by Tim Barker
Altar in the Melchizedek and Abel Mosaic at St. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy1
As discussed in my previous posting, Alonzo Gaskill's article entitled, "The Seal of Melchizedek?" which was recently published in The Religious Educator, has inspired me to further research the historical significance of this enigmatic icon. Brother Gaskill focused much of his article on the eight-pointed star in terms of Christological symbolism. He identified several meaningful elements of the symbol, such as the gamma (or right angle), the square, the number eight, stars, and the eight-pointed star. It is the purpose of this post to expound on his commentary and analysis, as it relates to the elements of the eight-pointed star; whereas, discussion regarding the eight-pointed star itself will follow in a subsequent post.
The eight-pointed star contains eight right angles, or gammas, also depicted in abundance on the altar cloth around the borders. In fact, regarding the gamma, Hugh Nibley cites Yigael Yadin (an Israeli Archeologist known for his connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls), as stating that this "pattern ultimately became the most popular in the altar-cloth of the Christian church, and even the altar-cloth itself came to be known as the gammadia."2 While Brother Gaskill doesn't say much regarding its symbolism in the body of his paper, he does cite a number of authors in the footnotes, who indicate that gammadia was symbolic of Christ, that it took the place of the cross of Christ, that it represents the omnipotent God of the universe, or Heavenly Father, and that it may be a figure of victory or hope for immortality.3 Biblically, the altar was a place for sacrifice and offerings, all of which were symbolic of the great sacrifice of the Redeemer. The covering of the altar with an altar cloth could symbolize the atonement which covers the imperfect offerings made by man. Referring to the altar cloth at S. Sophia, W.R. Lethaby and Harold Swainson state that "at the four corners [are the] gammadia[,] which in the code of symbolism probably expressed the four corners of that world, for which the daily sacrifice was offered."4 In connection with the Mosaic law, one Christian author has noted that "in the Talmud various laws are prescribed concerning this sprinkling of the blood of the burnt-offering: among others, that it should be performed about the middle of the altar, below the red line, and only twice, so as to form the figure of the Greek gamma..."5
The Greek cross, also known as the gammadia, combines the four gammas into the shape of a cross, as illustrated below:
This design is explained by some Lutherans as the voided cross, comprised of gammadia. "The name gammadia refers to its being made up of four shapes similar to a capital Greek letter gamma. This is the third letter of the Greek alphabet, which can symbolize the Holy Trinity. The four angles represent the four Gospels being spread to the four corners of the earth, and the voided lines show us that Christ left the cross to proclaim His victory over sin, death, and the devil."6
While some explanations have been offered, the gamma has historically been a "fruitful source of perplexity to ecclesiologists."7 They aren't sure what to make of the usage of this symbol. It is usually found on the outer hem of the garment, but "no connection can be traced between these letters and any circumstances known concerning the persons whose vestments they decorate; and wide differences between the times and places of individual examples of the same character preclude their explanation as the faithful copies of weavers' marks." In other words, they are too sporadic in order to be able to make any sense of it all. Robert A.S. MaCalister, the Irish Archaeologist, concludes his discussion on gammadia by dismissing the idea that there was any esoteric connection, and therefore, "some simple explanation, such as the arbitrary selection of a [Greek] letter as an elementary ornament, is the only satisfactory means of accounting for their presence." He closes by admonishing the reader to repress any tendencies to associate mysteries with such symbols.8
His nonchalant dismissal of any meaning associated with the gamma is suspicious. MaCalister's primary concern was that the symbol was apparently being associated with the esoteric. Since this sign was connected with the veil curtains and the altar in early Christianity, MaCalister seems to be ignorant of the importance of the veil and altar as a temple setting, and refuses to acknowledge a possible meaning to be associated therewith. Latter-Day Saints may infer that explanations like these provide continuing evidence of the results of the great apostasy.9 As Hugh Nibley pointed out, "there are many examples of it [the gamma] in the earliest Christian life, but not later, because by then they have been transferred to the altar cloth. Originally they belonged to the veil of the temple."10 Consistent with LDS theology, it would appear reasonable that meanings associated with symbols pertaining to the temple would become lost or distorted over time as evidence of the great apostasy. Conversely, ordinances, symbols, and other gospel related themes that were taught or practiced in the earliest Christian days should have the closest resemblance to our restorational Gospel teachings and practices.
