Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross

Stone relics of monumental sculpture are characteristic of Ireland, Scotland, northern England and other smaller islands scattered around the British Isles (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Scottish stelae, also called Pictish symbol stones, are categorized in terms of their development periods (Ibid.). About three hundred and fifty examples of similar Pictish stones have survived to our times, mainly on the eastern side of Scotland (“Pictish Stones” 2015). They had been covered with various symbols or designs by being incised or carved in relief (Ibid.).

An illustration of Inverness’ Knocknagael Boar Stone. Drawing from McKenzie (2017). The Picts may have originally painted their symbol stones once the carvings were made.

Stelae appeared between the fifth and ninth centuries, since the heyday of the Pictish kingdom in northeastern Scotland, till the times, when the Celtic Picts were undergoing a progressive process of Christianization (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Although stelae variations of the early Christian period belong to a wider Insular tradition of monumental stones such as High Crosses, typical of the Hiberno-Scottish monumental sculpture, pagan examples of such stelae are unique only to Scotland (Ibid.). The purpose and meaning of the earliest stones are only slightly understood (Ibid.). They may have been territorial markers, personal memorials with symbols for individual names or clans, or funeral stones associated with certain burials (Ibid.).

“Many stones have now been taken into museums to preserve them, but there are a number which still stand outside” (Historic Scotland 2020).

Inscribed Pillars and Symbol Stone Slabs

Scotland has a heritage of standing stones which mark the landscape all over the country (Short 2016). There are, among all, standing stones of considerable antiquity, such as menhirs, large pillar stones and boulders (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Some are with ogham inscriptions, which originated in Ireland (in the fourth century AD or earlier) and later were spread to other areas of the British Isles, including Scotland (Connelly 2015:ii, 5). The Ogham script was a form of lettering based on the phonetics of the Irish language (Short “Part 2” 2016). Pictish and Welsh variations of the twenty-letter Ogham alphabet were evolved as the script spread from Ireland (Ibid.).

Pictish symbol stone (Class I ) at Broomend of Crichie, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. Shot from the documentary (Short 2016).

The so-called Pictish symbol stones or stelae are unique to Scotland and appear in the north and east of the country (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). The Picts apparently shared their ancient myths and mysteries by means of symbols they incised or carved on the earliest examples (Short 2016). The remains of the Bronze Age stone circles, such as that at Broomend of Crichie, and others in the area, show that settled communities had lived in this area long before the Picts arrived during the Iron Age (Ibid.). The latter were first noticed by the Romans in 297 AD (Parrott-Sheffer 2020). Generally, it is thought that Stone and Bronze Age circles were memorials to the dead (Short 2016). The Bronze Age stone circle at Broomend of Crichie was originally composed of six stones, two of which are still in place (Ibid.). One of the currently standing stones is quite different from the others around (Ibid.). Although it is dated back to the Bronze Age and may have come from a recumbent stone circle to the north of the site, it is covered with two carvings belonging already to the fifth or sixth century Pictish symbols (Ibid.). There is a beast or an elephant like animal in the upper part of the stone and the crescent and V-rod below (Ibid.).

The informing board at Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth. Photo from Cope, J. (2009).

Accordingly, the Picts reused far older menhirs and stone boulders as a display of their own symbology, apparently carved for a specific purpose (Forbes 2012). Additionally, “some scholars suggest their ancient creators may also have painted the stones, bringing out in vivid colours their carved salmon, ravens, wolves, boars and even a battle scene” (McKenzie 2017). Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) claim that the Pictish artists would have used minerals and plants to add paint their carvings (Ibid.). “But sculptures found so far have stood outside for more than 1,000 years so any pigment is likely to have been ‘scrubbed away’ by long exposure to the effects of the sun, rain and wind” (Ibid.). Pigments have yet survived on Pictish metalwork and contemporary stonework from Northumbria and Mercia (Ibid.). Colour is also a strong feature of Hiberno-Irish Christian manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells (Ibid.).

Alongside another Pictish fish-like symbol, there is the crescent with the V-rod. Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth. Photo from Cope, J. (2009).

Pictish symbols were mainly carved on standing stones although a small number appeared on jewellery and some of the earliest were carved on cave walls in Fife and at the Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth (Short 2016). The latter is decorated with one of the key Pictish symbols, namely the crescent with the V-rod (Ibid.). The stela belongs to the Class I of the Pictish stelae, according to the classic study of the Pictish symbol stones by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, entitled Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Ibid.). In 1903, the authors for the very first time properly arranged a large group of various Pictish stone slabs by dividing them into three subsequent classes.

Class I of the Pictish stelae

The earliest category, falling in the so-called Class I, are the oldest irregular stone slabs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Their surface is natural and undressed so it was not smoothed or shaped in any way (Short 2016). The sculptor has created a simple outline of the symbol using a punch and a hammer (Ibid.). A chisel was also used to make a deeper and wider line, which was then smoothed out probably by rubbing with a stone tool. This style of carving is referred to as incised carving (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017).

Stelae of the Class I appeared in the sixth to the nineth century, which have no counterparts in terms of form or decoration in art in other island areas (“Pictish Stones” 2015). Considering the time of their appearance, they correspond to the earliest period of the monumental Scottish sculpture (Ibid.). At that time, Pictish stelae do not yet have decorations in the form of a Christian cross symbol, but pictograms referring mainly to the mysterious Celtic pagan symbolism (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are simply incised into the rough stone surface (Ibid.). The predominance of the shapes of a horseshoe, inverted letter “L”, single or double discs integrated into the sign of inverted letter “Z” (the so-called Z-rod), which is accompanied by even more enigmatic symbols resembling a mirror, or a key and a comb, as well as a crescent shape with two straight lines crossing it, in the shape of the letter “V” (the so-called V-rod) (Ibid.). Those letters’ lines usually end with floral symbols, similar to open flowers and buds. Such a spectrum of abstract signs has not yet been identified (Ibid.).

Pictish symbol stone (Class I) at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire. Photo from
Borchardt (2020.

There are also naturalistic figures  found in the repertoire of the Class I stones (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Among others, there are usually incised zoomorphic images of both realistic and mythical animals (Ibid.). There are some legendary beats, wolves, deer (or horses), birds or the sign of fish, which is believed to be a pagan symbol of the salmon of wisdom, known from Celtic myths (Ibid.). All the symbols certainly refer to old pagan traditions and perhaps, at that time, some aspects of the symbolic dimension of the Christian religion may have been already introduced in the Scottish system of beliefs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). However, there is no evidence of such an interruption in art of the Class I (Ibid.).

In the ruins of Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, there are two Pictish stelae that have been re-erected inside it (Short 2016). One of them, is also a perfect example of the Class I (Ibid.). Both symbols incised in the stone: the Pictish beast in the upper part and the double disc with the Z-rod appear simple and uncomplicated (Ibid.). Still they both show a remarkable degree of artistry and skill (Ibid.).

Class II of the Pictish stelae

Stones of the Class II are more or less rectangular in shape (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are usually referred to as cross slabs as they feature visible Christian symbols, especially crosses, on one or both sides of stelae, which are always accompanied by the Pagan geometrical and abstract motifs, known already from the Class I (Ibid.). Although the Christian Latin cross predominates, such stelae also display hagiographical and biblical stories (Ibid.). They are equivalent to the so-called early Irish high crosses and stone slabs with Christian imagery.

Class II symbols stones were carved in the eighth and nineth centuries although there was a period overlap between Class I and Class II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Both classes represent the Pictish art in its prime (Short 2016). 

Pictish symbol stone (Class II): alongside the Christian cross, there are four pagan symbols and the Ogham scrip at the side of the stone. Photo: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce, Saint Fergus’ Church, Pictish Cross-slab No 2.

In contrast to the incised representations of the Class I, the Class II is characterized by carvings in relief (Short 2016). Accordingly, objects were carved proud of the background surface, which has been chipped away all around it (Ibid.). All the depictions in relief, with the Christian cross in the center, are additionally filled in with various designs and are characterized by more detailed and intricate iconography than it is present in the Class I (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Among them, there are variations of geometric decorations, including Greek meanders, stylized floral-zoomorphic motifs, spirals, plaits and scrolls similar to the illuminated version of designs adorning the Hiberno-Scottish manuscripts and the metallurgy objects of religious significance (Ibid.).

Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone (Class II),
Aberdeenshire. Photo from: “Aberlemno Sculptured
Stones” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The second Pictish stela at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce belongs to the Class II (Short 2016). Although the cross occupies here the central position, there are also four pagan symbols, known mainly from the Class I: the crescent with the V-rod, the double disc with the Z-rod, the mirror case and a triple disc (Ibid.). Another example of the Class II is found in Aberlemno, Aberdeenshire (Ibid.). It is the so-called Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone with a wonderful and impressive relief of the Christian Latin cross on the front. The sculptor has created a high relief design with beautiful scroll-work and an imagery of mythical and real animals around it (Ibid.).

Class III of the Pictish stelae

Class III is now completely free of the mysterious idiomatic Pictish pagan symbols, which are so numerous in the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). The stones can be cross-slabs, recumbent grave markers, free-standing crosses, such as fully developed High Crosses in Ireland, and composite stone shrines (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Signs adorning the stones are easier to be interpreted because they are entirely set in the Christian context (Ibid.). In addition to images of Christian symbols, the Class III also contains figural representations of people and animals, occurring in the real and mythical worlds (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Pictish stelae of the Class III developed dynamically between the eighth and ninth centuries (Ibid.). Such examples also appeared in the tenth century (Ibid.). The later Pictish sculpture approaches English and later European iconographic traditions (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887).

The Camus Cross (Class III), East face (the tenth century), Carnoustie, Angus. The Standing stone in the form of the Latin cross with exclusively Christian scenes. Photo from “Camus Cross” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Class III examples have got a wider range of figures and ornamentation carved in relief but, as underlined above, they have no pre-Christian Pictish symbols carved (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They stared to appear in Scotland at the time, when Pictland was under intense pressure and ultimately conquered and colonized by the Gaels of Dalriata (Short 2016). 

Pagan Pictish symbols (Class I and II)

The Class I and II of the symbol stones contain symbols from a recognizable set of standard ideograms, that is to say a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, many of which are unique to Pictish art (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). One of the most striking characteristics of those two classes is the fact that Pictish symbols are almost always arranged in pairs or sets of pairs (Ibid.). The symbols cover a wide range of geometric shapes and patterns (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols of the Class I and II standing stones. Drawing: Leah, A. (2020)

As it is mentioned above, Pictish sculptors were also fascinated by the zoomorphic figures and they depicted both, naturalistic animals and mythical creatures. Among them, there are representations of animals such as the snake, adder, salmon, wolf, stag, eagle, as well as the so-called mythical Pictish beast (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Anthropomorphic characters were also part of the Pictish sculptor’s repertoire, they do not appear very often though. The exact number of Pictish symbols is uncertain as there is some debate as to what actually constitutes such a symbol (Short 2016). Generally, there are between forty and fifty symbols depending exactly on how they are defined (Ibid.).

