Symbol of the Month – The All Seeing Eye

Poking about in churchyards as is my wont is how I discover symbols to write about. So it was while exploring 2 churchyards in Kent that I discovered this month’s symbol.

This is the All Seeing Eye, also known as The Eye of Providence, and is usually depicted as a single realistic eye within a triangle or within a burst of light. I’ve always associated it with Freemasons as it appears on their documents.  But neither of these headstones had any other symbols often linked with Freemasons such as the square and compass.  So what did it mean?

The one in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford had what looked like two snakes bordering it together with other familiar memento symbols. Sadly the epitaph is now illegible. 

The second one is in the churchyard of All Saints in Frindsbury and this intriguing version on the grave of the Caryer family.   The Kent Archaeological Society thought that it might represent the Woman of Samuria as featured in John 4.4-26 but I’m not sure about that.  The epitaph reads:


To the memory of

Hannah wife of John Caryer

Died 9th Sept 1809 aged 30 years

Also Robert her son

Died 28th June 1801 aged 8 years

Also the above John Caryer

Died 11th March 1814 aged (4)2 years.’

The Supper at Emmaus by Jocopo Pontormo dated 1525, shared under Wiki Creative Commons

The earliest known representation of The Eye is in a painting called ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by the Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo in 1525. This was painted during the Renaissance and it depicts the second part of the Second Appearance story in Luke 24: verses 13.35: 

And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

As you can see the Eye is above Christ’s head which shows that God is watching the event and so can be seen as a Christian symbol.  On the Ancient Origins website it’s claimed that

‘the elements surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning. For example, the triangle surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning in that it’s a clear reference to the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The burst of light is meant to symbolise divinity, holiness and God himself’

Within the Bible there are many references to The Eye in the context of God keeping watch and observing in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus and also from  Psalms 33: verse 18:

‘The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven:
his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him,
upon them that hope in his mercy . . . . 

The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous,
and his ears are open unto their cry.’

The Wadjet/udjat Eye of Horus pendant, Cairo Museum, Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

But older religions and faiths such as Hinduism and the Ancient Egyptians also had an eye symbol that was central to their beliefs.

In Egypt it was known as the Eye of Horus. Even today it’s still used as an emblem of protection and good health. The Eye was also known as a wadjet (the whole one), wedjat or udjat.  Sailors would often paint the Eye of Horus on the prows of their ships to ensure a safe voyage. I’m sure that I’ve seen this on a boat or two in some of Hollywood’s classic sword and sandal epics!  The depiction of the Eye of Horus is said to resemble the markings on a falcon’s eye due to the teardrop marking which is sometimes found below the eye as here.  This would make sense as Horus is usually shown as a falcon. There are several myths about Horus and his eye. For instance, in one of them Horus fought with Set who gouged out Horus’s left eye which was later restored by the goddess Hathor.

The All Seeing Eye on a US one dollar bill. Shared under Wiki Creative Commons.

The Eye also appears on the US one dollar bill.  But it made its first appearance as a Freemason symbol on the personal seal of Robert Moray (1609-1673) who was a Scottish Freemason. Then during the 18th century it appeared again in two Freemason books, one of which was Thomas Smith Webb’s ‘Freemasonry Monitor’ and, by the 19th century, it had become part of the permanent hieroglyphical emblems of the Freemasons.    There are other associations with the Illuminati and, if you’re interested, there is more information online.

But with these two All Seeing Eye symbols I think that they were meant, as they often are, to be a comforting message.  The All Seeing Eye meant that the departed were being watched over and so were the bereaved.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading (this has some more examples from around the world.)



Symbol of the Month – the square and compass

This example is from Brompton Cemetery and is dedicated to a woman.
©Carole Tyrrell

The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings.  The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God.  However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation.  But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade

The Freemason association is the most obvious and common.  They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people.  But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’

‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’

 They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’

They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons.  Wikipedia says ‘

‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct  as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866

 in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’

 There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.

But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:

something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’

They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form.  So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.

But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not.  There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.

You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:

I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.

 ©Text and photos unless otherwise stated Carole Tyrell

Further reading and references:

Long-winded but worth a look