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An Iranian Standard used as a Christian Symbol


By: Anne Roes


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The Crown of Queen Elizabeth II, manufactured in 1937

The cross on the top of the crown has strikingly resemblance, as it was copied form the ancient Iranian flag


The white saltire of St. Andrew  

One would naturally expect that the standards of the Christian emperors of Rome, which are often represented on Roman coins, would be decorated with well-known Christian symbols, and that they would show the cross when not the monogram. In fact part of them do bear the emblems we expect, but certainly not all: a great number of the banners show devices we never learned to look upon as Christian. Very frequent, for instance, is a big circle, or two concentric circles;[1] a combination of five small circles,[2] or four small ones arranged round a big circles[3] is not rare either; frequent also is a design consisting of two diagonals (Fig. I).


When we come to study the subject, we see that the literature about the labarum, abundant as it is, does not help us much. Eusebius in his famous description of the banner of Constantine tells us nothing about the vexillum, beyond the fact that the cloth was hidden under precious stones.[4] Consequently the attention of scholars was not drawn to the vexillum; it used to be concentrated upon the shaft and the form of the monogram. Nor do numismatic works aid us in this matter: they do not distinguish between the various forms of the standards, but call them all labarum. To make a study of all the different early Christian banners is beyond me at present; I will only speak about the last type I mentioned. It consists of a vexillum on which the diagonals are indicated; in the four sections thus formed four balls are sometimes added.[5] Tassels occasionally fringe the lower edge of the cloth. It occurs on the coins of many Roman emperors of the IVth  and the Vth  centuries; on going through the imperial coins in the British Museum I found it on those of Constantius II, Valentinianus, Jovianus, Gratianus, Valens, Arcadius, Constantine III, Jovinus, Theodosius I, Eugenius, and Theodosius II.


At a much later period it came again into use in the East; several Byzantine emperors of the IXth and Xth centuries, as pictured on their coins, hold the very same standard with or without the four balls and the heavy tassels.[6] This reappearance in the middle ages clearly shows that the standard, although never commented upon by the writers of handbooks and encyclopedias, was a Christian symbol still considered holy by the Byzantine church. The emblem was not confined to the standard alone: the rectangle with its diagonals and the four dots occasionally has a prominent place in the decoration of the robes of the emperors;[7] this shows that the rectangular frame was not merely the border of the vexillum, as one might be inclined to think, but that it formed part of the symbol itself. The cross in the nimbus of Christ may also be found ornamented with this design.[8]


We may add that this is not the only one of the standards mentioned above that still survived in Byzantine days: the vexillum with the one big circle[9] and that with the four or five small circles[10] also reappear on the coins of the Byzantine emperors. Consequently all of them, strange as it may appear to us, must have been considered as Christian in early days. Although standard and emblem may surprise us on late imperial coins, neither of them is entirely unknown. Our standard can already be seen on the coins of Persepolis.[11] These coins, dating from the 3rd and the 2nd centuries B.C., show a temple, on one side of' which the king is seen holding up his hand in adoration, while on the other side we see the standard, often with a bird perched on it (Fig. 2 ); apparently it was the sacred banner of the Persepolitan kingdom. Again we meet with the fact that sometimes four balls are put between the diagonals and sometimes not; the heavy tassels also are added on some coins and omitted on others.


It would still be impossible to write a history of standards in the Iranian world, for unfortunately we still know very little about the Iranians. Yet from time to time this particular banner reappears, to show that it had not been forgotten. On coins of Augustus, struck in memory of the rendering of Crassus's lost standards by the Parthians, we see a Parthian kneeling;[12] he offers a standard to the Romans, who did not appear on the picture. With its metal disks and half-moon the object looks exactly like the well-known legionary-standards, but the vexillum attached to its lower part has an unusual aspect. Sometimes a decussated cross is pictured on it, and sometimes the diagonals of the rectangle are clearly indicated; on one of the coins in the British Museum the design consists of four small circles. Domaszewki believed the vexillum to bear the number X;[13] this is impossible, for not only is the indication of any special number hard to explain in this case, but from the aforesaid we have seen that the cross alternates with the diagonals and the four balls, so that it cannot have been a Roman letter. It looks more as if the designer was asked to represent a Roman standard with a Parthian vexillum attached to it, in order to put a greater stress on the submission of the Parthians. It is extremely curious that we meet on this vexillum three different designs that are also found on early Christian banners. On Christian monuments the X is usually explained as the first letter of the name of Christ; from what we saw this explanation may be wrong, or only partly right, in so far that the emblem may afterwards have been identified with the monogram.


