that shaped an entire continent.

What Ancient Obelisks Represent

An obelisk is a tall and narrow monument made of one block of stone with a small pyramid at the top, originally carved over 3,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.

This kind of monument can be seen in cities such as Rome, Paris, London, and New York. Here is the one that stands in London, which was given by Egypt to the United Kingdom in 1819:

 

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” carved in the 15th century BC, from Heliopolis, Egypt

 

And its twin in New York’s Central Park, which was given by Egypt to New York in 1877:

 

 

Several interpretations exist as to the symbolism of ancient Egyptian obelisks, but they agree that the symbolism is religious, as all obelisks come from Egyptian temples. The most common interpretation is that the symbolism relates to the sun god Ra, who is said to have appeared as a ray of sunlight coming from the sky.

An obelisk is thought to be the representation of that ray of sunlight shining down from a point in the sky.

While one would think that the best place to see obelisks is Egypt, so many of them have been taken or given away that there are now more ancient obelisks in the rest of the world than in Egypt itself. In fact, the city of Rome alone has more obelisks than the entire country of Egypt.

Rome also has the largest ancient obelisk in the world, which was modified by the addition of a Christian cross at the top:

 

The Lateran Obelisk, carved in the 15th century BC for the Amun-Ra Temple in Karnak, Egypt

 

Another obelisk was similarly topped with a cross and now stands in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, right at the center of Saint Peter’s Square, even though it originally had nothing to do with Christianity:

 

 

And here is the Luxor Obelisk, on the Place de la Concorde in Paris since 1836, originally carved in the 13th century BC for the main temple in Luxor, Egypt:

 

 

So next time you see one of these wonders of the ancient world, carved from a single block of stone over 3,000 years ago, remember that they come from Egypt and probably represent Ra, the sun god, as a ray of sunlight shining down from a point in the sky.

 

 

Fasces: an Ambivalent Symbol

In Ancient Rome, those who had the power to punish criminals carried a symbol of that power for all to see, and it can still be seen in many western countries today, including the US. This symbol, called “fasces,” was a bundle of wooden rods tied around an axe with strips of leather:

 

Roman magistrate carrying fasces

 

The rods were for beatings as punishment for petty crimes, and the axe for the most serious offenses. In time, the axe disappeared from fasces carried within Rome, except in times of war. The rods tied with leather remained, a symbol of authority and justice.

Fasces were in continuous use throughout the Roman Kingdom (753BC – 509BC), the Roman Republic (509BC – 27BC) , and the Roman Empire (27BC – 476AD). Therein lies their ambivalence.

When associated with the Republic, the bundle of rods around the axe becomes a symbol of unity and strength. One rod can easily be broken, but many together are much stronger.

That’s why, when the United States rebelled against the British Monarchy and established a republic after the War of Independence (1776-1783), fasces became part of the newly-formed nation’s symbolism. As a result, government buildings and memorials in Washington, D.C., and other cities often feature fasces. Here is perhaps the most famous example:

 

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. – Armrests decorated with fasces

 

Here is another one, in the House of Representatives:

 

 

And here, take a look at what George Washington is leaning on in the bronze copy of the Houdon statue in the US Capitol Rotunda:

 

France also adopted fasces after its 1789 revolution, and they remain such a strong symbol of the French Republic that they still adorn French passports today:

 

 

When associated with the Roman Empire, however, the axe supported by the rods becomes a symbol of authoritarian power vested in one leader, who decides who lives and who dies. During World War I, this appealed very much to Benito Mussolini when he decided to create a new political group to promote militarism in Italy.

Mussolini chose fasces as the emblem of this nefarious group of individuals, which gave them their name: fascists. Naturally, the political party they founded in 1921 was called the National Fascist Party, and its ideology quickly became known as fascism.

Emblem of the National Fascist Party, now banned in Italy

 

From the symbol of republican government to the source of the word fascism, fasces are one of the most ambivalent symbols in the West. Fortunately, we mostly get to see their good side.

You’re Perfect

You will no doubt have seen one of the most widely reproduced drawings of the Renaissance before:

But do you know what it is called, why it was given that name, and most importantly what the drawing represents?

The drawing is most often referred to as The Vitruvian Man.

The reason is that when Leonardo da Vinci drew this figure around 1490 he was in fact illustrating a book — De Architectura — which was written by the Roman architect Vitruvius 1,500 years earlier, around 15BC. Because the drawing and the text are directly related to what Vitruvius wrote, the drawing was named after him. Hence “Vitruvian.”

By the way, have you ever noticed that the text above and below the drawing is written from right to left in a reverse way? This is called mirror writing. Da Vinci used this technique for most of his notes, which can only be read in a mirror. Only the signature in the bottom right hand corner is written in the normal way, from left to right.

Both the drawing and the text illustrate Vitruvius’s points on human proportions, i.e. the relationships between the different parts of the human body. You can see lines on the drawing along the arms, on the face, at the base of the neck, on the chest, under the belly, and at the knees, which show these proportions, along with the circle, the square, and the line under it.

The Vitruvian Man does not represent one person in particular. It represents all of us. No matter what your height and shape are, you follow these proportions too. You are an example of the human perfection shown in the drawing.

For example, measure the length of your outstretched arms from finger tip to finger tip and you will find it is the same as your height. Here is another one: put your foot on your forearm with your heel in the hollow of your elbow, and you will see that the length of your foot is exactly the length of your forearm to the palm of your hand. Also, the length of your hand is one-tenth of your height, so if you are 1.70m tall, your hand is 17cm long.

Try it now, and you’ll see. You’re perfect. We all are.

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