What Is the History of the State Seal of Virginia?

J.E. Holloway

The state seal of Virginia is one of the oldest state symbols in the United States, dating back to the birth of the republic in 1776. The seal contains a variety of symbols drawn from classical mythology. The state seal of Virginia is also the central image on Virginia's state flag.

Virginia creeper appears on the state seal of Virginia.
Virginia creeper appears on the state seal of Virginia.

In May 1776, during the Revolutionary War, Virginia declared independence, rejecting the authority of the British crown. In July of the same year, the state government appointed a group of four men to create a design for a state seal. The state's Constitutional Convention approved the design, which has remained in use until the present day. Variations in the depiction of the seal prompted the creation of an official standardized version in 1930, as well as an official color version in 1949.

Virginia drew on classical symbolism for its state seal.
Virginia drew on classical symbolism for its state seal.

The state seal of Virginia displays imagery which draws on classical symbolism. In fact, the state motto, which is in Latin and appears at the base of the seal, expresses the central idea of the seal: sic semper tyrannis. The motto is attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus, in the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination; it stands for "thus always to tyrants." The Roman republic was a major inspiration for political symbolism in 18th century America, and the state seal reflects this. The front, or obverse, of the seal shows a female Virtus carrying a spear and a sword, trampling a fallen tyrant whose crown lies on the ground nearby. A broken chain and a fallen whip symbolize the end of unjust rule.

The back, or reverse, of the seal shows three female figures. These are Libertas, the personification of liberty; Ceres, the goddess of wheat; and Aeternitas, or eternity. The motto Perseverando, Latin for "persevering," appears above the three figures. Both sides of the great seal are surrounded by a border of Virginia creeper. The lesser state seal of Virginia is identical in design, but has only the obverse and is smaller.

The state seal of Virginia has caused a small amount of controversy because the figure of Virtus depicted on the front has one breast bared. This is in keeping with classical depictions of many female deities, but the nudity on the seal occasionally offends modern sensibilities. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli caused a minor controversy in 2010 when he issued lapel pins to his staff which included a version of the state seal. Cuccinelli's lapel pins depicted Virtus wearing a breastplate which covered her exposed breast.

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