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab.

Crescent with the V-rod and double disc with the Z-rod

Crescent is one of the key Pictish symbols, usually found in a combination with an overlaid V-rod (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). As such it usually appears in the proximity of other symbols, particularly with the double disc and the Z-rod (Ibid.). Double disc, in turn, can be seen alone or, more typically, overlaid with the Z-rod (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, the Crescent and the V-rod symbol appears most often of all (Short 2016; Cowie 2019).

Key Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017).
This Class I Pictish symbol stone has the double disc symbol above a snake-with-Z-rod. Photo and caption from June Young Shin (2020).

Second in their frequency of occurrence on Pictish stelae are the double disc and the Z-rod symbols (Short 2016; Cowie 2019). Some researchers think that the double disc and the Z-rod symbol depicts a lightning strike between two thunder clouds (Ibid.). If there is any underlying meaning of the symbols, it remains unclear (Ibid.). It has also been suggested that it is a bird’s eye view of two adjacent round barrows used for some Pictish burials (Ibid.). Some other scholars believe that it is a symbol for the deceased Pictish king (Ibid.). In this sense, the double disc and Z-rod would have represented a broken spear signifying death (Ibid.). Accordingly, the crescent and V-rod would have been a symbol for a lesser royal and would have signified a broken arrow meaning death (Ibid.). As Z-rod sometimes appears in a combination with a serpent, such a symbol may be understood as the notion for a king’s magician or wizard (Ibid.).

Beast of the Picts

Pictish Beast at Broomend of Crichie, Photo from Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2019)

The Pictish beast, which is the third most common of all the Pictish symbols (Shorts 2016; Cowie 2019), has been linked both to a seahorse, a dolphin and even to an elephant-like creature (Short 2016). However, art historians specialized in Pictish iconography do not think that it is an attempt to represent a real animal (Ibid.).  In their opinion, it is an imagery of a mythical creature that encompasses the elements of land and water, possibly in the form of a sea-monster (Ibid.).

One of the most frequent Pictish symbols, known as the Pictish Beast. Drawing from “Pictish Beast” (2013). In : Wikimedia Commons.

Mirror and the comb

Two symbols, which almost always appear together are referred to as the mirror and the comb. Such a pair is usually found near the three previously described symbols (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).

A paired Pictish symbols described as the Mirror and the Comb. Drawing from “Mirror and Comb”. In: Forbes (2010).

The mirror and the comb symbols are both represented, for example, on the Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (Short 2016). It is a cross slab with carvings in relief and therefore it belongs to the Class II of Pictish symbol stones (Ibid.). Here, the paired symbol is situated at the lowest part of the stone (Ibid.). Above, there is the so-called Pictish Beast and, at the top, some zoomorphic figures appear (Ibid.). On the other side, the stela represents the Latin Cross (Ibid.).

The Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. Drawing from “Maiden Stone” (2020) In: Wikiwand.

The mirror and comb are not regarded as one of the main Pictish symbols but they are thought as a subsidiary symbol signifying the female gender (Short 2016). As such they may have represented a woman who has raised the stone in memory of a deceased husband or a woman who was herself memorialized or remembered by the stone (Ibid.).

Cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth with the Hunt scene and the paired symbol of the Mirror and the comb. Photo from Farrar, Pearson (2020).

On the cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth, there is a wonderful depiction of a horse, a woman is riding side saddle (Short 2016). The adjacent mirror and comb seems to confirm the gender connection (Ibid.). Such theories on the mirror and comb reflect the idea of many early scholars that the Picts were the matrilineal society (Ibid.; see Jackson 1984). On the other side, however, the symbols are also represented by the side of other anthropo-zoomorphic figures with no analogies to any female aspect (Short 2016). In this context, the theory of the Picts’ matrilineal society has been challenged (Ibid.). Nowadays, many art historians reject the idea that the Picts traced their descent through the female line (Ibid.). Some recent thinking interprets the mirror and comb symbols not as a statement of gender but as a simple declaration of who is buried beneath or who was memorialized by means of a given stone slab (Ibid.). Yet the true meaning of the symbols remain uncertain (Ibid.).

Triple disc

Triple Disc with the cross bar.
Drawing from “Mithraic Symbols
Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020.

The symbol is constructed from a larger central circle or disc flanked by two smaller circles/discs on either side. It is sometimes shown with a “bar” bisecting all three circles or with concentric circles inside the largest disc (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Notably, it is represented near the crescent with the V-rod. However, there are also other symbols accompanying the Triple Disc symbol (Ibid.).

Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus. Drawing from Stirling (2015).

The Triple Disc is sometimes referred to as cauldron seen from above, which is explained by its shape and practical or religious function it may have for the Celts (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020; see Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth). Such an analogy of the Triple Disc symbol to a cauldron may be noticed on Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus, where it is depicted below the left arm of the centrally positioned cross (Stirling 2015). The three-dimensional depth of the container is suggested by two pairs of human legs sticking out of it (Ibid.). The Triple Disc is visible on the opposite side of the cross staff, diagonally to the cauldron on the left, and it is interpreted as a two-handled cauldron seen from a different perspective (Ibid.). In this context, the Triple Disc “has also been termed crater, [libation] vase and water container” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). On the other side, the cross bar joining the three circles suggests a means of carrying (Ibid.).

Astrological connections of the Triple Disc symbol. Drawing from “Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020.

“Complementing other key [symbols] on the Pictish Stones, the Triple Disc may represent the Zodiac with Cancer and Capricorn Constellations (the gates from and to Heaven) 180° apart. They coincide with the summer and winter solstices” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). In this context, the symbols may have been connected to early astronomical calculations (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Endless debate

Ancient carved Pictish stone displaying both, abstract symbols and real objects, such as a hammer. By Victor Lord Denovan, Adobe Stock. Photo from Cowie (2019).

The sculptured symbol stones have for very long time been the main focus of popular interest in the Picts and so they have become a source of almost endless discussion and controversy (Short 2016). What was their meaning and purpose? What do they actually mean? What message is being conveyed by the symbols? What are they actually for? Is it close to uncovering the symbol code? (Ibid.) For centuries, similar questions have baffled experts and amateurs alike (Ibid.).

One of the key problems in interpreting the Pictish stelae of the Class I and II, is the lack of contemporary documents, which would explain their meaning or purpose, or which would even refer to them by giving them any iconographical background (Short 2016). The arguments over the Pictish symbols are a timely reminder that while the symbols themselves are carved in stone, their real meaning and purpose are certainly not (Ibid.). Yet it can be assumed that Pictish Symbols tend to complement one another and collectively conceal but also reveal some truths (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

Iron tools

The so-called iron tools on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II). Photo from Historic Scotland (2020) “Investigating the Dunfallandy Stone”.

For many scholars, the Pictish symbols are purely abstract or mythical (Short 2016). As such, they remain resolutely enigmatic (Ibid.). However, a few of them seem rooted in a real world (Ibid.). For example, there are the so-called tools represented on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II), which is situated atop a mound south of Pitlochry (Ibid.). Among the representations of tools, scholars recognize hammer, tongs and anvil for beating metal (Historic Scotland 2020). All of them are depicted at the bottom of the stone, below the horse (Ibid.). Possibly the stone itself was connected in some way with a blacksmith or someone who worked with iron (Short 2016; Historic Scotland 2020). Nevertheless, the number of real objects represented on the symbol stones is rather limited. 

Burial memorials with mythological or religious meanings

The Pictish symbols are present exclusively on the stelae of the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They have been interpreted in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels (Short 2016). Initially, it was suggested that the symbol stones were memorial stones to deceased members of the Pictish elite and so the symbols carved on them were representations of their belongings or badges of office (Ibid.). The symbols were suggested to have been worn as tattoos by the office holder during their lifetime (Ibid.). After their death, the tattooed symbols were subsequently carved on a standing stone as a memorial to the deceased (Ibid.).

Pictish symbols carved on a standing stone, Aberlemno, Scotland. By Suart/Adobe Stock.: Adobe Stock. Photo from Cowie (2019).

The mysterious imagery of the Class I stelae could also express the Pictish intricate system of beliefs, like in the case of the Triple Disk, its symbolic association with a cauldron and a religious meaning of the cauldron itself  (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Stirling 2015). Nevertheless, the Celtic pagan religion, as much as its symbols, are of unknown meaning and any attempts of their identification or interpretation are based only on speculations. Simultaneously, like in the case of Irish High Crosses, on the Class II stones various Christian depictions are accompanied by the Pictish ones. In such a combined context, the former may be for scholars key to the translation of the pagan symbols and a way of better understanding of the Pictish religion and mythology.

Territory markers

Some scholars believe that symbol stones represented marriages between the two members of different Pictish lineages, which were part of the Picts’ ruling elite (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). This theory also seems to explain why most symbols appear in pairs and why a small number of symbols were disproportionately represented on the stelae (Ibid.). In this view, symbol stones were probably erected and carved as territory markers (Ibid.).  

Craw Stane stela (Class I), situated on top of a hill near Rhynie. Photo from Smyatkin (2020).

The gateway to one of the Pictish fifth or sixth century high-status residences was marked by the Craw Stane stela, situated on top of a hill near Rhynie (Short 2016). The stone belongs to the Class I and shows fish (possibly a salmon) and the Pictish Beast, incised on the south-facing side (Ibid.). According to the theory given above, both symbols may stand for the two Pictish royals having occupied the residence (Ibid.).

On the other hand, another stela, Tillytarmont Stone, was discovered on the spot, where two rivers meet (Short 2016). Some of rivers and streams became boundaries between Scottish medieval parishes and possibly they even reflect ancient territorial divisions established yet in the times of Picts (Ibid.).

Pictish hieroglyphs

Could there be a Pictish Rosetta Stone, which would unlock the symbol code of the Picts, like the Rosetta Stone helped to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs? (Short 2016).

The Newton Stone with two types of inscriptions: the Ogham and the other unknown and accompanying stone with Pictish symbols. (John Stuart, Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856). Plates I, VIII). Photo and caption from Cowie (2018).

Another theory emerging among modern researchers suggests that the symbols were not any badges of office, nor did they represent alliances between different lineages (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). In fact, they may stand for the characteristics of language or pictographic system of writing (Short 2016). Simply speaking, they should be read as Pictish royal names (Ibid.). Therefore, the most frequently occurring names in the lists of Pictish kings may equate to the most frequently carved Pictish symbols (Ibid.). It can actually be examined by comparing the context of stelae, which include both, the symbols and accompanying them inscriptions, which are mostly in the mentioned above Ogham script (Short 2016; Short “Part 2” 2016). About two hundred and fifty symbol stones feature such inscriptions alongside the symbols, like on Brandsbutt Stone in Inverurie.