In connection with the square, Brother Gaskill provides the following potential meanings: a firm foundation, honesty, perfection, dependability, integrity, morality, protection, unchangingness, man's regeneration, death, and resurrection.11 Nibley notes that Petrie discovered a compass and square employed as amulets on an Egyptian mummy, and noted (according to Petrie) that the square probably meant rectitude and uprightness.12 Certainly the idea that the square is foundational finds support in the practice of constructing homes and other buildings. The Apostle Paul used this as a metaphor in teaching that the Saints were part of the "household of God," which was "built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:19-20). In this metaphor, the gamma could be a representation of Christ, being the corner of the foundation, and the entire square could be representational of Christ and His gospel as well (Luke 6:47-48). Certainly other meanings could be added, and the component meanings identified by Alonzo Gaskill could be further assessed, but as he has noted, "because a variety of meanings can be found associated with the square (or box shape) as a symbol, it is rather difficult to speak dogmatically about."13
The Number Eight
"The number eight is a very developed symbol in ancient and modern Christianity," and includes associated meanings such as resurrection, new beginnings, rebirth, renewal, and baptism.14 In connection with resurrection, it has been noted that as Christ rose on the first day of the week, "that was of necessity the eighth day."15 According to Mackenzie Walcott, a Christian Masonic author on Sacred Archeology, the number eight is identified as a sacred number representing resurrection.16 Gaskill mentions that early baptismal fonts were octagonal, and also notes that the Basilica of St. Vitale is Octagonal in shape, and cites Jack Tresidder, noting that "eight-sided forms were felt to mediate between the symbolism of the square, representing earthly existence, and the circle (standing for heaven or eternity)."17 Brother Gaskill notes that the number also has a connection with the name of Jesus in Greek gematria.18 Perhaps one other connotation could be identified, and that is that the number eight placed horizontally is our common symbol for infinite, which correlates well with Christ, who is infinite and eternal.
The "Star of Bethlehem" is generally the first connection that comes to mind when considering stars as symbols of Christ. "The star that led the Wise Men to the Savior was real. But it was also symbolic of the light that came into the world with the Savior's birth."19 Scripturally, Christ is connected to the "bright and morning star" (Revelation 22:16), the "day star" (2 Peter 1:19), and Kolob.20 Reverend Gilbert White has noted that stars serve as guides for the traveler and equates "that great and beautiful morning star" as the "beautiful herald of the rising sun."21 Interestingly, the King James translators provided Malachi 4:2 as stating that "the Sun of righteousness arise[s] with healing in his wings..." Joseph Smith translated the Savior's rendition of Malachi's words in the Book of Mormon, stating that "the Son of Righteousness arise[s] with healing in his wings..." (3 Nephi 25:2). The interchangeable words strengthen the connection that the sun is symbolic of the Son. These scriptures also seem to correlate with Peter's teachings that the day star would arise within our hearts "until the day dawn." This process, according to Peter, had a direct connection to making our calling and election sure.22
In connection with Malachi's teachings, it is interesting to note that the Egyptians depicted the sun with wings, and worshipped Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. "Ra is the name which was given by the Egyptians of the dynastic period to the god of the sun, who was regarded as the maker and creator of everything which we see in the visible world around us..."23 This attribution correlates well with the Son who was the creator of all things (Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:13-17).
Nibley talks about the Egyptian concept of life after death and the resurrection and stated, "Since death cannot be denied, what hope is there for the hereafter? The Egyptian answer, as everybody recognizes today, was to start all over again and have a new life. That meant a new creation. How was that to be effected? There is one glowing example which no one can overlook--the sun. And the Egyptians, like other ancient people, made the most of it. Stick close to the sun was the idea, and do what he does. Get yourself a place in his boat, as a crewmember, attendant (shms-Re), or member of the family..." Nibley goes on to note that this "creation drama is a standard feature of temple worship."24 Additionally, other scholars have more recently noted that sun worship had its place in ancient Israel as well.25
While Reverend Wright refers to the morning star as being the sun, most refer to Venus as the evening and morning star.26 In fact, Pythagoras is given credit (by some) for being the first to identify Venus as the evening and morning star.27 Frances Rolleston has noted that Venus typifies Christ's church, while the sun typifies Christ. "Before the first coming, the Church as the morning star, heralded the Sun by prophecy; and in the evening star typified the declension of the Jewish dispensation, still however transmitting some rays of the splendour of the promised Messiah. After the Sun of the first coming was set, the twilight of the great apostasy began to close around; when the Church, as the planet Venus, receding from the source of light, became less bright, even while increasing in apparent magnitude, it might well be typified by the evening star; again approximating to the Sun, disappearing from our sight, to rise in renewed splendour as the morning star announcing His return."28 In this connection, Rolleston inadvertently indicates that the morning star, or the church, would rise again prior to the second coming of the sun, or the Son.29
Others have noted that Venus, or the evening and morning star, more directly symbolizes Christ. "As evening star Christ died; as morning star he was resurrected."30 Reverend J. Phelps notes that Christ assumes the title of morning star, "because of the light he brings from the unseen world." He further states that the morning star symbolizes Christ because of its preeminence, beauty and admiration, usefulness, adaptation, continuance, and its unalterable character of light. The morning star surpasses the brightness of every other star.31 Elder Donald Hallstrom, of the Presidency of the Seventy concluded his April 2010 General Conference talk by encouraging us to "turn to the Lord, our bright and morning star."32 This message has recently been declared numerous times in General Conferences.33 Benjamin Keach has noted that "the Morning Star is known to be the evening star as well as the Morning Star, and in both respects is useful to the world." In connection with this, he notes that "Christ is Omega as well as Alpha, the Finisher as well as the Author or beginner of our faith; the rear-guard, as well as the Captain of our salvation..."34 In this respect, Venus, or the evening and morning star, is the brightest object of the sky, excluding the sun, and may have multiple symbolic meanings, but the most meaningful symbol, is that of the Savior.
