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Medieval and Renaissance art made use of a number of emblems to symbolize death and mortality. Although a central theme of Christianity for hundreds of years the was triumph over death, the onset of the black plague altered public perception, and the emphasis was placed on the triumph of death over life and the necessity of repentance. Symbols of resurrection common in Christian art became less popular as reminders of the impermanence of life and the punishments of hell became ubiquitous.

The most common symbols of mortality were the grim reaper and his scythe, the death’s head, and the hourglass, all appropriated from icons of Greek and Roman Paganism. Slogans such as “remember death” and “all is vanity” were omnipresent- death was around the corner, and one had better repent if one was to avoid an eternity of damnation. The source of these macabre symbols was, ironically, the paganism that Christianity had supposedly replaced.*

In ancient times, the emblem of the God Saturn (Chronos to the Greeks) was the scythe, which represented the nature of the cycles of time. The scythe symbolized not only impermanence (all things living will be cut down), but the nature of the life cycle- plants must die to feed animals, and the tool of the harvest is depicts the necessity of death for the renewal of life. Thus, death was depicted as a natural part of the passage of time. The image of Chronos devouring his children seems macabre, but illustrates that the the Greeks believed the passage of time is so inevitable that even the gods were consumed by it.

The hourglass is another emblem of time, although hidden within is the promise of life- because the hourglass is reversible, it held within a promise of resurrection, a symbolism not lost on everyone- all of these emblems later became symbols of resurrection to Freemasons and Rosicrucians who grasped their true ancient meanings.

The skull was a frequent companion to ascetic desert saints in numerous Christian artworks, and was often paired with the book, a symbol of studiousness. In this manifestation, the death’s head was less ominous, and symbolized the rejection of the impermanent material world for the life of the spirit. Mary Magdalene is probably the best known example of these two emblems in art.

*Some scholars theorize that the appropriation of ancient symbolism was a subconscious (or even deliberate) attempt to appease the old gods.

In later times, death was depicted as a process of the alchemical arts. Common alchemical emblems included the crow, the skull, and the tomb as symbols of the necessary death of the ego/personality.

Emblems of death are also prevalent in Masonic art and symbolism. Contemplation of mortality is a frequent theme in Masonic ritual and practice (see V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Skull and Crossbones)

More symbols of Death

Symbols of the Day of the Dead

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The Chi-Rho emblem can be viewed as the first Christian Cross.

As a pre-Christian symbol, the Chi-rho signified good fortune. The Chi ro became an important Christian symbol when adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine, representing the first two letters in the name of Christ- the Chi, or ‘ch,’ and Rho, or ‘r.’ According to Church Father Eusebius, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvan Bridge, the Emperor saw the emblem in a dream, with the inscription, “By this sign, you shall conquer.” According to the story, the battle was won. In return for the victory, Constantine legalized the religion and erected Christian churches.

There is some speculation that the ‘sign’ witnessed by Constantine was an occurrence of the sun dogs phenomena.

Unfortunately, this story is very unlikely, as Constantine’s conversion occured on his deathbed, if at all. In any case, the symbol was the standard of the Emperor’s army, prominently displayed on the Emperor’s labarum, or battle standard.

Before it became the monogram of Christ, the chi rho was the monogram of Chronos (whose name also begins with a Chi-rho), the god of time, and an emblem of several solar deities.

The Chi-ro is also the origin of the tradition of abbreviating “Christ” in “christian” or “Christmas” to “X.”  The small letters in the image are the alpha and omega.

In Hebrew, Chi-Rho equates to Tav-Resh. The chi rho was used in hermetic alchemical texts to denote time.

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This glyph represents the planet Saturn, and it corresponding alchemical metal, lead. The image mimics the scythe of Saturn, the god of the harvest and time.  The qualities of Saturn include limitation, protection, and restraint; lead is therefore used historically where these qualities are required- it is still common to see lead-lined caskets, and it is traditional to keep scriptures and religious relics shielded in lead reliquaries.

Alchemically, lead was the prima matera, or primal matter, and represented the putrefaction and decay necessary for new life.

The sigil is similar to the Hebrew letter Tau, which also has associations with time and death.

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Saturn, from a medieval book of hours
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Related Symbols:
Coptic Cross
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