The Society for Emblem Studies

Emblem of the Month

Emblem of the Month n. 004


© Trustees of the British Museum. Click on image to access the object.


Oliver Cromwell Between Two Pillars


The exhibition held now at the British Library « Magna Carta : Law, Liberty, Legacy » offers an understanding of both the significant legacy of Magna Carta and how it influences later developments in British history and beyond. During the 17th century, Magna Carta was not only used as a legal document but also as a symbol against tyranny. As shown in several examples of sketches of regimental banners used during English Civil Wars, parliamentary flags sometimes include in their design a scroll bearing the inscription « Magna Carta », meant to embody the protection of the rights of the subject against royal oppression. A scroll, bearing the inscription « Magna Charta » appears as a symbol in one of the most impressive examples of emblematic print of the time : a large-scale political engraving, which was sold as a broadsheet (56 x 42 cm) entitled : The Embleme of Englands Distractions as also her attained, and further expected Freedome, & Happines Per H.M. 1658. This symbol is part of a wider programme, composed of more than forty visual and verbal components : scrolls, banners, ribbons, crowns, monuments and symbolic scenes.  The symbolic montage is an assemblage of different spare parts and the print shows a tension between two polarities : the unity of the whole and the discontinuity of each of its components. Reading this piece involves the viewer’s eye and wit as he needs to give sense to the overall logic of the portrait : each detachable symbolic part shows one of the several facets of the Lord Protector. The way in which the architectural setting of the print highlights the glorious acts of the hero should first be described, as it offers an itinerary to enter the symbolic space of the engraving.

Cromwell in glory is represented standing between two Tuscan columns, trampling with one foot between the bare breasts of the prostrate Whore of Babylon, represented as a multi-headed dragon labelled Error and Faction. He thus stands in armour as a new Hercules or as a new victorious saint over the dragon. The upper part of the sheet is devoted to the divine. Over his head, is a dove with olive-branch in its beak : the dove comes down from a beaming sun, containing the Greek motto : Mono to theo doxa (Honor to God alone). The sun and dove are circled by two ribbons in horseshoe form and these two phylacters bear two biblical verses that can be understood as a dialogue between Cromwell and God : from the top of his sword, near the uppermost crown, the legend reads « I will never faile thee, nor forsake thee », the godly answer, written on the same scroll, is continued on the right : « Bee still and know that I am God » and the end of the second scroll is entering the porch of a church which stands on the abacus of the left pillar, with the motto « Floreant Protector ex Parliamentum Angliae etc. » (« etc. » standing for Scotiae et Hibernae). On the top of the left pillar, a two faces monument shows, united, a chapel (symbol of the Parliament House) and a castellated building, which is a stylized version of Cromwell’s own castellated house in Whitehall. As Karl Josef Höltgen has noticed, the close vicinity of these two recognizable buildings on the top of the left column is meant to signify the strong alliance between the Parliament and the Protector.

Three different sections are distinct in this elaborate composition : the upper register, deals with the intervention of the divine and its representation : from the radiant sun in the middle to the faced sun that stares down onto Noah’s ark washed up on the top ot Mount Ararat on the left side and to the blowing wind whirling down to another depiction of Noah’s ark, tempest-tossed, on the right side, between Charybdis and Scylla. Noah’s ark is a long-standing traditional depiction of the ships of state and church. It represents the community of the saved and redeemed. The ship appears early as a metaphor for the protective character of religious belief in the Old Testament’s story of Noah’s ark. The Ark landed on the mountains of Ararat Here, the Lord Protector, himself under the protection of God, represents the warrant of the safe haven of Christianity, a vessel that God chaperoned through great dangers. The mixture of heathen mythology (the sea monsters Charybdis and Scylla are taken from Homer’s Odyssey) and biblical story was common then in early modern maps.

Next to the cipher of Oliver Cromwell -the initials of his name being adorned by two icons of the sun (O) and the moon (C)- inscribed into a laurel’s wreath, the scene of Abraham sacrifice of his son Isaac has been associated with the toponym Moria.

