Symbols and star signs – the arch deciphered

01/09/2016

The mastermind of the Painted Hall, Sir James Thornhill, crowded his paintings with figures from Greek mythology, and the proscenium arch continues this Greek theme into its gilded zodiac figures. Greek mythology was intensely popular among the aristocrats of Thornhill’s day, and, as constellations of stars, had also been of practical use in the careers of the naval pensioners – retired British sailors of the Royal Navy – for whom the hall was built.

But to the modern eye, the figures in the arch seem strange and much of their meaning is obscured.

Reading the arch, mapping the stars

From the lower hall, you can read the arch’s zodiac symbols from left to right: Virgo, Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, and Aries, the same order as in the zodiac calendar. This is also the order of these symbols’ constellations in the night sky, and the background of stars against which the symbols are set further emphasises that the arch is a simplified 'star map'.

This explains why only six symbols appear in the arch, just half of the zodiac calendar: they are all constellations appearing in the northern hemisphere, which was more familiar to the retired sailors who dined in this hall. Loving attention has also been made to depict the symbols in the shape of their constellations. Only the upper torso and head of Taurus, for example, is shown, matching its constellation, which depicts only Taurus’ horns and hooves. Sitting on Taurus’ eye is the red star Aldebaran, again a reference to the constellation.

Myth and symbolism

Several of the star signs are from well-known episodes in Greco-Roman mythology. Leo, for example, is often associated with the Nemean Lion, the slaying of which was one of Hercules’ 12 labours. Taurus, similarly, represents the story of Zeus and Europa. Enamoured by the beautiful Europa, Zeus transformed into a bull and carried her to the island of Crete to seduce her. The waves of the sea lap around Taurus’ waist in the arch’s depiction, which may be a reference to this story.

Other symbols are less well-known. Virgo, for example, shares the same attributes – her angel’s wings, an ear of wheat, and a palm branch – with the lesser-known Greek goddess of justice Dike (Justicia in ancient Rome).

But many of these star signs also bore meaning for notoriously superstitious sailors. Gemini – at the cusp of the arch – represents Castor and Pollux, twin brothers who were patrons of sailors. It was believed that the Gemini were responsible for St Elmo’s fire, a weather phenomenon of luminous 'fire' that sometimes occurs thunderstorms at sea.

Mars and Minerva

Sitting atop the arch is the coat of arms of William III and Mary II – the co-monarchs who commissioned the Hall, flanked by the deities Mars and Minerva.

These figures, important deities in Greek and Roman religion, carried a strong message about the power and strength of William and Mary. Both were symbolic of military might, and Minerva also of wisdom and strategy, and, along with the rest of the lower Painted Hall, drew attention to the image of unopposed rule and military strength that the monarchs wished to present.

Furthermore, as one was male and one female, and they were regarded as equals, it is possible these two gods represented William and Mary themselves.

Support this monument

Not only is the arch an impressive feature, but it is also an important and meaningful artistic work, and a crucial part of the Painted Hall. Help us conserve it by donating to our crowdfunding and spreading the word.

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