What Is the Eye of Providence — History and Meaning

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Also called the All-Seeing Eye, the Eye of Providence features an eye surrounded by rays of light, often enclosed in a triangle. It has been used for centuries in numerous cultures, traditions, and religious contexts, with many variations. Featured on the one-dollar bill and the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, the Eye of Providence is often at the heart of conspiracy theories. Let’s uncover the mystery behind the Eye of Providence.

History of the Eye of Providence

Eyes have been a popular symbol since ancient times, as they symbolize watchfulness, protection and omnipotence, among other things. However, there’s something somewhat eerie about an eye with no face, as it can look malevolent, as it’s watchful without expression. This may be why eye symbols are often mistaken for being unlucky or evil. Interestingly, most eye symbols have benevolent associations.

Within the context of the Eye of Providence, the word ‘providence’ refers to a divine guidance given by a deity or god. For that reason, the Eye of Providence has become one of many symbols with religious and mythological associations. It also made its way into official seals of various cities, as well as on the insignias and coat of arms of different countries.

eye of providence symbol history
  • In Religious Contexts

Many historians speculate that the Eye of Providence didn’t emerged from orthodox Christianity or Judaism, as “eyes ” have had a strong symbolic meaning in many cultures since ancient times. Similarities can be traced back to Egyptian mythology and symbolism, such as the Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra.

In Buddhist texts, the Buddha is referred to as “the eye of the world,” while in Hinduism, the deity Shiva is depicted with a third eye on his forehead. However, such similarities should not be a conclusion that one symbol evolved out of the other.

In fact, the first known appearance of the symbol depicted within a triangle dates to the Renaissance, in a 1525 painting called the “Supper at Emmaus” by Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo. The painting was made for the Carthusians, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. In it, the Eye of Providence is seen depicted above Christ.

Eye of providence painting
Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo. Source.

In Christianity, the triangle symbolizes the doctrine of Trinity, and the eye represents the unity of the three aspects of God. Also, the clouds and light represent holiness of God himself. Eventually, it became a popular theme in art and architecture in the Late Renaissance, particularly in stained-glass windows of churches, religious paintings, and emblem books.

  • On the “Great Seal of the United States”

In 1782, the “Eye of Providence” was adopted on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States. On the backside of a dollar bill, the symbol appears above an unfinished pyramid. Across the top are Latin words Annuit Coeptis, translated as He has favored our undertakings.

It has become a subject of controversy that the U.S. dollar bill contains religious, Masonic, or even Illuminati symbols. But according to The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States, the descriptive language used by the Congress includes only the term “Eye” and doesn’t attribute any religious significance to it. The overall implication is just that America is being watched over by God.

  • On the Document – 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

In 1789, the French National Assembly issued a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” defining the rights of individuals at the time of French Revolution. The Eye of Providence was featured at the top of the document, as well as on the painting of the same name by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, which implied the divine guidance on the proclamation.

  • In Freemasonry Iconography

The Eye of Providence is often associated with the secret society of Freemasonry—a fraternal organization that emerged between the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. The Masons come from varied religious beliefs and diverse political ideologies, yet all believe in the existence of a Supreme Being or one God (who is referred to as the Great Architect of the Universe, representing the deity neutrally).

In 1797, the symbol was adopted in their organization, where the eye symbolizes watchfulness and the Eye of Providence symbolizes the guidance of a higher force. However, it is not depicted inside a triangle, but surrounded by clouds and a semi-circular “glory.” In some instances, the symbol is depicted within the square and compass, representing the morality and virtue of its members.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Eye of Providence

The Eye of Providence has been an enduring symbol for centuries across regions, religions, and cultures. Here’s some of its meanings:

  • God Is Watching – As the context implies, the symbol represents the God as the one who sees and knows all things, including people’s actions and thoughts. While it has been used in religious contexts to represent various doctrines, ideas, and beliefs, it can be used by anyone who believes in the existence of a God or Supreme Being. 
  • Protection and Luck – Much like the nazar boncugu or the hamsa hand (which often features an eye in the center), the Eye of Providence can also represent good luck and the warding off of evil. In this light, the symbol can be seen as holding a universal meaning.
  • Spiritual Guidance – The symbol can also be a reminder of spiritual insight, moral code, conscience, and higher knowledge one should act upon on, since God is watching over people.
  • Divine Protection and Blessings – In Lutheran theology, the symbolism can refer to God’s preservation of his creation. As God is the creator of heaven and earth, all that occurs in the universe takes place under his guidance and protection.
  • Trinity – In Christian theology, many believe in the threefold nature of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the symbol is always depicted in a triangle, because each side conveys an aspect of the Holy Trinity.
Eye of providence meaning

The Eye of Providence in Jewelry and Fashion

Many jewelry designs feature the all-seeing eye symbolism, along with other celestial, astrological, and occult-inspired themes. The Eye of Providence jewelry pieces from earrings to necklaces, bracelets, and rings, are often not intended to be religious but meant to be lucky charms. Some can be seen in studded gemstones, embossed All-Seeing Eye designs, colorful enamels, and minimalist styles. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Eye of Providence symbol.

Some fashion labels like Givenchy and Kenzo have also been fascinated with the mystic Eye of Providence and have incorporated similar prints in their collections. Kenzo even featured the all-seeing eye print in its collection of bags, sweaters, dresses, tees, and leggings in a famous collection. The symbol can be seen in black-and-white, colorful and even funky styles, while others are enclosed in a triangle with sunbursts.

If you’re wondering whether you should wear the Eye of Providence – the answer is, it depends on you. The symbol itself is a positive one, but like many symbols, it’s acquired some negative connotations. This tends to happen to symbols, the swastika being one of the best examples. If you wear jewelry featuring the Eye of Providence, you may get some weird looks and might have to explain what it means, if you care to.

In Brief

Symbols can be very powerful, and how they’re viewed depends on the cultural context, among other things. Although the Eye of Providence represents the divine guidance of God or Supreme Being, it’s often viewed as a controversial symbol due to the conspiracy theories surrounding it. However, if we set that aside, we can appreciate the symbol for what it is.

Yordan Zhelyazkov

Yordan Zhelyazkov

Yordan Zhelyazkov is a published fantasy author and an experienced copywriter. While he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Marketing, much of his research and work are focused on history and mythology. He’s been working in the field for years and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Japanese mythology, and others.

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