The Star In Decorative Arts
The star can be found inlaid into dressing tables or painted onto chest, hooked into rugs, appliquéd to quilts, drawn into fractures, punched into tin or carved into sculpture. It is like the letter “e” in the English language…always there and noticed only by its absence. But the use of the star as a decorative art form, from the four points referred to as a compass to the eight points of the glory behind Christ as shown in icons, does have a history, and one that is rather interesting.
Since the earliest of times, people have gawked at the skies and marveled at the diamond-like points of light that shimmer from above. The regular intervals at which stars appeared and disappeared were noted and utilized as a perpetual almanac which indicated the seasons. Without much thought, it was known when seeds were to be sown or harvest reaped; when flocks were to be taken onto the slopes or brought to the valleys. The movement of the stars making the daily trip across the sky permitted an awareness of the time of day. Configurations and brightness of some stars gave directions for sailors and other travelers to make their way across trackless vistas.
In their quest for order and organization, our ancestors made much of the reality that their lives were influenced by celestial bodies: the sun, the moon and the stars. They associated a spiritual quality to the lights which they called stars; they did what they could to stay on the right side of those all-powerful beings. They sang to the stars that controlled the dry seasons; they offered hymns to stars that reigned during the floods or those that seemed to control health or illness, victory or defeat. They gave the stars physical characteristics. They named the stars, described them to fit the purpose; and with each new conception, star-lore expanded. Ultimately, temples were oriented and erected as houses in which to worship the stars.
Astrology, the worship of the supposed effect of the stars upon human affairs and terrestrial events, was rampant among the Greeks. The gods of Olympus were identified with the planets and many of the characters of Greek mythology with the other stars. Babylonian astral deities were the ultimate source of Greek astrology…”the oldest of all springs of religious conscientiousness, (were) the stars, the ageless rulers of the sky that watch and guide the actions of the men beneath them…”1 Even some of the greats of history were smitten: Napoleon believed in his star; Chaucer wrote using an instrument to observe the positions of the stars, and Richelieu used astrology as a guide in government.
When men acquired a skill with a chisel, histories of the eternal objects were carved into stone. Adopted before man learned to read and write, the five- or six-pointed symbols for stars indicated man’s early impressions of the bright lights in the heavens. These symbolic carvings, some as old as 5000 years, in caves and on tombs, recorded events which included representations of particular stars and constellations. Symbolic forms were used instead of the names so that the star’s source of power and power was not dissipated. Throughout history, the star as a source of everlasting bright light gained acceptance as a powerful symbol for all cultures. With the Biblical association of the light that led the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem and the symbol of the star as a divinity, the power of the star became omnipotent.
Many governments, including that of the United States, chose to recognize and use the star as a political emblem The United States adopted the five-pointed star to represent the Union of the Thirteen Colonies with the first flag showing thirteen stars to signify each of the soon-to-be states. Russia uses the five-pointed star as its insignia; and the flags of mainland China and Israel also glorify the star. Texas, commonly referred to as the Lone Star State, indicating that it was the only state that was an independent republic prior to its statehood, shows a solitary star in its flag. After the Revolution in the United States and concomitant with the great outpouring of patriotism that spread throughout the American Colonies, the star became an even more widely used symbol. It was incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States, the symbol of freedom and liberty.
The star gained recognition as a status of superiority. In everyday culture, star quality and attaining stardom is the special recognition designating those people who have reached a superior position in their respective fields. Aphorisms are couched in star talk such as in “reaching for the stars”. Stars play a part in superstitions as in “under your lucky star” or to indicate woe, as in the pair of “star-crossed” lovers Romeo and Juliet.
The extent of the use of the star is endless as the stars in the heavens. The star symbolizes mystical and religious qualities when it was used to decorate clothing the American Indians wore when they participated in their Ghost Dances. On their shields, it served to protect them from their enemies. The Masons also elected to use the mysticism of the star as a symbol in the lore of their fraternal order. On the badge of the lawman, the star represents justice and authority. Meritorious achievement and heroism are signified in our country’s highest award: the star-decorated Congressional Medal of Honor. Stars on maps indicate directions to the traveler identifying state and world capitols, points of interest or distances between places. And, while in school, which one of us did not try harder to get that extra, special award for outstanding performance, the gold star.
Artists have always been copious borrowers of symbolic language, freely adopting any source that enters their environment. Drawing upon the star gave the artist the tool to acknowledge and present his surrounds, to explain his existence while displaying his artistic abilities. The star represents the diety and the power and, as a metaphor, a sort explanation of natural phenomena. The use of the star, either as a decorative complement or as a central motif by artists and craftspeople was, therefore, natural. It is part of the folk tradition used by artists in all countries. The five- or six-pointed symbol is easy to reproduce from the simplest rendition of straight, crossed lines to the more complicated variegated star with multiple points and fanciful embellishments. An unskilled person, with relative ease, can make a star design using only the tools at hand…a compass and a ruler. Craftspeople have featured the star on such ordinary items as belt buckles, handkerchiefs, pillowcases and even on the shield of the great comic strip hero, Captain America. The star is truly one of the most universal of artistic symbols, used and recognized throughout history.
1. Hamilton, Kenneth, To Turn from Idols, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 168