The middle register is saturated with flags and banners : their deployment is meant to celebrate the Lord Protector installation and the glorious actions associated with his reign. Between the two pillars, Oliver Cromwell is himself the pillar of the State : he upholds in his right hand a sword adorned with three crowns. The triple crowned sword refers to the three panels of the right pillar, where three crowned human figures kneeling offer with both hands a civic wreath to Cromwell. England, Scotland and Ireland pay hommage to their protector, while the flags of St George, St Andrew and the Irish flag, with harp of Ireland, are displayed from the sides of the panels. The three heraldic shields of the right pillar, the one surmounted with a stylised representation of the Parliament house and Cromwell’s own castellated mansion express a clear message : Cromwell is the saviour and protector of the three British monarchies now united under his sceptre.

The left pillar is more inventive as it commemorates the thanksgiving to the sovereign ruler of the three kingdoms by showing the symbols of his legacy. The left pillar is surmounted with a civic wreath, within which are the sun resplendent and crescent : it shows the four main achievements of the Protector. On the right side of Cromwell, stands a winged allegory of Fame (a Roman Victory) which serves as a herald blowing into a flag trumpet holding the standard flag of the Lord Protector from 1655 to 1659, in which the cross of St George was quartered with the cross of St Andrew, the Irish Harp and the red cross. Four scrolls reinvent the cardinal virtues and the basic principles of the Republic : the first reads « Constantia, Fortitudo ». The side banner departing from this first scroll is filled with the personal coat of arms borne by Oliver Cromwell.

The names of these two virtues (Constance and Courage) were also written on the two columns of the device of the Emperor Charles V of Spain, one of the two columns being surmounted by an imperial wreath and the other column, by the royal wreath, with the motto Plus ultra Carolum Carolus (Charles will go further than Charles). The second scroll is as elliptic as the first, it reads three words« Lex Corona Columna » and this juxtaposition of terms is not easily understandable. If we link the scroll to the banner standing next to it (whic read « Honos pro bonis ») it could be understood as a hint to a Pythagorean symbol, « Coronam ne carpito » (« Do not snipe at the crown ») and would then refer to the own decision of the Protector who refused to be crowned as a king, the text of the symbol explains :

Divine Jerome thinks that this means that the laws of cities must be observed, not violated nor criticized. After all, good law is the city’s crown, by which it is better ruled than by a good king. [1] 

On the third scroll, the classical motto is easier to interpret : « Salus populi suprema lex (esto) » (the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law, Cicero, De legibus III, 3, 8). The Ciceronian maxim became a much quoted doctrine by Cromwell as it was often used in his Remonstrances to provide moral authority fot the attack of the Army on the King : the maxim claimed that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, there being merely a contract between ruler and ruled, which, if broken (as Charles Ist had done) entitled them to revolt. Salus populi suprema lex was also engraved, as his own motto, on the banners floating over his funeral monument : it was an explicit anti-royalist maxim, a classical embodiment of Parliamentarian resistance theory, which was to replace the former principle of royal authority and sovereignty. The banner associated to this maxim reads « Salva sit Insula Legibus Munita » (May this island be saved by the protection of laws). The side banner always heralds a wish for the fate of the British State, whereas the scroll shows the letter of a firm principle, strongly defended by the Lord Protector. At the very bottom of the column, next to its base grounded in Mons Sion, the last scroll displays the words « Magna Charta ». During the 17th century, it was used by the opponents of King Charles I to regulate the arbitrary use of royal authority. The lawyer Edward Coke declared that « Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign ». In the print, it is litterally depicted as a the cornerstone of English liberties, as an ancient defence against arbitrary and tyrannical rulers. The side banner reads « Ex Charta Charitas » as the Latin noun caritas « dearness, love » though a false but widely entertained etymology was supposed to derive from the Greek « charis » (charm) and hence mispelled « charitas ».

In his left hand, he holds an open volume bearing the legend « Tollo, perlego, protego ». (I support, read over and protect). The other motto, next to Cromwell’s sword, is a significant variation upon the classical « Pro Rege, Lege et Grege », (« For the King, Law and People », i.e. for ruler, rule and ruled) : his motto makes the King reference disappear.