The next time we meet the Iranian standard it is on the coins of M. Aurelius. In memory of a Sarmatian victory a ' tropaeum de Sarmatis ' is represented on some of them:[14]  from the top of a pile of armour the banner with the diagonals is seen emerging. Probably it was common to a great part of the Iranian world. We have another, much earlier indication that the use of this type of banner was not confined to Persia. On Gaulish coins we frequently see a driver standing in a chariot that is drawn by a horse with a human head. He is generally explained as a sun-god, because of the many solar symbols by which he is accompanied.


In most cases he holds in one hand a pole or a long rope to which a rectangle with diagonals is attached (Fig. 3 ).[15] Often heavy tassels are hanging from it, the same as we saw it on Persepolitan, Roman and Byzantine coins. 

Two other types of vexilla we have spoken about also appear on these coins in the same connexion; there is one example of the crux decussata[16] and one of the four small circles.[17] In itself it is by no means impossible that the Celts were acquainted with Persian standards, for there were certainly relations between Gaul and the Iranians, as is proved by the various motives their arts have in common.[18]


That the standard goes back to a still earlier period is shown by the fact that it already appears in Greek geometric art, in which, as I have tried to show, many old Iranian motives can be detected.[19] It is confined to Argive geometric vases, and it generally appears underneath a horse, as if the horse had some connexion with it. These are, as far as I know, the earliest instances of the standard; the emblem itself, however, is much older. Herzfeld published a number of Iranian button seals, dating from the end of the Neolithic or the beginning of the Chalcolithic period,[20] which are ornamented with different symbols, almost all of which persisted for thousands of years. We can, for instance, mention the swastika and its different variants, the equal-armed cross, the cross with the filled-up corners, the rosette with six petals, and the quatrefoil. Among them are also the two designs given in Fig. 4; they are the same as those of our standard.

There is another instance of the symbol that deserves to be mentioned, not because it is very old, but because of its apparent connexion with another symbol we meet in early Christian art. On an electron coin of uncertain provenance from Asia Minor we see on one side the decussated cross ending in pommels and on the other our familiar emblem (Fig. 5).[21]

When speaking about the standard on geometric vases, I had already supposed that the symbol had a solar character, just like the wheel with the four spokes and the four dots between them.[22] In fact it often occurs among other symbols of the sun; so on the prehistoric Iranian seals, on Greek geometric pottery and on the Celtic coins.


If I am right, it follows that the early Christian church adapted an Iranian standard for her own use. This standard probably was a solar symbol, and as such its adoption by the Christian church can also best be explained. For in the early Christian period a certain relationship must have been felt between Christianity and the cult of the sun, not only by pagan,[23] but also by Christians. Baynes sees in it the personal influence of Constantine the Great. in whose mind the solar god came afterwards to be identified with Christ.[24] This may be true, but, of course, the identification could hardly have had any lasting results, had not Christianity taken as a whole shared his feelings and had it not felt that its religion was in certain respects related to the then popular solar cult. This being so, it is not to be wondered at when solar symbols of the Iranian East, with which the Christian church had more things in common,[25] were used before the cross of the crucifixion became the universal emblem. It is very possible that the other early Christian banners we were unable to explain also had a solar meaning.


The two concentric circles certainly stood for the sun in many cases,[26] and can hardly be explained otherwise when they appear on the standards.


It is interesting to note that Deonna came to the same conclusion with regard to the more ornamental side of early Christian symbolism: he says that all the crosses, rosaces, whirl motives and six-petalled stars with which Christian monuments and objects are often decorated allude to Christ, the sun of righteousness.[27]


The banners we have spoken about were afterwards disused, with perhaps one exception. It is possible that the Iranian standard still survives in the Scottish flag, which is said to go back to a very early period.[28] This flag shows white diagonals on a blue ground; they are explained either as the decussated cross on which St. Andrew was crucified, or as a saltire, an instrument for scaling walls. These explanations must be wrong, because the diagonals do not stand for a concrete object. So it right be, although it cannot be proved, that in the white saltire of St. Andrew we still have a reminiscence of the old standard of the Persepolitan kingdom.