Brandsbutt Stone (Class I) in Inverurie, where two Pictish symbols are incised alongside the Ogham inscription. “Archaeological photograph of 1903 in: Allen, Anderson (1903).

Apart from the Ogham script, there is also an enigmatic writing found on one of the Newton Stones, Aberdeenshire. The ancient monolith is inscribed with an engraved message written in a mysterious language (Cowie 2018). It is accompanied by the Ogham inscription visible on the same stone and also by two Pictish symbols incised on the other Newton Stone standing nearby (Ibid.). Initially claimed to be of oriental origins, (Ibid.) the writing “has never been accurately identified and it has become known in academic circles as the ‘unknown script’ [or just a modern forgery]” (Ibid.).

Generally, the results of comparative studies between the symbols and the accompanying them inscriptions are not conclusive and therefore they are often contested (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Astronomical code

Quite a radical theory proposed by Iain W. G. Forbes (2012) is that the Pictish “symbols are actually astrological in nature and relate to specific astronomical events in the night sky.” Such a suggestion has already appeared above, in an interpretation of the Triple Disc and its relation to the Zodiac (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

Pictish beastie (left) and ibex symbol (representing Gemini) from Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe (right) by Dr. Martin Sweatman. Photo from Cowie (2019).

In the context of particular monuments, the paired symbols (Forbes 2012), such as the double disc with the Z-rod, “might be a graphic representation of a specific auspicious alignment of the Sun, Moon, or planets, and effectively proclaiming a divine blessing on whatever endeavour or event was marked by the stone” (Ibid.). After the engineer, Dr. Martin Sweatman, one of the most repetitive Pictish symbols in different combinations may be the notions of celestial objects or important astronomical events (Cowie 2019). Accordingly, the Crescent may represent the Moon, while the Double Disk – the summer and winter solstice (Cowie 2019). Simultaneously, the Pictish Beast would stand for Gemini, which is the summer solstice constellation (Ibid.), as on June 20th, the sun moves out of the constellation Taurus the Bull and into the constellation Gemini the Twins. Furthermore, Dr. Sweatman claims that the Pictish Beast would be an analogous symbol to the ibex-like creature from Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, which is also believed to represent Gemini (Ibid.).

Another example of a new-found Pictish carved stone by ACAS. Photo from McKenzie (2017).

It is also possible that potentially sacred Pictish symbols were created by ancient Celtic druids and so they would be a link to a wider system of Celtic beliefs and tradition (Forbes 2012). In this view, the Pictish astrological code could not have been made in isolation (Ibid.), “but rather represents the vast vestiges of a form of astrology once widespread across Eurasia” (Ibid.).

Perplexing study

After millennium, Pictish symbol stones still have a power to fascinate and engage people in an endless attempt of their deciphering (Short 2016). So far there has been no agreement or a credible theory regarding their meaning or purpose (Forbes 2012). Nonetheless, most scholars agree that they all must convey some significant messages (Ibid.). If so, the Pictish symbols could be key to general understanding of the Celtic society and culture (Ibid.). For now, the symbols raise more questions than answers, remaining one of numerous ancient mysteries that historians and archaeologists need to face (Ibid.).

Pictish stones continue to be discovered including this one on Orkney. Photo by UHI Archaeology Institute. Photo and caption from McKenzie (2017).

Are there any other convincing ideas and explanations what the symbols’ message could be?


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Drawing: Leah, A. (2020) “Pictish Stones”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KzfgBL>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Drawings: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017) The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Farrar, S. Pearson, J. (2020) “Hunt scene, Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KvishG>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Forbes, I. W. G. (2012) The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing.

Historic Scotland (2020) “Investigating the Dunfallandy Stone. Information for Teachers”. In: Historic Scotland Education. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Jackson, A. (1984) The Symbol Stones of Scotland. Stromness, Orkney: The Orkney Press.

June Young Shin (2020) “The Newton Stone I”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eW8Z15>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab. Available at <https://skfb.ly/LyMF>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

McKenzie, S. (2017) “Scotland’s carved Pictish stones re-imagined in colour”. In: BBC News. Available at  <https://bbc.in/2YgCOUb>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Parrott-Sheffer, C. (2020) “Pict People”. In: Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2x13bCe>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: “Camus Cross” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at  <https://bit.ly/352Ulk1>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Photo: “Broomend of Crichie Stone” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cEMHPs>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: “Hilton of Cadboll Stone” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3am1e0I>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Borchardt, K. (2020) “Pictish symbol stone at Dyce, St Fergus Church.” In: Historic Scotland. Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ey6S34>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Cope, J. (2009) “Sculptors Cave. Rock Shelter”. In: The Modern Antiquarian. Available at <https://bit.ly/34QSui7>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce Symbol Stones”. In: National Record of the Historic Environment Scotland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Vylvfq>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Photo: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce, Saint Fergus’ Church, Pictish Cross-slab No 2.” In: Canmore. National Record of the Historic Environment Scotland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Koz8ra>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Seaboardgàidhlig (2015) Tillytarmont Stone. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VO2694>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photo: Smyatkin, D. (2020) “Picture Craw Stane Pictish Symbol Stone – Scotland”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VHOLPE>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Photos: “Aberlemno Sculptured Stones” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bDvdmt>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Short, A. (2016) “Picts: Part 1- Symbols and Signs.” In: Short, A., Scott, N. (2016) Dip in Video. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wVfWhu>. [Accessed on 21st April, 2020].

Short, A. (2016) “Picts: Part 2- Symbols and Statements.” In: Short, A., Scott, N. (2016) Dip in Video. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ayWjtp>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

Stirling, S. A. (2015) The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. UK: Moon Books.

The Holy Land Translated into a Mosaic

It was the end of January when my group was travelling north from Petra through the King’s Highway, in Jordan. It was the very moment when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had started and we learnt about it a few days earlier, while crossing the Israelite-Jordan border (see Mount Sinai Trekking). But we did not stop our study trip and continued to discover Jordan’s archaeological treasure till the time we had to come back to Sinai, in Egypt.

Travelling around Jordan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Madaba in Jordan

After having stopped at one of large Crusader castles – the Kerak, we headed off to Madaba, the city situated  half an hour south of the capital. “It is a relatively small [urban area] that is nowadays home to around 60,000 people” (Esparza 2017). Throughout history, the site has been populated by “the Moabites, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Rashidun and the Umayyad” (Ibid.). It “is now home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around [ten percent] of the total population of Madaba (Ibid.) and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ (Mack 2018). “Archaeologists affirm Madaba has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age” (Esparza 2017). The Bible itself mentions Madaba twice (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9) (Ibid.). “The city then stood in the very borders of the Moabite empire [but] during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the [second to the seventh], when the Christian community of the city established itself” (Ibid.).

The nineteenth century Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint George. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What did the Middle East and, precisely, the Holy Land look like in the early days of Christianity (till around 614 AD)? Today,  those days are brought to life by a legendary, ancient mosaic forming a map on the floor of Saint George’s Church in Madaba, in Jordan (Stakelbeck 2018).

Early Christian mosaic map within a modern church

MOSAIC a design made by cementing small pieces (tesserae) of hard, coloured substances (e.g. marble, glass, ceramic or semi-prcious stones) to a base.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:141)
Dr. Merav Mack showing the patches of the mosaic under the carpet; in the shot from the documentary: “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” Source: Stakelbeck (2018), The Watchman.

Dr. Merav Mack (2018), a research associate from German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman, calls the mosaic one of the oldest maps in history of the Holy Land. “Originally, the map measured 21×7 meters, and was made with more than two million ‘tesserae’ (mosaic stones)” (Esparza 2017). Nowadays, its patches cover of the floor space in the apse of the active and rather modest nineteenth century Greek Orthodox church, yet adorned with some of the most beautiful icons in the region (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018; Raezer 2020). The modern church was built on the site of the sixth century Byzantine temple (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018). There, the mosaic map was originally designed on the floor of the apse. While a service is going on in the church, carpets are rolled down all over to protect the remains of the mosaic, and when the service is over, the carpets are rolled up again for visitors coming inside the church to expose the mosaic map (Mack 2018).

Intriguing characteristics

“Interestingly, the map is not oriented northwards, like modern maps are” (Esparza 2017) but to the East, towards the altar of the church (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018). In its center, there is an elliptical layout of the Holy City – Jerusalem (Sani 2014; Mack 2018). And although the map also features other famous and significant cities of the region, such as Jericho, Ascalon and Gaza (Mack 2018), it especially constitutes a unique guide to the Old City of Jerusalem, represented with all its major characteristics (Rogoff 2013). And irrespective of some minor errors in its layout (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995), the Madaba map remains one of the most important and revealing representation of the sixth century Christian Middle East (Esparza 2017). It is features more than one hundred and fifty cities, towns, and villages (Ibid.), “including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places” (Ibid.).

One of the boats floating on the Dead Sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the top of the map, there is a representation of the Dead Sea with the blue horizontal stripes symbolising waves, on which two boats are floating (Mack 2018). Inside them, there are sitting human figures (Ibid.). They are now defaced, which is apparently the result of the Muslim rule in the area (Ibid.). In the sixth century, when the map was created, the whole depicted land was under the Eastern Christianized Roman Empire: there were monasteries scattered densely around, especially in the desert, housing around five thousands monks (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018).

The River Jordan with two fishes facing each other. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The map also shows the part of land where the mosaic is preserved today, which is in the hills, on the eastern side of the River Jordan (Mack 2018). The latter is shown as a ribbon of water with depictions of fishes (Ibid.). Actually, in one section, there are “two fishes facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea […] Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians” (Ibid.), for one of their early symbols was fish. Additionally, the River Jordan is important as the site of Jesus’ Baptism (Mack 2018). The city of Madaba, itself should be located somewhere in the hills, at the point where the map is unfortunately cut off and ruined (Ibid.). Generally, “much of the map’s tiles have been chipped away or been destroyed but a large contiguous piece of the map still exists illustrating both locations and names ranging from geographic features to cities” (Liza B 2020).

