Art Review of Orbs in Royal Portraits
By: Michael A. Arnold

Does anyone remember Amnesia: The Dark Decent? About 10 years ago people were saying it is the most terrifying video game of all time. I love horror, so when I heard about how good it is I bought it over Steam and gave it a play through, finishing it over two days. I loved it then and loved it all again when I replayed it recently – although it might show its age now somewhat. I do not think it will be much of a spoiler, especially for a game released so long ago now, that the plot involves mysterious orbs of potent but unknown occult power. As I was playing the game, something about this was tugging at a thought in the back of my brain. 'Hey, aren't there orbs in a lot of medieval paintings of monarchs too? What's with that?'

A lot of traditional images, traditions and symbols have ancient origins. Monarchies, which are centred around traditions and old symbols when you really think about it, have practices and iconography that reach far into the past. The use of crowns to designate a leader goes all the way back into the murky days before recorded history, first in India. Another very common piece of royal regalia is the orb and the sceptre, which were usually held by monarchs when conducting state business, and so appear in a lot of paintings of monarchs. Focusing just on just the orbs, like the one above, their history goes back to the Emperors of Rome, and are known as a 'Globus cruciger' or 'cross bearing orb'.

This cannot have been their original name, as originally this symbol had an image of either the Goddess of Victory, and later the image of the god Jupiter. Back then the symbolism was quite direct, the orb represented the world (there is a misconception that in the classical age people believed the world is flat, they did not), and the use of Victory standing on the top was a clear statement of Imperial ambition. With the world being held in the arms of the holder, the emperor, the message was 'I will conquer/I am conquering the world'. This was most often seen on coins. In the classical world, money was the only real form of propaganda available to the elite.

Later Victory was swapped for Jupiter being either on top of the orb or holding the orb in depictions on money. With Jupiter being depicted holding or on top of the world's globe it was suggesting that, like how the emperor commanded the Roman empire, the king of the gods Jupiter commanded the natural world. This might seem like a move toward monotheism. Virgil (who people once tried to make a saint because of a prophetic poem about a golden child written around the time of the birth of Jesus) used 'Deus', or 'God' in the singular when referring to Jupiter in a famous poem. However, we must keep in mind that the Paganism of the Roman era had many attitudes that might seem strange to us, and were a lot more complicated than might be thought.

However, when we do move into the Christian era, and the Dark Ages with much smaller kingdoms, the image of this orb was kept but christianized. Instead of Jupiter, or another God, there was the image of a cross. Jesus was called by the Western Christian church, which used Latin as opposed to the Greek-speaking east, 'Salvator Mundi' or 'the Saviour of the World'. This became a widespread symbol of royal power, especially as the Dark Ages turned into the Middle Ages, and kings and queens could afford to have large, symbol-laden portraits of themselves for various political purposes. Why was this?

Sigismund, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire 1368 - 1437

By this point, despite all the other fineries and lavishness of the depictions, there still had to be a certain humbleness in their portraits. Instead of representing an imperial wish, for the kings' or queens' to have a dominion over the world like the Roman emperors, the use of these 'orbs of power' was instead an acknowledgement of their power over the earthly domain in conjunction with the power of the church. Importantly the orb is never held by the cross, only by the body.

This may be a representation of a philosophical understanding of the order of the universe, very influential in medieval Europe. Called 'The Great Chain of Being', it was the idea that everything in creation was part of unified order from most to least important forms of life, with the most important being in creation being God. God, it was assumed, put kings in their place in this Great Chain to act as a bridge between the people and the higher powers. Because of this, acts of rebellion could be portrayed as not just than treasonous but also heretical, because they were going against God's order of creation. It was thought that if a King was killed by his subjects, nature itself would rebel against the act. Horses would 'eat each other' and make 'war with mankind' as is said in Macbeth.

In paintings it is more common to see monarchs holding the orb from the bottom, with the cross coming out of the top, suggesting that the world is controlled by two forces coming from different direction: the mortal control coming from the bottom by kings, and the godly control from the top – with the two are acting in unison to hold the world in place. See for example the painting of Sigismund the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire above, or this painting of King Wenceslas III:

But there is also this painting of Queen Elizabeth I:

Even though her hand is closer to the cross, it is still not holding the cross. The balance of power holding the world in place is still present here and are even closer together – as if church and state themselves are working closer together. All of these paintings, very different in their styles, and from very different places and eras have the same symbolic use of this orb.

Since the world is becoming more secular you rarely see the globus cruciger being held by royalty during ceremonies, but they can still be seen. Today they are mostly relegated to museums, like works of art without much function in the running of states anymore, but a number still survive and they are often quite beautiful objects, like the image of one at the top of this article. Thankfully in my research I found no connection with these orbs and some kind mysterious and dark occult power, like in Amnesia the Dark Decent. I guess we can all sleep a little easier knowing that.