[1] See for inst. Cohen, Mkd. imp., VII, p. 421. n. r I 3; p. 469, n. 193 ; Gnecchi, Medaglioni romanz, I, pl. 30, 12, 13; pl. 32, 15; Catal. Hess, 1917, pl. XX, 4459, xxi, 4474.

[2] Gnecchi, op. cit., p. 13, j ; Maurice, ?lumism. constantinienne, pl. xiii, 6; Catal. Hamburger, 1923, pl. 56, 1365.

[3] Gnecchi, op. cit., pl. rg, 15; pl. 33, 14.

[4] The portraits of the emperor and his sons were attached to the shaft of the labarum, not to the

vexillurn; compare Franchi de' Cavalieri, Studi Romanz, I, p. I 70.

[5] Cohen, VII, p, gr, n. 30; p. 109, n. 40; p. 132, n. 51; Catal. Hess, 1917, pl. xxii, 4574, 4605; I 929, pl. 23, 982; 1933, pl. 32, 1108.

[6] BM Imp. Bye. Coins, 11, pl. li, 14, 15; pl. lii, 7.

[7] Sabatier, Monn. by<. pl. lr, 7 ; Ivi, 13; lvii, 13, 22 ; lviii, 6; Ixv, 6.

[8] Sabatier, pl. xlviii, 2 ; BM Imp Byr. Coins, 11, pi. lvii, 3.

[9] Sabatier, pl. xlix, 13; lii, 9; liii, 2, and elsewhere.

[10] Sabatier, pl. xlix, 3, 4, 10, 16; xliii, 14; xlvii, 15; 1, 6; li, 4, 8, 13.

[11] BM Persis, pl. xxviii, 7-11; xxix, 1-12 ; XXX, 1-8; lii, 11, 12.

[12] Cohen, I, p. 133, 483-485.

[13] Dornaszewski, Die Fahnen im rom. Heere, 1885, p. 46.

[14] Cohen, 111, p. 19,n. I 74.

[15] De la Tour, Atlas des monn. gaul., pl, xxi, 6493, 6522, 6527, 6533; pl. xxiii, 6833, etc.; Hucher, L'art gaulois, I, I, 2; 6, I ; etc. On the coin shown in 11, p. 58, fig. 81, a wheel with four

spokes takes the place of the rectangle.

[16] Hucher, I, pl. 83, 2.

[17] Hucher, I, pl. 83, 3.

[18] Jacobsthal, Einige U7erke kelt. Kunst (Die Antike, 1934, p. 39), after pointing out different parallels between Iranian and Celtic animal motives concludes:" Schon diese wenigen Parallelen . . . stellen eine Beruhrung der friihen La T h e Kunst mit dem skythischen, thrakischen und iranischen Kreis sicher." Compare also Roes, Greek Geometric Art, p. 67 ff.

[19] Roes, op. cit., p. 32 ff. and fgs. 24-28.

[20] Herzfeld, Mitt. aus Iran, 1933, p. 88, fig. 15; p. 89, fig. 16; p. go, fig. 17.

[21] BM Greece, pl. i, 3. Another coin of the same description is in the Dublin collection. They date from the VIth century B.C.

[22] Roes, Greek Geometric Art, p. 34 ff.

[23] Tertullian, Apologeticum, XVI, g: Alii plane humanius et verisimilius solem credunt deum nostrum. Ad Persas, si forte, deputabimur, licet solem non in linteo depictum adoremus, habentes ipsum ubique in suo clupeo.

[24] Proc. Brzt. Acad. 1929, p. 440.

[25] Cumont, Textes et monuments, I, p. I 76; Gluck, Die Christl. h'unst. des Ostens, p. 7 f.

[26] King, Bronze Reliefs from the Gates of Shalnianeser, pl. xix, shows an Assyrian standard of this shape, undoubtedly meant for the sun-disk, with two tassels attached to it. In early Christian art it occurs on a wall painting at Doura; AJA 1933, p. 379, fig.

[27] Here the rays with which it is surrounded do not leave any doubt about its meaning. " Genava, 1929, p. 181 ff.

[28] MacMillan, Scottish Symbols, pp. 84,86 ; Seymour, The Cross in Tradition, History and Art, p. 366.



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