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΠΟΛΙϹ ΊΈΡΟΥϹΑ[ΛΗΜ] (Greek: The Holy City of Jerusalem)

The Holy City of Jerusalem in the sixth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, “the mosaic covers lands from Egypt to Lebanon, including sites such as Bethlehem and Gethsemane, but [as it is underlined above], the gem of the mosaic is the detailed representation of the city of Jerusalem” (Liza B 2020). The picture of Jerusalem is additionally highly ideological (Mack 2018). The city “was considered the navel of the earth, [as the place] of God’s salvation history” (Sani 2014), and so physically and metaphorically situated at the very heart of the contemporary Christian world (Mack 2018). And although it was depicted “completely out of proportion to the scale of the map, [it was] entirely in proportion to its historical and spiritual significance. [Accordingly], the detail of the Holy City is remarkable, down to the level of identifiable structures” (Rogoff 2013). Jerusalem of the sixth century “was an expansion of the Aelia Capitolina, as it was rebuilt and renamed by pagan Rome 400 years earlier” (Ibid.).

From a general layout to details

The Madaba map reflects Jerusalem’s contemporary landmarks: the Holy City is surrounded around by thick walls, protected by nineteen towers (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). “The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left)” (Raezer 2020). Actually, “a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople” (Ibid.). According to the perspective applied in the Madaba map, “the western part of the city-wall is shown from outside, the eastern part from inside” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995).  

Starting from left, that is to say, the north part of the city, there is the largest gate of Jerusalem consistent with Damascus Gate (1), and called Saint Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century (Rogoff 2013; Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). The gate is flanked by two towers and leads to an oval square with the tall column topped probably with the statue of the emperor Hadrian (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). The Arabic name of the gate, Bab el-Amud, which means the Gate of the Column, indicates that it existed yet after the Arabs’ invasion in the seventh century (Rogoff 2013). From the east, the city is opened by the so-called Gate of the Sheep Pool (2) (today’s Saint Stephen’s Gate) (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). To the south of it, there is the Gate Beautiful (3), aka Golden Gate, leading to the temple area, and farther, there is Dung Gate (4), seen from a different perspective than the previous three (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the south of the city, there is Sion Gate (5), from which the main street goes across the city to Damascus Gate (1) (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the west, there is Jaffa Gate (6), called Gate of the Tower in the sixth century, which is depicted here from the front. (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

From north to south

The Cardo Maximus (the main street in Ancient Roman cities) is running across the city, from north to south, that is to say, from Damascus Gate (1) to Sion Gate (5) (Mack 2018; Liza B 2020). It is lined with a row of columns on each side and covered with a roof (Ibid.). “Its western colonnade is interrupted by the staircase of the Anastasis-Church (7), known as the Church of Holy Sepulchre [whereas] the eastern one ends in front of the Nea Theotokos-Church (12)” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apparently, the mosaicist’s aim was to point out to the fact that the Cardo leads from both sides to the middle of the city, which is actually marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Mack 2018). In reality, the Church has never been centrally placed in the city (Ibid.). However, by placing it in the center of the map, the very idea of Christianity was expressed, namely the picture of heavenly Jerusalem with the holiest sites of Christian faith, where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he finally resurrected (Ibid.). Authors of the mosaic also represented the Church’s details, such as four steps leading to its three gates, and at its top – the golden dome, which is hovering above the tomb of Christ (Ibid.).

Jerusalem with its landmarks. Photo from Raezer, J. (2020).

The surprising fact is that “the street network of Byzantine Jerusalem remains essentially unchanged today, even in the modern Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Old City” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apart from the Cardo, there are four other streets depicted: the “second street begins on the east side of the oval square under an arch and runs to the south until the Dung Gate (4). It is colonnaded as well, but only the eastern colonnade is visible. […] The third street, starting from [the Gate of the Sheep Pool (St. Stephen’s Gate)] (2), is the beginning of the Christian ‘Via Dolorosa.’ [The] fourth street without columns — the Decumanus of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem – starts from Jaffa Gate (6) and runs to the east. It seems to end at the main street (Cardo Maximus). The fifth street, finally, branches off the Decumanus to the south: this is, probably, the Armenian Street” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Single buildings and constructions

Jerusalem with the main street (Cardo Maximus) across the city; from northern Damascus Gate to the southern Sion Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from centrally positioned Church of Holy Sepulchre, other main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem are also represented by the mosaicist (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Baptistery of the Church of the Anastasis (8) “stands west of a light-brown trapezoidal space, probably the market-place(Forum) of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). However, “its identification with the baptistery of the Holy Sepulchre [remains] uncertain. [Then, there is the] Church of the Sheep Pool (Probatica) (10), built in the first half of the [fifth] century over [the site] where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, [but it] was destroyed by the Persians in 614” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). Another church is the already mentioned “New Church of the Mother of God (Nea Theotokos) (12), built by the emperor Justinian and consecrated on November 20, 542, [which is] a fact important for dating the Madaba [map. Next, there are the] Basilica on Mount Sion (14), one of the most important churches in Jerusalem, second only to that of the Holy Sepulchre, [and] Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mount Sion (15), attached to the basilica in the south, for a time used as the Martyrium of St. Stephen. [Finally, there are also depicted the] Church of the House of Caiphas (16), [then the] Church of St. Sophia (17) [possibly standing] on the ruins of Pilate’s Praetorium, [and], the Church of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus (18)” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem shown “upside down” with the golden dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (visible above it). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are also two other buildings identifiable in the Madaba map (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). In the eastern part of the map, there is “Temple Esplanade (22), indicated by a black line of cubes only [and the] Citadel (al-Qalca) (19), [situated in the west] on the right side of the Jaffa Gate (6). The Citadel of Jerusalem had been improved by Herod the Great. The Herodian Citadel was protected by three strong towers. […] Two of them are represented on the Madaba map, the bigger one identical with what is still called the ‘Tower of David” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Madaba map’s dating

Preserved patches of the precious mosaic on the floor of the apse. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The mosaic map was uncovered in Madaba in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1897 (Donner 1992-1995:13; Esparza 2017). It is dated back to the second half of the sixth century, which is also ascribed to its general style and special contents (Ibid.:13). By all accounts, the map tiles may have been composed into the floor mosaic probably during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian (527-565), and before 614, when Palestine was devastated by the Islamic Persians (Ibid.:14). Some observations on the map are also very useful in its dating (Ibid.:14). As mentioned above, in the depiction of Jerusalem, there is already the New Basilica of the Mother of God (Nea-Theotokos), which was consecrated in 542 (Ibid.:14). It is hence clear that the map itself was made later (Ibid.:14). Moreover, there are four churches on the map, which had been first mentioned in circa 570, namely the churches of Galgala, of the Egyptian Martyrs near Ascalon, of Saint Victor near Gaza, and the church of Zacharias (Ibid.:14).

Maps of the Mediterranean

Today, the map is one of the most significant archaeological “sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine both west and east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, as well as of Lower Egypt” (Donner 1992-1995:13). Consequently, it is the oldest known geographic map of Palestine in existence, except for “a small section of the so-called Peutinger Plates” (Donner 1992-1995:13). The latter comes from the fourth century A.D. and constitutes a road map of the Roman Empire, now preserved in Vienna, in Austria, as a medieval parchment copy of a possible Roman original record (Ibid.:13).

One side of the Jordan River. The Madaba map gives astonishingly many details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such mosaic pavements as the Madaba map were widely common in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially in the Mediterranean region and among them, there are also analogous mosaic representations of cities or even villages, for example the sixth century mosaics from Antioch or Jerash (Donner 1992-1995:13). However, the way in which they are represented substantially differs from the map depicted in the mosaic of Madaba (Ibid.:13). Mostly, the former give a more pictorial view of cities mainly depicted from the front (Ibid.:13). This manner of representation is also observed on the Madaba map but to a smaller degree (Ibid.:13). Yet more significant elements of the map under study, such as large cities, are usually depicted from above, which is a manner typical of a modern cartography (Ibid.:13). Additionally, all illustrated landmarks are accompanied by the Greek inscriptions for a better understanding of the picture. The writings are in different style (Ibid.:18): “black on a bright background, white on a dark background, red for texts of special importance. Some belong to cities or villages, others recall Biblical events or quote Biblical texts” (Ibid.:18).

Inferior and superior purposes of the Madaba map

The Holy Land seen in a bird’s eye view for the very first time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Even if the sixth century examples are similar in style to the Madaba map, contemporary exact parallels depicted in a bird’s eye view are not known (Donner 1992-1995:13). As far as the Madaba map’ contents are concerned, it could have been made for different purposes (Ibid.:14). One of them, although interior, “was surely the intention to offer  information for Christian pilgrims” (Ibid.:30). Herbert Donner (1992-1995:14) claims that the Madaba map itself “looks like a cartographic illustration of two pilgrims’ reports from the sixth century: the first one written by the archdeacon Theodosius, […] the other one by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, [the so-called Anonymous of Piacenza]. We may add the so-called Breviarius de Hierosolyma (Short Description of Jerusalem), […] containing only a description of the Holy City. Naturally, not everything that these reports describe can be found on the Madaba map” (Ibid.:14). Apart from being just a guide for contemporary pilgrims, one of the superior purposes of the map was “the realisation of the exceptional idea, totally unknown before the [sixth] century, to illustrate God’s salvation history in a map. On the mosaic map both Testaments […] are represented and the holy sites are [fully] displayed to the spectator’s eyes. Further purposes can be considered, for example, a clear liturgical [and symbolical] function” (Ibid.:30).

An original illustration of God’s salvation history in a map. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the Madaba map was not just a metaphorical collections of Biblical illustrations with inscriptions but a real geographical and topographical map of the Holy Land (Ibid.:18). Accordingly, “it is not only the oldest but also the most exact map” (Ibid.:18) of the region before the appearance of modern cartography in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:18).

Madaba in the past and today

Madaba deliberately surrendered to the Muslims in 614. Consequently, the city was not destroyed and so the temple of Madaba, which was also dedicated to Saint George, may have been still used as an active church (Donner 1992-1995:14). Unfortunately, the eighth century brought an earthquake [and the fire] destroyed the temple. The city had subsequently been abandoned until the nineteenth century (Esparza 2017). “In the year 1884, when the new church of [Saint] George was being built in the place in which the old basilica stood, the mosaic was [uncovered], and incorporated in the new building across from the church’s magnificent iconostasis” (Ibid.). And even if it was made for the purposes of the early Christian Church, it is still valued in the eyes of modern pilgrims coming to the Holy Land, and visiting Madaba itself.

Christians made ten percent of the total population of Madaba and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having left Saint George’s church, we also studied another sixth century mosaic work, namely the so-called Hippolytus Hall mosaic in Madaba’s Archaeological Park. This time, however, the intricate floor mosaic was not designed for the church but for a Byzantine private villa, and represents not a Christian story, but an ancient myth. Such a melange is in abundance in Jordan and everywhere in the Middle East, where various aspects of different cultures, traditions and religions have collided or intertwined for centuries.