The eight-pointed star is the culmination of all of the elements described above, and as such, may embody all of the symbolisms identified above. In terms of being on the altar cloth in the Ravenna mosaic, it may well serve as a symbol of Christ, as the altar cloth symbolizes Christ. It should also be noted that contemporary altar cloths had varying symbols in place of the eight-pointed star, most notably the cross. Regarding the Church of Sancta Sophia in Constantinople, it is noted that "The altar would have been covered, like the altars shown in the mosaics at Ravenna, and the illustrations of the Menologium, by a cloth reaching on all sides to the floor. These cloths bear very simple devices--in the centre [sic] a plain cross, or star, and at the four corners gammidae which in the code of symbolism probably expressed the four corners of that world, for which the daily sacrifice was offered."35 An illustration of the altar at Sancta Sophia is provided below.36 The fact that a cross was used at the center of the gammadia in the altar cloth where the eight-pointed star is in the Ravenna mosaics indicates that the eight-pointed star may be a substitute for the cross, and both may be symbols of Christ. Further discussion on the eight-pointed star will follow in a subsequent post.
1 Sketches of Continental Ecclesiology, or Church Notes in Belgium, Germany, and Italy, Rev. Benjamin Webb (Joseph Masters, London, England, 1848), 437
2 Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, by Hugh Nibley, illustrated by Michael Lyon (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 12, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], Provo, UT, 1992), 107; see also Catalogue of Textiles From Burying-Grounds in Egypt (2 Vols.), Albert Frank Kendrick (Majesty's Stationary Office, London, England, 1920), 1:32. Kendrick states, "An outstanding feature of the decoration of a number of large cloths in the Museum is the characteristic border composed of four ornamental right-angles. This ornamentation would be very suitable for floor-coverings; and it is easy to show that it was applied to curtains and hangings; but that it was also used on cloaks is made clear by the decoration of certain mummy-cases, where it is seen on the shoulder. Early altar-coverings, as represented in mosaics and illuminated MSS., often had this form of decoration, and it is also to be found quite frequently in reliefs and stone carvings. The resemblance to the Greek letter gamma has given to cloths thus ornamented the name of gammadion, gammadaie, or gammidae." Kendrick neglects to identify the time periods in which each of these scenarios occurred. He cites W. Lowrie from Atti del II Congresso Di Archeologia Cristiana, pg 43, as noting that the stone-carvers borrowed the gamma from textile art.
3 "The Seal of Melchizedek?" by Alonzo Gaskill, The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):115
4 The Church of Sancta Sophia Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building, W.R. Lethaby and Harold Swainson (Macmillan & Co., New York, NY, 1894), 71
5 The Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature (2 Vols.), John Kitto, D.D., F.S.A., Ed. (Mark H. Newman & Co., New York, NY, 1851), 1:363; also see "Gammadia on Early Jewish and Christian Garments," by John W. Welch and Claire Foley, BYU Studies, 36/3 (1996-1997):253-258 (especially 254, 257)
6 Lutherans online (accessed on January 27, 2011); also see Ecclesiastical Vestments: Their Development and History, R.A.S. MaCalister, M.A. (Elliot Stock, London, England, 1896), 58-59
7 Ecclesiastical Vestments: Their Development and History, 59
8 Ibid, 59
9 The Great Apostasy, James Edward Talmage (Zion's Printing and Publishing, Independence, MO, 1910)
10 Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, 106; also see Nibley's, "Christian Envy of the Temple," in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 4, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], Provo, UT, 1987), 391-434
11 "The Seal of Melchizedek?" by Alonzo Gaskill, The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):103, 116
12 Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, 111
13 "The Seal of Melchizedek?" by Alonzo Gaskill, The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):103
14 Ibid, 103-104
15 Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance, E.W. Bullinger (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 967), 200; as cited by Gaskill in "The Seal of Melchizedek?" The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):104, 116
16 Sacred Archaeology: A Popular Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Art and Institutions, From Primitive to Modern Times, Mackenzie E.C. Walcott, B.D. (L. Reeve and Co., London, England, 1868), 403
17 Symbols and Their Meanings, Jack Tresidder (Duncan Baird, London, England, 2000), 154; as cited in "The Seal of Melchizedek?" The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):104, 116
