The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.” The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing “the obstinately shut mind”. Hunt, 50 years after painting it, felt he had to explain the symbolism.
The original, painted at night in a makeshift hut at Worcester Park Farm in Surrey, is now in a side room off the large chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Toward the end of his life, Hunt painted a life-size version, which was hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, after a world tour where the picture drew large crowds. Due to Hunt’s increasing infirmity, he was assisted in the completion of this version by English painter Edward Robert Hughes. This painting inspired much popular devotion in the late Victorian period and inspired several musical works, including Sir Arthur Sullivan’s 1873 oratorio The Light of the World.
Associations between light and divinity make any form of lamp or torch symbolically protective. Lanthorns and other enclosed lights had particular emblematic meaning because of their role in combating the perils of the night outdoors.
In China, magic lanterns have been used for centuries in festivals to ward off evil spirits of misfortune.
Some early cultures appear to have used masks of animals they hunted in the belief that this would enable them to capture the animals’ spirits and prevent harm being caused. Others chose powerful animals as totemic protective symbols and wore imitative masks of them in shamanic ritual and dance to scare off enemies, human or supernatural. The festival masks that are still used in Asian lion and dragon dances have protective rather than aggresive meaning.
Other ways of masking the face or body could also acquire protective symbolism. Hence the aura of the legendary cloak that confers invisibility on the heroes of Celtic and Teutonic myths.
The nun’s veil symbolizes protection as well as separation from the ordinary world. The custom of wearing it may derive from the veils worn by consecrated virgins in temples of the ancient world.
The idea that knots could block evil led to them becoming symbols of protection in Islam, where complex knot designs are sometimes found carved into the walls of palaces. Knotting a beard was thought to frustrate demons. The same symbolism may explain why, in northern Europe, superstitious fishermen used the knots in handkerchiefs – apparently to block bad weather.
In topology, a branch of mathematics, the trefoil knot is the simplest example of a nontrivial knot. The trefoil can be obtained by joining together the two loose ends of a common overhand knot, resulting in a knotted loop. As the simplest knot, the trefoil is fundamental to the study of mathematical knot theory, which has diverse applications in topology, geometry, physics, chemistry and magic. The trefoil knot is named after the three-leaf clover (or trefoil) plant.
Making the sign of the cross by touching the forehead, breast and each shoulder was originally a symbol of Christian faith and a gesture of benediction or conclusion to prayer. But its superstitious use to ward of bad luck or invoke good luck became so popular that the Church, particularly the Protestant Church, later tried to discourage it.
The same gesture was already in use among Jewish worshippers before the birth of Jesus, when it imitated the T-shape of the magnificent temple built 29-9BCE in Jerusalem by Herod the Great.
Various hand gestures have also been used historically to represent the Sign of the Cross.
The protective symbolism of the crescent or horned moon which appears widely in Egyptian iconography as well as in Islamic art, appears to be the origin of the horseshoe’s popularity as a charm against evil and ill fortune. For good luck, the horns must point upward so that the horseshoe forms a containing shape. Superstitious sailors believe nailing a horseshoe to the mast will help their vessel avoid storms. Britain’s Admiral Nelson’s ship Victory is said to have sailed into battle with a horseshoe nailed to the mast.
The horseshoe is presented as a talisman in The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil; Showing how the Horse-Shoe came to be a Charm against Witchcraft, written in 1871 by Edward G. Flight, with illustrations by George Cruikshank and engravings by John Thompson.
The moon goddess Hecate was credited with protecting Byzantium in 341BCE when a crescent moon suddenly broke through the clouds above the city as hostile Macedonian forces were approaching under the cover of darkness. Defenders manned the walls and the attack was repelled. To commemorate Hecate, a crescent and star image was stamped on the city’s coinage. The decorative device continued to be popular and was adopted centuries later by the Turks and many subsequent Islamic nations, with protective and other symbolic meanings.
In art and symbolism, a crescent is generally the shape produced when a circular disk has a segment of another circle removed from its edge, so that what remains is a shape enclosed by two circular arcs of different diameters which intersect at two points (usually in such a manner that the enclosed shape does not include the center of the original circle).
In astronomy, a crescent is the shape of the lit side of a spherical body (most notably the Moon) that appears to be less than half illuminated by the Sun as seen by the viewer. Mathematically, assuming the terminator lies on a great circle, such a crescent will actually be the figure bounded by a half-ellipse and a half-circle, with the major axis of the ellipse coinciding with a diameter of the semicircle. The direction in which the “horns” (the points at the intersection of the two arcs) face indicates whether a crescent is waxing (also young, or increasing) or waning (also old, or decreasing). Eastward pointing horns (pointing to the left, as seen from the Northern hemisphere) indicate a waxing crescent, whereas westward pointing horns (pointing to the right, as seen from the Northern hemisphere) indicate a waning crescent. Note that the directions the horns point relative to the observer are reversed in the Southern hemisphere.
The word crescent is derived etymologically from the present participle of the Latin verb crescere “to grow”, thus meaning “waxing” or “increasing”, and so was originally applied to the form of the waxing moon (luna crescens). The English word is now commonly used to refer to either the waxing or waning shape. In the technical language of blazoning used in heraldry, the word “increscent” refers to a crescent shape with its horns to the left, and “decrescent” refers to one with its horns to the right.
The crescent is one of the oldest symbols known to humanity. Together with the sun, it appeared on Akkadian seals as early as 2300 BC and from at least the second millennium BC it was the symbol of the Mesopotamian Moon gods Nanna in Sumer and Sin in Babylonia, Sin being the “Lamp of Heaven and Earth”. The crescent was well known in the Middle East and was transplanted by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC as far as Carthage (now in Tunisia). The crescent and star also appears on pre-Islamic coins of South Arabia.