Donner, H. (1992-1995) The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Palestina Aniqua 7. The Netherlands, Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Esparza, D. (2017) “The ‘Madaba Map’ is the oldest surviving original cartographic description of the Holy Land.” In: Aleteia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XGi9sj>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Liza B (2020) ”Madaba Mosaic Map” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V6c4U8>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: Stakelbeck, E. The Watchman. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Raezer, J. (2020) “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides. Available at <https://bit.ly/34FIZ5a>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Rogoff, M. (2013) “A Mosaic of Jerusalem on the Ancient Madaba Map” In: Haaretz. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a7gRJs>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sani, E. (2014) “Madaba Map: The Holy City of Jerusalem” In: Flickr. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ydxrKr>. [Accessed 15th April, 2020].

Stakelbeck, E. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: The Watchman. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sacred Geography: the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis

The definition of Sacred Geography “may be broadly [understood] as the regional [or global] geographic locating of sacred places according to various […] factors” (Gray 1982-2020). Accordingly, “certain geographical features and areas figure more prominently than others on the sacred map” (Forbes-Boyte 2011). Were they all chosen by a mere accident or were they selected for a purpose?

“The World Grid” From: Misztika (2020).

The layout of such sites may be perceived as a sacred code created for unknown reasons by ancient civilizations. All around the world, mankind built extraordinary structures on powerful sites, and although they can be separated by large distances and thousands of years, they are simultaneously interconnected all over the planet by invisible paths, similar to latitudinal and longitudinal lines, and  commonly known as the world grid (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Amateur archaeologist, Alfred Watkins, discovered in 1921 that ancient features and structures across the English landscape appear to be arranged on straight ley lines (Ibid.). In 1925, he published his remarks in the book The Old Straight Track, where he proposes that ancient monuments are linked by a network of intersecting straight and measurable tracks (Ibid.). Such sites are usually geographically higher than other areas around them, and some, especially in England and France, feature prominent Christian monuments but usually constructed over more ancient ruins (Burns 2011). In his work, Watkins further theorizes that ancient landmarks along ley lines were deliberately constructed by men for the purpose of lining the trade routes, which is questionable, as many of such sites are naturally situated in the areas difficult for being simply reached by a human-being, such as mounts, islands and bogs (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Some other researchers believe that ley lines are geomagnetic and are points of the Earth’s energies, and subsequently marked by man-made sacral constructions (Burns 2011).

“Map of sacred geography” by Abraham Ortelius (the sixteenth century). From: Wikimedia Commons.

According to independent authors and researchers, there is a notable alignment of sacred and ancient sites, called the Apollo/St Michael Axis, stretching from the shores of Ireland south to Greece and Israel. The GIS project I has been involved in is to illustrate that Line, which crosses the sanctuaries dedicated to both, the Christian Archangel, Michael and the Greek god, Apollo. By using different tools, such as hillshade and viewshed, its major aim is to investigate if the sites are geographically related, as the authors claim, and the Axis itself is more than just an enigmatic coincidence.

Discovery of the Apollo/St Michael’s Axis

Jean Richer, an eminent French scholar living in Greece in 1950s, was engaged in the study of literature and mythology. He was also interested in the holy character (Genius Loci) of landscapes, especially in terms of ancient architecture. According to him, the sacred geometry had been once reflected in temples and monuments built on significant sites (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9). “His studies led him to suspect that there may have been some underlying plan that determined the form and positioning of temple architecture in relation to the topography of the land, and for this idea he coined the term Sacred Geography” (Ibid.:7).

Drawing: The Apollo-St. Michael Axis. From the cover of the book by P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003).

While visiting ancient sites in Greece, Jean Richer  posed several questions: why are certain temples situated on top of inaccessible mounts or in isolated plains? Is their location a matter of a coincidence or a well-planed positioning? And finally: what factors did decide about their site? The same questions came to Richer’s mind while he was visiting megalithic monuments of Celtic Brittany. Is there any relations between the Celtic and classical landscapes? (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Apollo’s Line

“Apollo Statue” by André Bastos Gurgel. From: Ancient World. Carmenta (2018).

In the process of his research, the French scholar discovered that at least three of the most significant Greek temples and oracles connected with the ancient god, Apollo, were in direct alignment, and all of them lying on a straight line (Michell 2000: xiii).

  1. Delos – Apollo’s legendary birthplace,
  2. Delphi – main sanctuary of the same Greek god,
  3. Athens – the centre of the goddess Athena, with Apollo’s altar in the cave at the Acropolis (Richer 1994:1-16, 29-36, 120-125, 209).

Later, two other sites have been added to that group of Apollo’s sanctuaries (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

“Apollo pulling his Golden Chariot.” From: Greek Mythology Wiki.

4. Kerkyra – Corfu, with the so-called Secret Temple of Apollo, 5. Rhodes – the island of the Sun God, Helios/Phoebus, also identified with Apollo (Richer 1994:22, 39, 94, 201, 122, 297; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Most prominent of all Apollo’s sites is the temple of Delphi, in Greece. After the Greek mythology, the god took his heavenly chariot twice a year to travel from Delphi to the faraway land in the north (Burns 2011).

St Michael’s Line

Richer also discovered that the Apollo’s Line extends north beyond ancient sites of Greece to pass through most ancient pre-Christian and Christian sites in Italy, France, Great Britain and Ireland, all connected, in turn, with the Christian figure of Archangel Michael (Michell 2000: xiii).

Thirty-sixth tapestry of the Apocalypse tapestry: “Saint Michael fighting the Dragon” by Hennequin de Bruges and Robert Poisson (1375 and 1382). From: Wikimedia Commons.

These encompassed such spectacular sites as, starting from the south:

  1. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  2. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. St. Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  5. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11-12).

Seven Mounts

Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo from: Wuestenigel (2018).

After the Book of Enoch, which is the apocrypha to the Bible, “St. Michael appears to be a protector of [seven] mountains and the Tree of Life that is located on one of [them]” (Kosloski 2019). According to the same tradition, “an imaginary line links seven different monasteries from Ireland to Israel, [which are all dedicated to the Archangel] (Ibid.). Usually, it is called the Sacred Line/Axis of St. Michael, St. Michael’s Line/Axis or the Sword of St. Michael (Ibid.). The latter is clearly a reference to Saint Michael as the Archangel with the sword and His victorious fight with the devil, usually represented as a dragon speared with the sword under His feet (Ibid.).

According to such a theory, the Axis revolves around the following seven ancient monasteries: (Kosloski 2019).

  1. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland),
  2. Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  5. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  6. Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece – in the north-west of Rhodes),
  7. Stella Maris Monastery (Mount Carmel, Israel) (Kosloski 2019).

However, the number of sites varies by tradition (Kosloski 2019) and after some other sources there are over thirty such places related to the same Line/Axis.

The Final Point

“St. Michael” by Raphael (c. 1504–1505). From: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although the seventh and ultimate location on the Line in the south, namely Stella Maris Monastery, is usually ascribed to Saint Michael, “[there] doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the Mount Carmel [and the Archangel]” (Michael 2018). Mount Carmel may be considered as the closing point because of its alignment and topography, and also because it is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Pagan worship of Baal was replaced by that of Jehovah, and His Prophet triumphant over the pagan priest is represented just in the same way as the Archangel killing the devil-dragon (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366).

Michael casts out rebel angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré or John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Photo from “War in Heaven” (2020)

Nevertheless, if “the curvature of the earth [is taken] into account, the [Line] ends at the ‘Gates of Hell’ at the foot of Mount Hermon” (Michael 2018), situated between Syria and Lebanon and north to Mount Carmel. The Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) describes the legendary Mount Hermon as the place where fallen angels descended to earth or, after the Revelation (Rev.12:7–10), they were cast down from Heaven by Saint Michael and His angelic army. According to other sources, however, the last point of the Axis should be Megiddo Tell (in Greek known as Armageddon – the location of the final battle between the good and evil), lying close to Mount Carmel (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366) Consequently, “the remarkable alignment of all the [places] is perceived as a sign, pointing to an apocalyptic battle between St. Michael and [the devil]” (Kosloski 2019).

“Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon” by Master of Saint Verdiana (c. 1380 -1389). From: Wikimedia Commons.

The given above sites are all said to be located in a straight line and are either “associated with apparitions of [the Archangel or] ancient [sanctuaries] of devotion to the heavenly messenger (Kosloski 2019).” .

Two key characters

The Apollo-Saint Michael Axis “thus formed a corridor of sanctuaries that ran right through western Europe, linking the ancient Greek world to some of the most prominent centres of the Christian religion” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1).

“Apollo Killing the Python” by Hendrik Goltzius (after) (Holland, Mülbracht, (1558-1617). From: Wikimedia Commons.

What do these two characters, pagan Apollo and Christian Archangel Michael, have in common? Obviously, they share the same attributes and associations. They are both connected with the symbol of the Sun, and their legends give the same archetypal type of a dragon’s slayer; whereas St Michael kills the devil in the disguise of the dragon, Apollo slays the famous Python, the serpent guardian of the Delphic oracle. Sometimes, Archangel Michael is even related to as the Christian counterpart of the Greek god of the sun, and furthermore his name itself means: “He who is like God” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-4).

Alignments – General Characterisation of Sites and their Coordinates

The first English publication on Richer’s discovery took place in 1991 by Christine Rhone and John Michell (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12) who observed that “the first thing one wants to know about this line is its degree of accuracy when it is projected across the surface of the globe. Richer defines it as a line of constant bearing with the meridian, a so called rhumb line, which can be represented on Mercator’s projection of the globe by a straight line drawn between Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel” (Ibid.).

“Saint Michael fighting a dragon” by Lambert de Saint-Omer, c.1448 (vellum), in Chantilly, Musée Condé. From: Peter (2011) Flickr.

In order to investigate if the theory of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis is correct, the very first step is to use ArchGis Map in order to mark the points of the sites and check if they are aligned according to the direction described by Jean Richer, namely of 60 degrees NW-SE. If this alignment exists, the successive points should be placed on the same line. It is to visually verify whether by using a map projection, all the points are represented along the straight line. Here the first problem occurs: although the sites associated with St. Michael can be accurately marked as points on a map and their coordinates can be easily found, Apollo’s sites are not so evident in this case. Unlike Saint Michael who resides on particular mounts or mountains, Apollo is associated with the whole islands; on some of them, there is more than one temple dedicated to this solar god. On Rhodes, for instance, there may be two Apollo’s sites; one is in the north, in Rhodes (the island’s capital), and the second possibly in Camiros (Kameiros), situated around forty kilometres to the south-west of the City of Rhodes. Yet the most prominent of the two seems to be the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes (see Island of the Sun). The authors also point to Camiros and Rhodes but additionally identify Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:8, 343-346).