18 "The Seal of Melchizedek?" by Alonzo Gaskill, The Religious Educator 11/3 (2010):103-104
19 "The Star, the Savior, and Your Heart," Sue Clark, The New Era (December 2008):9
20 See Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2 Figure 1
21 "The Bright and Morning Star" in Fifty-Six Short Sermons For the Use of Lay Readers, Right Reverend Gilbert White, M.A., D.D. (William Clowes and Sons, London, England, 1922), 68 (see pgs 65-69)
22 2 Peter 1:19 states, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts." Joseph Smith taught that the more sure word of prophecy "means a man's knowing that he is sealed up unto eternl life, by revelation and the spirit of prophecy, through the power of the Holy Priesthood" (D&C 131:5). Joseph also connected the more sure word of prophecy with calling and election being made sure. He stated, "Now for the secret and grand key. Though they might hear the voice of God and know that Jesus was the Son of God, this would be no evidence that their election and calling was made sure, that they had part with Christ, and were joint heirs with him. They then would want that more sure word of prophecy, that they were sealed in the heavens and had the promise of eternal life in the kingdom of God. Then, having this promise sealed unto them, it was an anchor to the soul, sure and steadfast." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith; Joseph Fielding Smith, Ed. (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, 1977), 298). Additionally, the idea that the day star arises within our hearts until the day dawn, alludes to the idea that the light of the Savior grows brighter and brigher within us. "That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day" (D&C 50:24; also see Proverbs 4:18).
23 The Gods of the Egyptians: or, Studies in Egyptian Mythology, E.A.Wallis Budge (Methuen & Co., London, England, 1904), 322
24 Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple, by Hugh Nibley, Ed. by Stephen D. Ricks (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 2008), 487
25 Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel, J. Glen Taylor (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, England, 1993)
26 The Cambridge Guide to the Solar System, Kenneth R. Lang (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 2003), 210; Christ Consciousness: A Path of Inner Development, translated by Danielle Van Dijk (Temple Lodge Publishing, Sussex, England, 2010), 9 (originally written in Dutch by Christofoor Zeist, entitled Het Christusbewustzijn, 2008). Van Dijk also connects Venus, or the morning star, with the pentagram as a symbol of Christ (pg 9). Also see The Names and Titles of Christ, Elder James Maple (Gospel Herald Office, James S. Millard Printer, Dayton, OH, 1860), 254
27 The Romance of Modern Astronomy: Describing in Simple But Exact Language the Wonders of the Heavens, Hector MacPherson, Junr. (J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1911), 76; Mizraim; or Astronomy of Egypt, Frances Rolleston (Rivingtons, Wallace Place, London, England, 1865), 27
28 Mazzaroth, Frances Rolleston (Cosimo Books, New York NY, 2009; originally published in London, England in 1862), Part V, 27
29 It should be noted that Rolleston was not LDS; in fact, Rolleston felt that the Mormons would be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone for teaching false doctrines (see Notes on the Apocalypse, as Explained by the Hebrew Scriptures, Frances Rolleston (Gilbert and Rivington Printers, London, England, 1859), 71-72).
30 Paradise Lost 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary, Earl Miner, Ed., William Moeck, Co-Ed., Steven Jablonski, Co-Ed. (Associated University Presses, Cranbury, NJ, 2004), 230
31 Sabbath Gleanings For Evenings at Home, Reverend J. Phelps, M.A. (William MacIntosh, London, England, 1865), Part I, 88
32 "Turn to the Lord," Elder Donald L. Hallstrom (General Conference, April 2010). Additional talks and publications might be cited, such as "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee," Elder Keith B. McMullin (General Conference, April 2004); and "He Invites Us to Follow Him," President Howard W. Hunter (Ensign, Sept 1994), 2-5
33 "What Manner of Men Ought Ye to Be?" President Howard W. Hunter (General Conference, April 1994); "This Do in Remembrance of Me," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (General Conference, Oct 1995); "An High Priest of Good Things to Come," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (General Conference, Oct 1999); and also in other articles published by General Authorities in the LDS periodicals, such as: "Who is Jesus Christ?" President Boyd K. Packer (Liahona, March 2008); and "In This Holy Land," Elder Russel M. Nelson (Liahona, Feb 1991).
34 Preaching From the Types and Metaphors of the Bible, Benjamin Keach (Kregel Academic & Professional, Grand Rapids, MI, 1855), 478
35 The Church of Sancta Sophia Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building, 71 (emphasis in original)
36 Ibid, 69