Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Seal of Melchizedek and Michael Lyon

April 6, 2011
by Tim Barker

A short while ago I read an article entitled, "The Seal of Melchizedek?" which was recently published in The Religious Educator. The article was written by Alonzo Gaskill, an Assistant Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.1 The purpose of his article was to disassociate the "so-called Seal of Melchizedek" from the person of Melchizedek and the Melchizedek Priesthood, and to discuss possible meanings of the eight-pointed star in terms of Christological symbolism. While I take exception with his intent to disassociate the symbol with Melchizedek and the priesthood, Gaskill's identification of potential meanings of the symbol in relation to Christ is well done. This connection is a significant point that I attempted to illustrate in my previous posting on the subject, but Brother Gaskill is certainly more articulate and does a much better job at this than myself. He identifies several meaningful elements of the symbol, such as the gamma (or right angle), the square, the number eight, stars, and the eight-pointed star. He also discusses some history in connection with the symbol, including the development of the "lore," as well some general discussion on the evolution of symbols. 

His article has inspired me to research the matter further. Consequently, research on this topic for the last couple months has resulted in a response that is too large for a single post, and I have neglected my goal for monthly posting.  Accordingly, I will subsequently be posting my research in segments.  The purpose of this particular post is to explore some assertions made by Brother Gaskill in relation to statements attributed to Michael P. Lyon, an artist well known for his illustrations in Hugh Nibley's Collected Works, and other publications.  Brother Lyon illustrated a mosaic of Melchizedek at an altar, with Abraham and Isaac, and Abel, on either side of the altar, and the seal on the forefront of the altar cloth.  The mosaic is found in the Basilica of St. Apollinaire in Classe at Ravenna, Italy. Lyon's depiction was included in Nibley's book, Temple and Cosmos, regarding discussion on gammadia.Another illustration of this mosaic, published in Germany in 1901, is included below.

Mosaic in S. Apollinare in Classe3

I contacted Brother Lyon with some questions, to which he provided me with responses. He also courteously provided me with permission to share this information.  The following conversation is from my email to Brother Lyon on February 3, 2011, and his response on March 21, 2011.  I have arranged the correspondence in a question-answer format for convenience and additional discussion outside of this topic has been excluded.  My questions are in black font, and his responses are in blue font.

[Brother Gaskill] mentions that you provided the caption in Temple and Cosmos under the illustration of the Mosaic from St. Apollinare in Classe, regarding gammadia and the "so-called seal of Melchizedek." Can you confirm whether this is correct?  There is mention in Brother Gaskill's article of how you and Brother Nibley discussed illustrations, or captions pertaining thereto - can you recall the discussion relating to this particular illustration and caption?

In regards to captions, I wrote most of them because Bro. Nibley asked me to, since I was more familiar with the specific image, but I always made sure that he read them. He made very few changes, but I seem to remember that he inserted "so-called" before seal of Melchizedek. Our discussion centered on the fact that there is no contemporary identification of the intertwined squares as belonging to Melchizedek. Both of us had seen numerous examples in Byzantine art that had no connection to that specific  prophet. My best guess is that sometime after the creation of the mosaics, a later scholar connected the pattern on the altar cloth with the name inscribed above in the two examples and started the tradition that it was the Seal of Melchizedek.

He mentioned that you thought you had once seen this emblem on a book of Catholic symbolism. Do you recall if the book actually associated the emblem with Melchizedek? Do you have any recollection what the name of this book was? Brother Gaskill mentioned that you had been unable to locate this book. I'm hoping that circumstances have changed. Brother Gaskill also indicates that you "doubted the legitimacy of the name or title." Can you elaborate as to why?

I haven't been able to find the 19th century book I remembered seeing on the shelf years ago, so I'm grateful to hear of the book you found [see below]. I have looked in a number of Catholic dictionaries under Melchizedek and none of them associate the pattern with him. The pattern appears in architecture, paintings, textiles and even a bookbinding. I have the references to a number of them if you're interested. It is a pleasing geometrical pattern, like the pentagram or hexagram but it has no ancient connections to Melchizedek just as the others were not connected to David or Solomon. 