The celebration of Sir Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector dates back to 1658. In the 1660s, he will later be subject to a particularly fierce denunciation of his regicide and vilified as a wicked murderer and godless usurpator. In 1658, the great man had reached the peak of power and prestige, after his refusal of the kinship ans his second installation as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657. The emblematic portrait refers to this particular moment and, as Karl Josef Höltgen has demonstrated [2], if « its political message has been overlooked or misunderstood », it is a « deliberate and very elaborate piece of visual-verbal propaganda for the Lord Protector » and the emblematical composition « makes a statement of regal or imperial claims ». Cromwellian iconography dwells on royal or imperial iconography, and the main architectural setting of the print, underlined by the unofficial name of the print « Cromwell Between Two Pillars » recalls the imperial device showing the two pillars of Hercules with the motto « Non plus ultra » (Not any further). Cromwell, new English Hercules, had to deploy terror against the many-headed hydra and the person of the Lord Protector was often likened to Hercules or as a « parliamentary Hercules ».

The bottom register offers a vivid landscape of nine emblematic scenes scattered around both rocks surmounted by the two pillars. The overall composition sets out a contrast between the edenic Mount Sion, where the people lives happily under the protection of Cromwell and the right pillar, left to the threat of enemies, traitors and plotters. Behind the standing protector, an army is displayed in marching order, ready for battle with the motto « Vis unita fortior » (United strength is stronger).

Start with the « peace » pillar. At the bottom, the rock is labelled « Mount Sion », as this place was used by many Old Testament prophets as a symbolic term to coin a place of peace and righteousness. Mount Sion stands as a shelter for virtuous actions and peaceful achievements : below, a shepherd rests beneath an olive tree : the motto Oliva Pacis refers to a poetic volume presented to Oliver Cromwell in 1654 bearing the same title [3]. The eulogistic book was written to congratulate the Protector in undertaking the charge of the State and concluding peace with the Dutch. The contributors all belonged to a circle of poets of the University of Cambridge. The two verses subscriptio, beneath the title of the print, repeat the pun on the Protector’s name « Pacis Oliva, sibi vere Olivarius erit ». Cromwell is celebrated as a peacemaker and he is thought to bear in his own name this particular power.

Two other peaceful scenes, engraved on both sides of the title of the print, are related as they depict two verses of Isaiah 2:4 : « They shall beat their speares into Pruning hooks » and « And their Swords into Ploughshares ». The biblical quote is cut into two halves and illustrates well the wish of freedom and happiness expressed by the central title. The global meaning of these two scenes is made explicit by the full reading of the biblical verse : « nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore ». Iniquity has to be defeated and it is the Lord Protector who  is said to oversee this process of restoring a destructive past.

Alciato’s emblem « Ex Bello Pax », (From war comes Peace) where bees make their hive into the old helmet of war, gives a symbolic form to the same idea (bottom left corner). If we consider the defiant motto chosen by Oliver Cromwell, « Pax quaeritur in bello » (peace in sought in war), this quotation from the prophet Isaïah seems to embody an irenic ideal, cultivated by such a veteran in arms, consummately practiced in the exigencies of war.

By contrast, the rock of the right pillar is parted in two sections : on the left, three men are cutting with scissors the trees of an orchard whereas on the right side, a cave opens up on barrels and faggots ready to be ignited by a man using a pair of bellows ( with the motto « uror dum alii non uruntur » (I burn whilst the other won’t burn) and four traitors (« proditores » says the motto) are actively destroying the foundations of the state with pick-axes. Karl-Josef Höltgen has noted the topical context of these details : several explicit allusions are made here, to the Levellers and to the most dangerous enemies of the Protector, namely Sindercombe, and his plot to blow Cromwell to bits which failed. The evilness of these would-be-assassins are made all the more visible as two of them are dog-headed and fox-headed, with the motto « Latrant latrones » (Brigands bark).

