On Tuesday, July 17, Thomas Moncure presented a talk entitled “Who is This Lady? An Explanation of the Symbolism Represented in the Seal of Virginia” to the members of the Fairfax Lions Club. Although we all see the state seal affixed to many documents, printed on letterhead and embroidered on many state uniforms, few of us know the history of the great seal or the significance of the figures depicted thereon.
In Mr. Moncure’s words, the adoption of the seal for the Commonwealth was the third frame in a series of three events taking place in Williamsburg at a convention of delegates in 1776. The first event being the adoption on June 12 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason. This document was the precursor of the Declaration of Independence adopted the following month by delegates in Philadelphia and later served as a model for the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The second momentous event was the adoption of the Constitution for the new Commonwealth of Virginia on June 29. This document established Virginia as a commonwealth independent of England.
The great seal of the Commonwealth was adopted by Virginia’s Constitutional Convention on July 5, 1776. A committee composed of George Wythe, George Mason, Robert Carter Nicholas, and Richard Henry Lee collaborated on the design. Over the years different pictorial renditions reflecting the times changed the design image. Hence, in 1930 another committee was charged with standardizing the seal’s design resulting in the adoption of the 1776 seal image. In 1949, another standard was implemented, when Virginia’s Art Commission defined the official color scheme for the seal. A red and green border depicting leaves from the Virginia Creeper plant now encircles the designs on each side.pendent of England.
Roman mythology defines the unique Great Seal of Virginia. The obverse (or front) side of the great seal depicts the Roman goddess Virtus representing the spirit of the Commonwealth. She is dressed as an Amazon, a sheathed sword in one hand, and a spear in the other, and stands in a classical victor’s pose over the fallen foe of Tyranny, who is pictured with his fallen crown nearby. Virginia’s motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis (Latin for “Thus Always to Tyrants”), appears at the bottom.
On the reverse side of the seal are the three Roman goddesses, Libertas (Liberty) in the center holding a wand and pileus (Liberty Cap) in her right hand, Aerternitas (Eternity) with a globe and phoenix in her right hand, and Ceres (Fruitfulness) with a cornucopia in her left hand and an ear of wheat in her right. At the top is the word Perservando (Latin for “by Persevering”).
A water color of the state seal, the only official model for flag makers and stationers, hangs in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. As designated by the Code of Virginia, the Secretary of the Commonwealth is the keeper of the great seal, the symbol of the authority and sovereignty of the commonwealth.
Mr. Moncure is University Counsel for George Mason University and an Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office, he was in corporate practice in Washington, D. C. and state trail practice in and about Stafford County. He has also held two elected public offices: Clerk of Court for Stafford County, and Member of the Virginia House of Delegates.