I was always mystified by the orb used in regalia. I always thought it was a strange emblem. We are normally told that the orb represents the ‘world’. I’ve always wondered about this. It makes sense nowadays, as the world is accepted as a sphere, an orb. But, the world was not accepted as a sphere until recently. Why, then, would the world be viewed as an orb or sphere 1500 or more years ago?
There are many reference, in Roman times, of gods and emporers holding an orb, which are simple spheres.
(An ancient Roman coin of Emperor Caracalla holding an orb)
I’ve heard it said that the orb represented the ‘circle of countries’ that make up the Roman Empire. That always made me wonder . . . circle . . . globe . . . orb . . . the countries of the Roman Empire. It doesn’t make sense.
The orb has been linked with the Roman god Jupiter (who is like the Greek Zeus). If this is the case, then how can the orb represent the Roman Empire as described above?
My guess is that the orb probably first appeared with Jupiter as one of his symbologies. There are many images depicting Jupiter holding an orb. But why was Jupiter portrayed with an orb? One possible reason is that he was a god. Being a god he is naturally perceived as being ‘perfect’. Now, it’s interesting that up into recent times the orb was often used as a symbol of ‘perfection’ in iconography. This is because it required perfection in three dimensions to achieve (versus a line or a circle). I would not be surprised it this is a carry over from Greece (as the Romans borrowed a lot from the Greeks). There they saw great signifigance in mathematics and shapes, as if it reflected divine truth. It’s interesting to note that the sphere or orb is not something found in nature all that much, making it a very rare shape, making it even more all the more precious and signifigant. The concept of a sphere, then, is more of an abstract concept, giving it a ‘beyond nature’ quality.
Jupiter is the great god, lord of all creation. That is to say, he is associated with the world as all creation. He is also often represented as representing law and social order. In many ways, the Roman Empire saw many of Jupiter’s qualities in itself. The Roman Empire both saw itself as the ruler of the world and in creating an ordered society (the Roman Empire). Because of this, its no wonder why he was so highly valued. His qualities and symbols, and what they mean, became representative of the Roman Empire. This is why there are many images of Roman emperors holding an orb, in imitation of Jupiter.
One of the symbols he used that would represent this, the Roman Empire, is the orb. As time went on the representation of the Roman Empire would slowly turn into a symbol of the world in general, particularly after the Roman Empire fell.
The Christians adopted the orb of the Romans and added a cross on the top. This is called the globus cruciger. This is the image we are most familiar with.
(The famous globus cruciger from the British Crown Jewels)
This type of orb often refers to Christianities triumph over the whole world, hence the cross on top of the orb. This means that, by the time it was used, the orb represented the ‘world’ in general. It was first seen in the Byzantium empire in about 400 AD.
There have been orb’s with a cross on its side. This seems to be very rare and was not used very much.
(Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, holding an orb with a cross on it)
In England a special type of orb was often used in the Norman to medievel period. It is called an orb sceptre. In this type of orb the cross was mounted on a tall staff. Supposedly, this type of orb was started by William the Conqueror. A good example is shown in this painting of Richard II in Westminster Abbey from 1390:
After the earth was discovered to be a globe, which it was not believed to be at first, it was only natural to ascribe the orb as representing it. This was a simple association to make for the orb represented the world. With this new discovery it would make this equation: orb=world=earth-as-a-globe. Since then, there have been royal orbs which have even had a world map engraved on it! Even the Roman Catholic order of hermit monks, the Carthusian Order, use a globus crudiger in their emblem as representing the revolving earth, something the Romans and early orb users never knew, showing that the image of the orb had changed with the knowledge that the earth was a globe.
(Emblem of the Carthusian Order. The seven stars represent the original 7 hermit monks and the motto below says “stat cruz dum volvitur orbis”, which basically says something like “the cross remains firm while the earth (orbis) revolves”. )
And so we see a progession in its development. The god Jupiter is ‘perfect’. This is portrayed in the ‘perfect’ shape – the sphere or orb. His other traits are assigned to this orb as time goes on: the world of creation and social order. The Roman Empire develops and sees these qualities in itself. It adopts this symbol, representing the Roman Empire and all its qualities, such as social order and that the Roman Empire is the ‘world’. As time goes on it becomes a symbol of the world in general, not necessarily the Roman Empire. It becomes adopted by the Christians as representing the world. They put a cross on top to represent their domination over the world. This symbol is used in coronations of Christian monarchs and becomes the orb of regalia. Once the earth is found to be a sphere it is ‘accepted’ as representing the earth. This, then, makes the orb as representing the planet earth, which it did not represent originally.
Of course, this is all speculation. I don’t think we will ever know its exact origins as its history, like a lot of things, was never recorded that well.