The Wheel of Fortune, Medieval symbology

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Throughout human history, the symbol of the wheel, as a signifier of the vital cycles of the cosmos and nature, has had a constant and revelatory presence. The idea of a continuous return, of a cyclical time that regenerates everything, seems entrenched in the beliefs of a metaphysical order from the earliest times. Some examples are the ancient solar symbolism of the swastika, the spiral, or the Camunian rose. After all, the stars disappear and reappear in the sky, the seasons recur every year, darkness gives way to the light of dawn each morning, the beginning and the end coincide. Thus, time was perceived in the infinite apparent motion of the stars with the predetermined stages of becoming: birth, growth, decrease and death.

Similarly, the ancients believed that the cyclical cosmic movements – Aristotle called them translations in a circle1 – were the cause of all events, and consequently of human vicissitudes. This led to the concept of fortune. It is a fickle and unintelligible principle governing the world, the negative unpredictability of existence to which everyone is subject. This body of knowledge, known as the Wheel of Fortune, was enriched in the Middle Ages with figurative expressions and meanings from the Christian theology.

Wheel of Fortune
Rose window of Trento Cathedral, with the personification of fortune in the centre

The Medieval symbolism of the wheel of Fortune

The symbolic expression of the Wheel of Fortune is already found in the theological and philosophical writings of St Severinus Boethius. Boethius (480-524) made a decisive contribution to the definition of the Christian concept of fortune. He wrote in De Consolatione philosophiae: “Fate is that ordering which is a part of all changeable things, and by means of which Providence binds all things together in their own order”2.

According to Boethius, fate does not exist in the modern sense, in probabilistic or stochastic one. It is such only in appearance, since its causes are unknown. Rather, the fickleness of existence is the expression of God’s will, who leaves the world at the mercy of the fortune in order to show that everything is a vanity. Hence, man is called to detach himself from the goods and glories of this world, to reach the heaven and its eternity.

“Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune”.

Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book II.

The iconography of the Wheel of Fortune

The Medieval iconography of the wheel of fortune is a reflection of of this theological vision. A wheel with spokes shows different figures: one man is clinging to it as it proceeds towards its apex, where usually the effigy of a king is located; another is falling downwards.

Wheel of Fortune
Late Medieval version of the wheel of fortune with eight rays (late 14th century), floor of Siena Cathedral.

There is a clear allusion to the concept of time, which marks both the movement of the stars and the cycles of human life. The wheel indicates the cardinal moments that correspond to the phases of becoming: birth-spring-dawn, maturity-summer-midday, old age-autumn-dusk, death-winter-midnight. Also, it is a figuration of fortune: the fate of man changes unexpectedly, good turns to evil and vice versa, with no regard for anyone. This rule does not even spare the kingdoms of the mighty. That king who proudly sits upon the throne of the wheel is expected to take back the material goods.

The cardinal moments of fortune are often accompanied by the inscriptions, expressed in different verb tenses, regnabo, regno, regnavi, sum sine regno3 to emphasise the transience of earthly glory. The symbolism of the number twelve or eight, as are the spokes of the wheel, expresses that the totality of things and of humans is subject to the becoming.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. Aristotle, Physics IV 14, 223b. ↩︎
  2. Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 4, Translated by: W.V. Cooper, J.M. Dent and Company London, 1902. ↩︎
  3. G. Stabile, La ruota della fortuna: tempo ciclico e ricorso storico. ↩︎
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