Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Pyramid

Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.

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