The initial lines (Figure 1 and 2), which have been drawn by means of GIS, include both: the sites of Saint Michael and Apollo, from the first point (Skellig Michael) to the last one given by the authors, that is to say, Mount Carmel in Israel. If we take into consideration all the Archangel’s sites including Saint Michael’s Monastery on the Greek island of Symi, the line would go slightly astray to the north from the line of Apollo’s sanctuaries, which starts itself from the Greek island of Corfu.

Figure1: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis with the starting and final points. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the coordinates slightly differ in several cases, the straight line consequently breaks at some points. To reach a relative compromise, the coordinates of Apollo’s islands, and not particular points with the temples, have been chosen for the sake of this project.

60 Degrees 11 Minutes West of North

As it is illustrated by the Figure 1, the Axis goes across the planet almost 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:13). Nevertheless, Richer (1998) admits that “each segment may not be oriented perfectly in the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Although there are differences, according to the scholar, they are “minimal and compensate for one another, so that the direction as a whole is indeed very close to this theoretic angle” (Ibid.), as it is shown in the Figure 2 (below).

Figure 2: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
LineAxis – the line running across the sites (through all the points).
Linia archeo – the line joining the starting and ending points.
St Michael’s Axis – the line joining the mounts dedicated to St. Michael.
Apollo’s Axis – the line joining the temples dedicated to Apollo.

As it is mentioned above, St Michael’s Line joins with Apollo’s between Monte Sant’Angelo and the island of Corfu. There the Line seems slightly broken, while it is moving south and changing into Apollo’s Axis (red line of “LineAxis” indicates such breaks). Nevertheless, if we draw a line that omits Apollo’s sites on its way and goes directly from Monte Sant’Angelo, in Italy, further to the site of the Archangel on Symi, in Greece, it would keep a more straight axis (Figure 3). In this case, however, it would not finish exactly at Mont Carmel, situated to the south, but more likely it would reach closer to the point of Mont Hermon.

Icon of Archangel Michael “Panormitis”. From: Othodox Wikimedia.

What is also quite interesting is the fact that the Monastery of Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece) was built around the fifth century AD “over the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the pagan god Apollo” (Sanidopoulos 2010). Accordingly, at least one of the sites of Saint Michael overlaps with an ancient site dedicated to Apollo. It is also observed that a few sites of the cult of Apollo or of Saint Michael are clustered around in the proximity of the main Line, yet not being directly crossed by its axis. For example, on Symi, most of the monasteries and churches scattered around the island are dedicated to Saint Michael (Sanidopoulos 2010). The same phenomenon appears in France, where the Archangel is venerated as the patron saint. Similar multiplicity of Apollo’s temples is noticed on the Greek islands.

Figure 3: Seven Mounts of Saint Michael. From: Serena (2018): from the north; Skellig Michael, Ireland, Saint Michael’s Mount UK, Mont Saint Michel, France, Sacra Di San Michele, Italy, Monte Sant’ Angelo, Gargano, Italy, Archangel Michael of Panormitis, Symi, Greece and Stella Maris Monastery or more precisely, Mont Hermon in Israel.

To sum up, although some sites are a little bit astray from the exact direction of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis, it is the result of natural orientation of the landscape, where the temples/monasteries were located. As it is underlined above, another issue concerns the exact coordinates of the sites in question; on Rhodes, there may be more sites associated with Apollo/Helios, and thus the coordinates may differ respective of the chosen site. Furthermore, although some of the sites do not exactly lie on Apollo/St. Michael Line, they all run along the straight line drawn between the first and last points, which can be graphically illustrated and analysed by means of the GIS map, providing that all the coordinates are adequate. Finally as John Mitchell and Christine Rhone (1998) conclude: “Bearing in mind the distance from the west of Ireland to the Holy Land, some 2 500 miles, [around 4 024 km], and the fact that many of the sites are natural landmarks, sanctifies by nature rather than by human choice, the straight path on which they all stand is indeed narrow” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Nonetheless, it can be observed that the closer the Line a particular site is located, the more significant it seems in terms of the cult and heritage.

“The Legendary Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbour” (1886) Ferdinand Knab. In: McDermott, A. (2018).

Chosen Points on Apollo/St. Michael Axis

Richer’s study has been continued by several researchers, among others, the authors of the book, entitled The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, namely Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell. According to their and Richer’s studies, the mentioned alignment of sacred sites stretches for around 2, 500 miles (4024 kilometres). It starts from the Atlantic remote coast of Ireland, and then goes across western Europe and, if extended, it reaches Mount Carmel in Israel, near the infamous Armageddon site (Megiddo) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16). Apart from the most important sites mentioned above, others also fall on this alignment (Le Mans, Bourges), or are situated nearby (Tours, Nevers, Blois, Perugia), however, still connected to the mentioned heroes. On the whole, the authors enumerate and describe over thirty sites related to Apollo/St Michael’s Axis (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).

Figure 4: Saint Michael’s Axis with the five prominent sanctuaries studied in the GIS project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, Apollo/St Michael Axis passes across or nearby:

  1. Skellig Michael, Ireland,
  2. St. Michael’s Mount, UK,
  3. Mont St. Michel, France,
  4. Mayenne, France,
  5. Le Mans, France,
  6. Tours, France,
  7. Blois, France,
  8. Issoudun, France,
  9. Bourges, France,
  10. Sancoins, France,
  11. Nevers, France,
  12. Moulins, France,
  13. Digois, France,
  14. Charolles, France,
  15. St.Vincent des Pres, France,
  16. Cluny, France,
  17. Macon, France,
  18. Perouges, France,
  19. Lyons, France,
  20. Vienne, France,
  21. St. Beron, France,
  22. Bozel, France,
  23. Sacra di San Michele (Turin), Italy,
  24. San Michele (Castiglione di Garfagnana), Italy,
  25. Monte Sant Angelo (Gargano), Italy,
  26. Kerkyra, Greece,
  27. Delphi, Greece,
  28. Athens, Greece,
  29. Delos, Greece, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ),
  30. Archangel Michael of Panormitis, Symi, Greece, (Kosloski 2019),
  31. Rhodes, Greece,
  32. Mount Carmel (Armageddon), Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ) or Mount Hermon, Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).
Semina, The Delphic Tholos, seen from above. From: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. One of the key temples on the ley line dedicated to Apollo.

In the GIS presentation, there is only a limited number of sites included in order to provide a more detailed description of their landscape (Figure 4). Furthermore, the project focuses particularly on Saint Michael Axis and the features of His five prominent mont-sanctuaries, in terms of their coordinates, natural location, elevation and geographical visibility.

Coordinates of the chosen Apollo/Saint Michael’s sites

As it is illustrated above, the ley St. Michael/Apollo Line breaks at some points on its way southwards, especially as it moves from the northern Saint Michael’s way to the southern Apollo’s path. However, when we separate the two ley lines and and draw them one by one, they both keep a more straight axis. It is also because they include less points on their way than when they are combined together.

Five Apollo’s sites (all in Greece) and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Apollo’s Axis with five temples on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Kerkyra – Corfu: 39,6243°N; 19,9217°E
  2. Delphi: 38.4824°N; 22.5010°E
  3. Athens: 37.9838°N; 23.7275°E
  4. Delos: 37.3963°N; 25.2689°E
  5. Acropolis of Rhodes: 36.4399 °N; 28.2106 °E

Five St Michael’s sites and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Saint Michael’s Axis with five sanctuaries on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Skellig Michael (Ireland): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W
  2. St Michael’s Mount (UK): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W      
  3. Mont St Michel (France): 48.6361°N, 1.5115°W
  4. Sacra di San Michele (Italy): 45.0964°N, 7.3422°E
  5. Monte Sant’Angelo (Italy): 44.1527°N, 10.4113°E

Geographical Features and Origins of Saint Michael’s Sites on the Axis

Local map of Saint Michael’s Mount from 1946 In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Both characters, Apollo and St. Michael, possess high rocks or islands. Although St Michael preferred rocky summits, Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis, seem to have owned the entire Greek islands: Corfu, Rhodes, Delos, Delphi, all located on the Line. Apollo’s sanctuaries are usually situated on the slopes of mountains, apparently chosen for their spiritual features. Some temples, dedicated both to Apollo and St Michael, are also set in the rocky caverns (Athens/Sacra di San Michele) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). According to Jean Richer (1994), they were placed “in the middle of nowhere, on top of inaccessible mountains or isolated in remote plains” (Ibid.:7).

Plan of the Mount Saint Michel by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Saint Michael’s sanctuaries share not only their dedication to the Archangel but also the way in which He inspired their creation, through dreams and visions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). “One obvious feature is that they are all rocky summits or mountains, […] traditionally associated with the “angel of high places” (Ibid.:13). All of them reach up not less than over 60 meters above sea level and are not easily accessible, located either some distance off the coasts or in the mountains, like floating islands on the ocean or castles high in the clouds. All monasteries have also been the pilgrim centers for centuries and most prominent St Michael’s sites in their regions (Ibid.:1-29).

Digital Elevation Models and Visualizing the Terrain Data

In order to illustrate a geographical shape and topographic features typical of Saint Michael’s sites, their digital elevation models (DEM) have been used for all the five enumerated above sites. Then the hillshade effect has been applied to all of them so as to obtain a 3D representation of the surface. Land-forms are mapped with the help of colour levels, which represent geographical features of all the sites, such as their heights, and visually depict the layout of lowlands (green) and highlands (red).

Skellig Michael’s elevation: 218 metres (715 feet) above sea level.

Skellig Michael, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael, also called the Great Skellig is the most dramatic Saint Michael’s sanctuary of all. It looks like a black and hardly accessible pyramidal rock in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles (12 km) off the west coast of Ireland, in County Kerry (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55; Department of Culture 2010). Skellig Michael is known for legendary apparitions of the Archangel over its rocks but mostly it is recognized as one of the most significant examples of early Christian Irish monasticism and its highly ascetic character (Department of Culture 2010). Probably already in the sixth century, a small group of monks chose the isle for their remote and inaccessible monastery (Ibid.). As such the Skellig is usually described as the loneliest place on earth (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55).

Saint Michael’s Mount’s elevation: 67 metres (221 feet) above sea level.

Saint Michael’s Mount, UK. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A rocky island in Cornwall is connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway at low tide, and can be reached only by boat at high tide (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). It has been regarded as the Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint Michel in France since it was handed to the Benedictine religious order by Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century (“St Michael’s Mount” 2020). Yet the site had featured a monastery already around the eighth century (Ibid.). Saint Michael’s Mount is situated in the lowest point of land above sea level of all the sanctuaries.