During the ceremony of his second installment as Lord Protector (26 June 1657), the Speaker of the Parliament (Sir Thomas Widdrington) addressed himself to Cromwell in a solemn speech and one of the objects given to him was a sword « not a Military but a Civil Sword ; a Sword rather for a Defence than an Offence (…) an Emblem of Justice ». The Speaker added : « If I might presume to fix a Motto upon this Sword, it should be this : Ego sum Domini Protectoris ad protegendum populum meum [4] » (I am the Protector, to protect my people). The inventor of this elaborate print creates a well articulated symbolism which adds a verbal-visual programme to the celebration of the Lord Protector’s inauguration. There was a fine medal struck on this occasion, engraved by Simmonds, which had on one side the bust of Oliver and round it an olive-tree flourishing, in a field, with the motto « Non deficient Olivae », dates 3 September 1658. The large sheet print enables the emblematic portrait to associate many more facets of the heroic protector : shields, banners and scrolls concur to celebrate Cromwell, at the height of his grandeur and power, but at the same time, the right pillar shows the misfortunes and conspiracies threatening this irenic ideal. Emblematic allusions are often topical and challenging. The motto written underneath the scene depicting the sacrifice of Abraham, « Moria » has for instance led some interpreters to seek far-fetched allusions :

Somewhat more puzzling, however, – even sinister – is the third scene, the Sacrifice of Isaac, with Jacob his sword poised about to decapitate the boy – surely this cannot allude to the beheading of Charles I some nine years earlier? The summit on which the terrible deed is about to be done is labelled Moria – unless this Greek name (famously and punningly used by Sir Thomas More in his Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly) was instead intended not as a place-name, but as an allusion to the folly of such an act? [5] 

« Moria » (in terram Moriae) is nothing else but the name of the mountain where Abraham  was about to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22 :12). According to St John Chrysostome, Saint Jerome and the Church Fathers, the toponym « Moriah » means « acute vision » and that is the reason why it has been sometimes translated by « terram lucidam ».


Valérie Hayaert
(Institut des Hautes Études sur la Justice, Paris)



[1] Christopher S. Celenza, Piety and Pythagoras in Renaissance Florence : The Symbolum Nesianum, Brill, 2001, p. 109, n° 12.

[2] Karl Josef Höltgen, « Early Modern English Emblematic title-pages and their cultural context » in Entree aus Schrift und Bild, Verlag, Berlin, 2008, pp. 40- 79.

[3] Oliva Pacis ad illustrissimum celsissimumque Oliverum reipublicae Angliae, Scotiae, et Hiberniae Dominum Protectorem ; De Pace cum Foederatis Belgis feliciter sancita, Carmen Cantabrigiense, 1654.

[4] Quoted in The Life of Oliver Cromwel, Lord Protector of the Common-Wealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, London, Midwinter, 1743, p. 68.



4 Responses to “Emblem of the Month n. 004”

  1. Administrator

    Dear Valérie,

    Thank you so much for this excellent piece and your detailed interpretation of it. I am particularly interested in this kind of “complex emblems” (how I like to call the emblematic compositions that have other emblems inside) and how they are expected to be interpreted.
    By chance, after reading your article I came across a curious case of emblematic adulteration.

    In this later version of the engraving, the head of Oliver Cromwell is changed for that of William III. And I wonder about the purpose and implication of this ‘metamorphose’… Any thoughts?

    Again, thank you very much!


  2. Simon

    Thanks indeed, Valerie, for this piece.

    Concerning this adaptation of the plate for William III, Pedro, see Karl Josef Hoeltgen’s article “The Ruler between Two Columns: Imperial Aspirations and Political Iconography from the Emperor Charles V to William of Orange”. This was published in the Festschrift Emblem Studies in Honor of Peter M. Daly, ed. Michael Bath, Pedro Campaign and Daniel Russell (Baden-Baden: Vale tin Verlag, 2002, pp. 143-168).

  3. Administrator

    Dear Simon,

    Thanks for that – I have just borrowed the book from Rubem Amaral and I will have a look. That’s a quite interesting subject!

    Rubem brought another interesting point to my attention: The quote from the bpi1700 (footnote 5), states that Moria was a name “famously and punningly used by Sir Thomas More in his Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly”. It happens that Encomium Moriae was written by Erasmus, while he was visiting Thomas More. “Moriae”, in this sense, would be the latinized dative of More – and, at the same time, a punning with “mora, morae”. This is MORE or less clear in Erasmus dedication: “Vale, disertissime More, et Moriam tuam gnauiter defende.”



  4. Rabeb

    Dear Mme Valérie Hayaert,
    Thank you very much for this detailed analysis of the painting. It did help me so much in understanding such a heavy picture with various element and unclear Latin inscriptions . Thank you again .

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