The Solomon’s Knot: a symbol of eternal union

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Solomon’s Knot is one of the most remarkable symbols in human history, used as a rich and fascinating symbolism and decorative motif in various cultural contexts. It is composed of two intertwined rings representing an eternal bond. It has crossed history with its geometric structure, meanings and inextricable enigmas.

Solomon's Knot
A representation of the Solomon’s Knot at the Domus dell’Ortaglia, Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia

Solomon’s Knot is represented in different forms. Sometimes the lines intertwine with each other in soft curves; other times the knot has a quadratic pattern or is structured in more complex intertwined rings. In all its forms Solomon’s Knot arouses great astonishment in us, as if it were a sudden manifestation of a hitherto concealed mystery. Its knotted ribbons raise questions of conscience never truly dormant: sighs of the intellect about destiny and freedom, about the relationship between man and the life to which he is inextricably bound.

Different types of Solomon’s Knot, Basilica of Saint Euphemia in Grado

Solomon’s knot has Celtic origins

Solomon’s Knot has an ancient origin. Findings in the Camonica Valley show a probable Celtic origin1. Knots and woven decorations were used in that context. The symbolic meaning is associated with the continuous change of natural elements through the repetition of the cycle of life. Solomon’s Knot is a figuration of the alternation of day and night, death and rebirth, good and evil. The ancient Celts conceived of existence as the eternal cycle of nature regenerating itself.

Solomon’s Knot in Roman and Early Christian period

The symbol later spread throughout Europe as the effect of cross-cultural contaminations. For example, after the Roman conquest of Gaul, the Solomon’s Knot was used in Italic territory as well. There are numerous depictions of the symbol in Roman mosaic floors since the 1st century AD. A distinctive example is at the Sanctuary of Minerva in Breno, in the province of Brescia (1st century). Solomon’s Knot is similarly traced at the Domus dell’Ortaglia of Brescia, in Pompeii and in Ostia Antica. The symbol assumed, among the Romans, an apotropaic value. Its presence ideally guaranteed the uninterrupted continuation of existence.

Solomon’s knot was later adopted into Christian exegesis for its deep symbolic meaning during the early Christian period. The knot therefore appeared in buildings of worship, as in the Basilica of San Vitale and the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Ravenna and in the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia.

Solomon's Knot
Solomon’s Knots (top right and bottom left) at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Ravenna

The symbol in the Middle Ages

The Solomon’s Knot was widely used in the Middle Ages. Some important monastic and Jerusalemite orders, during the Crusades, made its symbolism their own. Among them, the Cistercian monks and the Knights Templar played a leading role in transmitting the values associated with the Christian meaning of the symbol. Therefore, the Solomon’s Knot was depicted on columns and illuminated manuscripts in all parts of Europe. Likewise, it was spread to the Middle East probably by the Crusaders, who wanted to reconquer the Holy Land.

The Solomon’s Knot at the Rotunda of Saint Thomas (12th century) in Almenno San Salvatore (Bergamo)

About the name of the Solomon’s Knot

Solomon was the third king of Israel and the Holy Scriptures tell of his great deeds2, such as the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here, inside the Holy of Holies, was kept the Ark of the Covenant, the extraordinary relic of the Jewish people. It was a symbol of the deep relationship between God and man; it held the Tablets of the Law that God had delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Solomon’s wisdom

Solomon was also famous for his wisdom. The Bible tells of two young girls contending over who was the true mother of an infant, before the king. They had become parents almost simultaneously, but one of them had mistakenly smothered her child. She had thus taken possession of the other’s child by deception so well that no one could know the truth. Then Solomon affirmed that he would have divided the infant in half and would have given a part to each woman. One of them, weeping, immediately let the other woman keep the child. Thus Solomon understood who the real mother was: she was the one who had preferred to separate from her son rather than see him dead.

Solomon’s Knot in the Chapter House of Fossanova Abbey

The myth of Solomon in the Middle Ages

All these biblical stories contributed to the spread of the Solomon myth. In addition, during the Crusades some of the Jerusalemite orders, such as the Knights Templar, established their headquarters near the ancient site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem; their name was derived from that sacred building. The Temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times (finally by the Roman general Titus in A.D. 70), but this circumstance helped to feed the myth. Further, Solomon became the protagonist of several popular stories that attributed unlimited magical powers to him3.

In the Middle Ages, the person of the ancient Hebrew king had an apotropaic function. Ideally, it was sufficient to name him to ward off evil spells and ensure justice. The Solomon’s Knot had already been used for propitiatory and apotropaic purposes; therefore, it was renamed as the King. Also the use of the term “knot” is improper, since the correct and original meaning was that of Latin sigillum: a seal for assuring the good continuation of life.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. U. Sansoni, Il nodo di Salomone: simbolo e archetipo d’alleanza, Mondadori Electa, 1998. ↩︎
  2. Kings, 1. ↩︎
  3. Gregorio di Tours, Historia Francorum. ↩︎
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