That being said, there is nothing wrong for us to identify it with Melchizedek today just as the other symbols have became linked to David and Solomon over the years and are now part of the symbolic language of the world. But we need to be careful when talking about them to remind ourselves that this is just one aspect of their possible meanings. In India they were using the Sri Yantra, interlocked triangles, long before they were associated with Judaism in the west.

Brother Gaskill mentions that you thought the eight-pointed star might be a simple form of a rosette. After doing some research, I believe I have found evidence indicating that the mosaic design is most likely correct as it is (rather than being a rosette), since there are textiles almost identical to the front of the altar cloth (with the "seal" and the gammadia, and a few authors have noted that the mosaic derives from these textiles. I'm not sure whether you were asserting that it was a rosette, or simply providing an alternative suggestion. However, if you believe it be a rosette, can you provide me with any references to assist in my research?

Also a note on the term rosette. It can mean a radially symmetrical design, not just something botanical. Depending on their ornamentation, regular polygons i.e. pentagons, hexagons and octagons, can be considered rosettes. The San Vitale mosaic was heavily damaged at some point and the original interlocked squares on the altar cloth were restored based on the parallel example at S. Apollinare in Classe.

Are you aware of any General Authorities identification of this symbol as the Seal of Melchizedek, as is commonly related in stories regarding the design of the San Diego temple? From my visit to the SD temple a few years back, one of the temple workers told me President Faust identified the symbol as the Seal of Melchizedek. I don't know if this is hearsay, or if there is some legitimacy to stories like these.

In regards to LDS comments, the only connection I can recall is a meeting we had many years ago at FARMS with a group of men from the Temples and Special Projects department. Among many items, we talked about the Seal of Melchizedek and I shared my opinion of the matter. I think they had seen the illustrations in Temple and Cosmos and knew of the term. I hope this helps.

I have found (as posted in my article on the Seal of Melchizedek) an eight-pointed star denoted as "the Signet of Melchizedek" as published in 1905, in Henry P.H. Bromwell's book, Restoration of Masonic Geometry and Symbolry Being a Dissertation on the Lost Knowledges of the Lodge (pg 170). Is this, by chance, the same book that you might be referring to (as mentioned by Brother Gaskill)?

[Based on the information provided above, Brother Lyon was unfamiliar with Bromwell's book.]

Anyways, I'm hoping that you could provide me with an explanation detailing your thoughts on the "so-called Seal of Melchizedek," and any sources that you might be able to refer me. I would be especially appreciative.

[The information above answers this last question.  Brother Lyon also mentioned:] I  would like to know the earliest mention of the Seal of Melchizedek when somebody comes across it. As I recall, the reference to him was dropped from the mass fairly early. His depictions in medieval art are very rare, so its not surprising that we're having difficulty tracking this down.

1 Alonzo Gaskill, "The Seal of Melchizedek?", The Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel, 11/3 (2010):94-121
2 Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, illustrated by Michael Lyon (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 12; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 1992), 109
3 Walter Goetz, Ravenna (Berlin, Germany: Derlag von E.U. Seeman, 1901), 71


  1. I stumbled upon you blog. Very nice! Please keep up the great work. It is much appreciated.

  2. Michael - thanks for your comments - much appreciated. Tim

  3. I'm not a LDS but your words and work piqued my curiosity, since last Sunday my friend referred to an early icon for the Christians not being a fish but an eightpointed star (or something like that) as for instance the Christian symbol carved on the Martyrium of St Philip. Next day, the same symbol appeared in a "completely different" context.

    I see that Ravenna has TWO extremely old churches, about the same age, and that BOTH have depictions of Melchizedek, as if he was very important at or up to that time. Now since this was the time of Justinian, we are also at a watershed of time - read up Procopius' Secret History and the A.R.E. commentaries on this - when the Fifth Ecumenical Council "anathematized" the work of the saintly Origen, particularly with regard to his teachings of "pre-existence" and reincarnation.

    I think the link with Melchizedek is valid, in that Melchizedek was a Star Being; in the same way, the Christian link; in the same way, the fact that it was a LDS architect who dreamed it; in the same way, its proliferation in Islamic art, whose forebears were the great star-gazers of Persia, Sumeria, Babylon, and Ur of the Chaldees (Edessa). And more.