Mont Saint Michel’s elevation: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Mount Saint Michel, France. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is one of the most spectacular monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael, situated just off the coast of Normandy in northern France, on a large rocky island encrusted with a complex of medieval constructions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). As a legend goes, in 708 Aubert, the bishop of Avranches had in his dream a vision of the Archangel Michael who instructed him to build an oratory on a large isolated rocky islet (Harpur, Westwood 1997:166). Eventually, Mont Saint Michel grew to become a powerful religious center in the Middle Ages, drawing pilgrims from far and wide (Ibid.:166).

Sacra Di San Michele’s elevation: 888 metres (2913 feet) above sea level.

Sacra Di San Michele, Italy. From: Atlas Obscura.

The last two monasteries are set high in the mountains. The first one is placed in the highest point above sea level of all sanctuaries. It is located in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, forty kilometers from Turin Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery dedicated to Saint Michael was built in the tenth or eleventh century, on the summit of mount Pirchiriano, which is still guarding the natural route through the Italian Alps into France (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11; Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery is apparently the very same place that inspired the writer Umberto Eco to conceive the best-seller work in 1980, the Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) (Sacra di San Michele 2020).

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s elevation: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, Italy. From: Foggia Today.

San Michele di Monte Gargano is the last footprint of the Archangel, placed in Italy, on the spur on the boot-shaped outline of the country, on the ridge of Gargano mountain (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). The heart of Saint Michael’s Sanctuary is placed in the grotto, which has been the destination of numerous pilgrimages, starting from the Norman monastery of Mont Saint Michel (“Monte Sant’ Angelo” 2020). According to a legend, the grotto was dedicated to Saint Michael as the Archangel had appeared there three times, in 490, 492 and 493 (Ibid.). Additionally, in 2019 archaeologists of the Ludwig Maximilian University excavating the site announced their discovery of traces of Hellenistic temple dated to the second century B.C. (Ibid.).

Visualizing the Visibility

The DEM data set has been used to create viewsheds as in the analysis of the elevation and landform of the sites. The maps represent the areas visible within 10 km from the sites in red, and those invisible in green.

Skellig Michael’s visibility: 218 meters (715 feet) above sea level.

St Michael’s Mount’s visibility: 67 meters (221 feet) above sea level.

Mont Saint Michel’s visibility: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Sacra Di San Michele’s visibility: 888 meters (2913 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s visibility: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

The results look quite interesting. In all cases, there is a wide range of visibility as all the sites are located on the summits of mounts/mountains. The visibility from Mont Saint Michael and Saint Michael’s Mount is strongly concentrated around the sites and then is scattered in red spots around the area, especially in the case of Skellig Michael. Additionally, at the site of Sacra Di San Michele and Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, the reach of visibility forms long red belts, as both sanctuaries are situated on the ridge of the mountains.

There are, however, some factors that should be taken into consideration while evaluating the viewshed tool, as they may greatly affect the visibility. First of all these are atmospheric conditions at the sites in question; the weather in those areas is prone to sudden changes and has a disturbing influence on the view from the top of the monasteries, especially due to dense mists and clouds.

Results of the GIS Project

On the whole, GIS turned out to be a very valuable and beneficial tool in description and deeper analysis of the subject, providing that the data applied is of a good quality to fully illustrate all the points of the project.

Sacra Di San Michele. From: Munumento Symbolo Del Piemonte.

The results show that the major sites dedicated to Apollo/St Michael are on a straight ley Line, more or less aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. Others stay close to this Line. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that St Michael’s monasteries accomplish their main purpose of being the sacral centers: not easily accessible but visible and welcoming pilgrims venerating the Archangel.

My own pilgrimage

I have always dreamed of making a pilgrimage along St.Michael/Apollo Line. However, due to a vast distance of the track, it is unlikely for me to complete it at once. Therefore, it will be more reasonable to divide the route into shorter sections or visit the sanctuaries while traveling around a particular country.

The Limbourg brothers (XV century) the Miniature (folio 195r), showing “La Fête de l’archange : le Mont Saint-Michel. In: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry; From: Wikimedia Commons.

So far I have visited three of the seven Saint Michael’s Mounts and some of Apollo’s temples while visiting Greece. The first site of the listed sanctuaries I have ever seen was Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. I went there in 2006, during my year stay in France. As I studied history of art in Paris, I usually travelled at that time around the country to see its artistic and architectural treasure, which France is so famous for. It was long before I had ever learned about Saint Michael’s Axis, which eventually happened in 2008, during my visit in Cornwall – a charming Celtic peninsula belonging to United Kingdom. I spent there a long May weekend with my friend. Having reached the most westerly town, Penzance, we both travelled to Saint Michael’s Mount, situated in the bay, near the town of Marazion. At that moment, I understood there must be a strong connection between these two Saint Michael’s mounts, the Norman and the Cornish, but I mainly thought of their mutual dedication to the Archangel, their similar architecture and natural terrain of their location. I had not realized yet, they could be both geographically interconnected and that there are other sanctuaries of that kind in Europe.

The Cover of the book by Broadhurst, P., Miller, H.  Shanley, V., Russel B. (2000) The Dance of the Dragon: An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Photo from Amazon.co.uk.

Eventually, after travelling westwards along the Cornish peninsula, we reached the legendary site of Tintagel. There, in one of local library shops, I found a very interesting and thick book by P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003) The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, which explains in detail the idea of St. Michael/Apollo Axis. Since then, I have involved myself in the authors’ research by means of my own studies, including for example the represented above the GIS project. The book itself has become my personal guide through the pilgrimage along the Axis. Also this is why I broadly share here the theories I have found in the undertaken research.

Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall depicted in 1890s painting by James Webb From: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After visiting the Cornish sanctuary in 2008, yet in the same year, I travelled once again to Mount Saint Michel, in France, to see it from the perspective of the Axis research. Only in July, 2015, had I a rare opportunity to land on one of the most inaccessible sites of the Archangel – the Skellig Michael in Ireland, which has already been fully described in one of my previous posts, entitled, Hermitage of the Archangel. In all cases (Cornwall, Normandy and Ireland), the three sites share not only highly spiritual atmosphere but also very similar geographical features. All of them are off the shore, with their summits covered in monastery structures. First two are additionally tidal islands of more or less conical shape, located deeply in the bays with salty marches and wetlands (Bonnot 2013; “Birdwatching – Marazion Marshes” 2018). Visiting them was both inspiring and deeply motivating for my work.

Bayeux Tapestry scenes 16 and 17: William and Harold at Mont Saint-Michel (at top center); Harold rescuing knights from quicksand” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hopefully, I will continue my pilgrimage southwards in the coming years …


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Photo: “Plan of the mount by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RrYY1s>. [Accessed on 9th April, 2020].

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The cover of the book by Broadhurst, P., Miller, H.  Shanley, V., Russel B. (2000) The Dance of the Dragon: An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Photo from Amazon.co.uk. Available at <https://amzn.to/2XoRUX2>. [Accessed on 9th April, 2020].

The Limbourg (XV century) “La Fête de l’archange : le Mont Saint-Michel. In: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry; f.195r. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3c1ZURS>. [Accessed 9th April, 2020].

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Universe of God

Among art works preserved in the Condé Museum in Chantilly, in France, there is a lavishly illuminated and decorated manuscript created at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Commonly known from French as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry [The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry], the bookcontains undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and important cycle of Gothic miniatures shaped by the Late Middle Ages (Żylińska 1986:236; Białostocki 2008:213).

The Limbourg Brothers and the Duke of Berry

Jean de Berry, the Duke. Detail from January. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

It is believed that the medieval masterpiece was produced by the three Limbourg brothers who came from the Low Countries. The authorship of the Book of Hours is also ascribed to other great contemporary illuminators, namely Barthélemy d’Eyck and Jean Colombe, who successively illuminated the manuscript after the death of the Limbourg, in the years between 1440s and 1480s (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). As a matter of fact, it took a number of skillful craftsmen to produce a manuscript of that kind. (Husband, Cambell 2010). The writing, the calligraphy and the text was done by scribes (Ibid.). Somebody else did the decorating of the letters, the line enders and all the decorations within the text (Ibid.). Yet other craftsmen did all the rest of the borders (Ibid.).

The duc d’Aumale with a friend in his study at Chantilly. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

As the name of the book indicates, the manuscript was commissioned by a well-known great patron of the arts Jean, Duke of Berry. Although he had already owned a few books of such kind, he was always eager to get involved in a new ambitious project. (Secomska 1972:14-25; Husband, Cambell 2010). One can almost envisage the Duke flicking through his precious books by candlelight, savouring their charming illuminations (Husband, Cambell 2010). One of his other famous manuscripts, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was also painted by the brothers Limbourg, between 1405 and 1409 (Ibid.). What makes the manuscript really unique among other Books of Hours is that it consists of seven inserted “story-like cycles that read like picture books” (“Belles Heures …” 2018; see Husband, Cambell 2010). They are devoted to saints, particularly venerated by the Valois princes, and to other important historical moments in Christianity (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Each section of the Belle Heures is customized to the personal wishes of its patron” (“Belles Heures …” 2018) and the Duke’s ownership of the book is indicated by representations of his coat of arms and personal emblems, namely the swans and bears, in each elaborate border of its pages (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Along with the Très Riches Heures, […] the Belles Heures ranks among the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The manuscript is now in The Cloisters in New York (“Belles Heures …” 2018).

The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. (Husband, Cambell 2010)

The Very Rich Book of Hours was painted by the Limbourg between circa 1412 and 1416 but eventually, the manuscript could not be finished by the three brothers who died, as their patron, in 1416 (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). In 1856, the masterpiece was acquired by the Duke of Aumale and now it is preserved as the MS 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (Ibid.).

Livres D’Heures

BOOK OF HOURS A book of prayers to be said at the canonical Hours, intended for a lay person’s private devotion (e.g. Hours of the Blessed Virgin). Popular in the Late Middle Ages and often containing rich ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:36)

Books of Hours were used as prayer books that developed in late medieval Europe World (Digital Library 2017). Although they were made for the wealthy laity and so were used for private devotion, it had been based on the books used by the clergy but much simplified (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010). Accordingly, they were devotional manuals used as personal prayer books; usually beautifully covered in jewels and with a silver fastening (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213). Sometimes they open with a portrait of an owner and of their patron saint (Ibid.).

An Example of an Illuminated Book of Hours. Photo from Raptis Rare Books (2020).

Books of Hours universally include a register of Church feasts together with multiple texts of everyday prayers (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Digital Library 2017). The text is accompanied by rich miniature cycles, representing the Christian iconography characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the Life of Christ, the Virgin, various Saints, and sometimes also scenes depicting episodes of the Old Testament (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Illuminated manuscript page illustrating the Annunciation from the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. Photo from “Belles Heures …” 2018. Books of Hours were mainly dedicated to the “Hours of the Virgin”. That component begins in the Belles Heures with the scene of the “Annunciation” (Husband, Cambell 2010).

