The Eye of Providence is a realistically depicted eye within one or more additional elements: a triangle, a burst of light and/or clouds. The symbol has been in use for hundreds of years and can be found in numerous settings both secular and religious, including the official seals of various cities, the stained glass windows of churches and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
To Americans, the most well known use of the Eye is on the Great Seal of the United States, which is featured on the back on $1 bills. In that depiction, the eye within a triangle hovers over a pyramid.
Meaning Originally the symbol represented the all-seeing eye of God. (Some people today refer to it as the "All-Seeing Eye.") It generally implies that God looks favorably upon whatever endeavor is utilizing the symbol.
The Eye of Providence employs a number of symbols that would have been familiar it those viewing it. The triangle has been used for many centuries to represent the Christian trinity. Bursts of light and clouds are commonly used to depict holiness, divinity, and God.
Light represents spiritual illumination, not just physical illumination, and spiritual illumination can be revelation. There are numerous crosses and other religious sculptures that include bursts of light.
Numerous two-dimensional examples of clouds, light burst and triangles used to depict divinity exist:
- Example 1: The name of God (the tetragrammaton) written in Hebrew and surrounded by a cloud .
- Example 2: A triangle (actually, a triquetra) surrounded by a burst of light.
- Example 3: The Hebrew tetragrammaton surrounding in three triangles, each bursting with its own light.
- Example 4: The word "God" written in Latin surrounded by bursts of light.
Providence Providence means divine guidance. By the 18th century, many Europeans, particularly educated Europeans, no longer believed specifically in the Christian God, although they did believe in some sort of singular divine entity or power. Thus, the Eye of Providence can reference the benevolent guidance of whatever divine power might exist.
The Great Seal of the United States The Great Seal includes an Eye of Providence hovering over an unfinished pyramid. This image was designed in 1792. According to an explanation written that same year (offsite link), the pyramid signifies strength and duration, while the eye corresponds with the motto on the seal: "Annuit Coeptis," meaning "he approves of this undertaking." The second motto, "Novus ordo seclorum," literally means "a new order of the ages" and signifies the beginning of an American era.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen In 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, the National Assembly put forth the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. An Eye of Providence features at the top of an image of that document created the same year, once again implying divine guidance and approval of what is transpiring.
Freemasons The Freemasons started publicly using the symbol in 1797. While many conspiracy theorists insist the appearance of this symbol in the Great Seal proves Masonic influence on the founding of American government, the Great Seal actually displays the symbol more than a decade before the Masons started using it. Moreover, no one who designed the approved seal was Masonic, and the only Mason involved with the project was Benjamin Franklin, whose design was never approved.
The Freemasons have never used an eye with a pyramid.
Eye of Horus Many comparisons have been made between the Eye of Providence and the Egyptian Eye of Horus. Certainly the use of eye iconography has a very long historical tradition, and in both of these cases the eyes are associated with divinity. However, such a general similarity should not be taken as a suggestion that one design consciously evolved out of the other.
Besides the presence of an eye in each symbol, the two have no graphical similarities. The Eye of Horus is stylized, while the Eye of providence is realistic. Moreover, the historical Eye of Horus existed on its own or in relation to various specific Egyptian symbols. It was never within a cloud, triangle or burst of light. There are some modern depictions of the Eye of Horus using those additional symbols, but they are indeed very modern, dating from no earlier than the late 19th century.