One of the most dominant and significant parts of Book of Hours, particularly in the case of the Très Riches Heures, is unquestionably a multi-coloured calendar year with vibrantly dynamic miniatures (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Owning such a manuscript was also a way for wealthy individuals to establish a more direct relationship with God than exclusively through the Church, and in particular to express a more personal prayer to the Virgin Mary for at the core of each Book of Hours, there are the “Hours of the Virgin” (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010).

Art of Luxury

The Art of Illuminating. Photo from Dormer 2012).

The Reign of Saint Louis the Ninth in France (1226-1270) was the very peak for medieval illumination being developed mainly in Paris. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, describes the moment while he meets the most famous illuminator of his times in Purgatory and pays honour to this art (Pijoan 2006:56), which “is in Paris called illuminating” (Alighieri: CantoX:79).

ILLUMINATION The illustrations and book decorations found in medieval and later manuscripts, usually painted in GOUACHE or TEMPERA with gold highlights – hence the name. Synonym of ILLUMINATIONMINIATURE.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:117,139)

Not only the Bible and canonical books were decorated at that time – like in the Carolingian epoch – but there were also various texts, psalters and prayer books for a personal use. The most characteristic books of the times of Philip August and Louis IX were definitely psalters illuminated with two kinds of miniatures. Some in their forms imitating stained glasses cover the pages in circles, within which various episodes are told; in others, the entire compositions of scenes are enclosed in an intricate frame of Gothic architectural motifs: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arcades with flying buttresses (Pijoan 2006:56).

Château de Saumur, France. Its representation is shown in the miniature of September. Photo from: Stephens, B. (2020)
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, in the miniature of June. Photo from: Encyclopedia of Art and Design (2020).

After a thousand years, non-religious themes in art had reappeared and the Limbourg brothers painted the Duke’s properties: castles, lands and peasants (Beckett 1996). Towers, battlements, pinnacles – a castle seems the main witness to events illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and the Duke of Berry actually owned seventeen castles (Ibid.). Regrettably, not much original architecture depicted has been preserved; some of the examples painted by the artists that survived to our times are the castle of Saumur by the River Loire (Ibid.), the castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, and St. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Château de Vincennes, shown by the miniature of December. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Pfoto from: Ladonne 2019.

As the artwork commissioned by the Duke of Berry, his Very Rich Book of Hours also “celebrates the luxuries and sophistication of court life. Partially, it was designed to delight, flatter and amuse the patron” (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

European Courts of the Late Middle Ages

The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry was created in the Late Middle Ages where the world of art was becoming smaller (Beckett 1996). Artists were travelling and meeting one another (Ibid.). Consequently, the so-called international style had been born (Ibid.).

In the span of the years 1320-1420, royal and duke’s courts, mainly of Paris, Berry, Dijon, Burgundy and Low Countries, started to witness an unusual florescence of miniature painting within contemporary manuscripts. In the fourteenth century, together with a transformation of the feudal society hierarchical structure and a formation of a new social stratum, namely the rich intellectuals, a considerable need for a decorated book substantially increased. In about one hundred years the same need would result in the invention of the printing press, which rapid development consequently brought the end to the illuminated manuscript (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

The Nativity of Jesus, folio 44v. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

In the heyday of the medieval handwritten book, there was also a rapid artistic growth of illustrations within its frame. With the development of a medieval image in wooden panel paintings, the illustration had also flourished on parchment or vellum used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, particularly lavishly in prayers books of hours, called in French, livres d’heures. Their rich and intricate decorations at the time constituted a manifestation of a luxury and personal wealth, and even satisfied snobbery (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Calendar in Medieval Art aka Labours of the Months

Life at the Duke’s Court is the subject of the secular scenes that portray the seasons (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). “The pictorial calendar convention […] has a very long history and a very wide circulation” (Henisch 1999:vii). In Western Europe its origins date back to “the ninth century onwards; by the twelve century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England and Flanders” (Ibid.:5). Medieval calendar year not only was represented on sheet of vellum inside devotional books but also designed by skillful artists in wood, stone, glass, and woven into mosaics, most universally, however, used in the magnificent sculpture of Gothic cathedrals (Henisch 1999:4; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

The Limbourg brothers. Christ Led to Judgment, folio 143r. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

Wherever it is depicted, and irrespective of small deviations in its details, the calendar pattern always consists of twenty-four scenes. Twelve of them stands for each month of the year. Correspondingly, they unfold tasks, popular occupations at the countryside, detailed scenery landmarks, and all other features characteristic of a given month (Henisch 1999:vii-3; Białostocki 2008:213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69). The successive months of the year chase one another like shifting scenes in a wheel of a vibrant kaleidoscope, “and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society” (Henisch 1999:vii). Hence the medieval calendar year is also known as the “labours cycle” or the “Labours of the Months” (Ibid.:vii).

“As the year unfolds, each season has its own character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early work spring begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn fields are plowed and seed in sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

General plan

The overall pattern of the monthly labours inscribed in the framework of the calendar was thoroughly set up, conventionally repeated by artists throughout centuries, and therefore recognized elsewhere by the medieval mind (Henisch 1999:3-7).

“Little jingles, [usually chanted by children] – like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth century England – also served to make the general plan well known and easy to remember” (Henisch 1999:3).

January: By thys fyre I warme my handys

Februar: And with my spade I delfe my landys.

Marche: Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;

Aprile: And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.

Maij: I am as light as byrde in bowe;

Junij: And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].

Julij: With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];

Auguste: And here I shere my corne full lowe.

September: With my flyll I erne my brede:

October: And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.

November: At Martynessmasse I kylle my swine;

December: And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne” (Henisch 1999:3)

From Labours of the Months to the Cycle of Occupations

LABOURS OF THE MONTHS A series of twelve scenes, one for each month, each showing a different country occupation, and usually accompanied by the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Found in medieval sculpture and STAINED GLASS and often in the calendar of the BOOK OF HOURS decorated with ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:127)
igns of the Zodiac and Labours of the Months within gothic frames. Cathedral of Amines, France. Photo from Krén, Marx 2020).

By the end of the epoch in question, however, a set of the illustrations – traditionally called the Labours of the Months – had become more often known as  “a cycle of occupations than labors” (Henisch 1999:7). It was because instead of duties people usually carried out in due seasons, artists started to illustrate seasonal activities and pleasures the contemporary society themselves indulged in with a full engagement and fantasy (Ibid.:7) “from snowball fights in December to boating parties in May” (Ibid.:7).

Signs of the Zodiac

In the medieval calendar the twelve scenes of the Labours or Occupations of the Months are always matched pair with the remaining twelve scenes representing each month’s principal zodiac sign (Henisch 1999:vii-3). It is because every month is identified with a certain planet and the divine power, an influence of which was believed to be very present in the world of nature and human disposition (Battistini 2005:47). In view of that, “the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity of the year’s map” (Henisch 1999:2). Just as it is illustrated by the cycle of stained glass scenes depicted in the Cathedral of Chartres in France (below), where a particular zodiac sign on the right is ascribe to each of monthly human occupations on the left (Slides 1-9 from Frame Pool 1996).

“January – Aquarius, the Water Carrier,

 February – Pisces, the Fish,

 March – Aries, the Ram,

 April – Taurus, the Bull,

 May – Gemini, the Twins,

 June – Cancer, the Crab,

 July – Leo, the Lion,

 August – Virgo, the Maiden,

 September – Libra, the Scales,

 October – Scorpio, the Scorpion,

 November – Sagittarius, the Archer,

 December – Capricorn, the Goat” (Henisch 1999:2-3).

The Anatomical Zodiac Man, folio 14. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

In the Very Rich Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page tract the cycle of months represented below (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

Long Ancient Tradition Inscribed in the Medieval Iconography

As the tradition goes, the zodiac signs were first of all to represent the endless, subsequent cycle of the passing time. Still they also gave the evidence of a close and harmonious relation between human activities and the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Their origins reach the ancient civilizations, such as of Egypt, China, Persia, and India. The zodiac was then adapted by the Christianity on the way of the religious syncretism, to eventually find its central place in the medieval iconography, where it was linked to twelve labours depictions characterizing twelve months of the year. As it was said above, the calendar year was being commonly worked out in the stones of Gothic cathedrals where, like in the late medieval illuminations, the zodiac signs correspond to human occupations (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Accordingly, while the sign of Aries, the Ram is joined with March’s activity of trimming the Vines, Libra, the Scales illustrates a grape picking in September (Maye, Stones 2009). Sometimes, the zodiac signs are placed in a tympanum semicircle, surrounding the figure of Christ; in this case they show a close connection between the earth and the Heavens, people and God, and so they illustrate that the actual order of the Creation and events on the earth meets the order imposed by the Creator (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Far Left – Spring (partial) – Sign of Gemini (Twins); Reaping – Sign of Cancer (Crab)
Right – Sign of Leo (Lion) – Harvesting; Sign of Virgo – Threshing (partial). Photo from Vadnal, J., Donahue, G., D. (1997).

“The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky, in which the sun, the moon and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation, whose position once, long ago lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was all-important in the life of men and women, its movement was studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting, that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.”

(Henisch 1999:2)
Miniatures of the twelve Zodiac signs from the Hunterian Psalter, AD 1170, England. Photo from Baez, R. (2020).

Square and Cycle Intertwined

January: A New Year’s Day feast including Jean de Berry. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

The zodiac signs and labours of the medieval calendar many a time were represented as scenes inscribed in the forms of cycles (medallions or quatrefoils). A cycle – an ideal geometrical figure – was believed to have been created to reflect the perfection of God. Correspondingly, its shape incorporated into art assured the balance of the universe, and so regulated the cycle of life (Cerinotti 2009:68-69). In this context, the shape of a square on the other side stands for the earthly world and human sphere of influence. Not without reason these two geometrical figures predominate in the calendar illuminations of the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The entire composition of the calendar including two scenes is thus divided into two geometrical zones: at the bottom of the framework there is a square-shaped image of human labours, whereas at the top – a semi-circular forms with zodiac signs and the symbols of the planets (Białostocki 2008:213). In each of the zodiac spheres, there is additionally a representation of “the Greek deity Apollo who rides his [heavenly] chariot while carrying the Sun across the sky (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). Such an illustration referring to the ancient tradition not only introduces a divine element in the human everyday life but also it is a sing of the coming Renaissance.

December: Château de Vincennes. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020).

The overall set of illustrations in the Book of Hours successfully “depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land, […] almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, [which sequence] represents the annual, endlessly repeated cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table” (Henisch 1999:vii,1-2). On the other side, all the human occupations framed in the squares are regulated by the divine element above – the earthly world of a human being inscribed into the sphere and order of God.


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