History of Tau



Biblical origins

The sign of Tau (taw in Hebrew) has an ancient origin, dating back to the Bible: it is found in the book of Genesis (4, 15), in Exodus (12, 7), in Job (31, 35) but above all in Ezekiel (9, 3-4), when he says:

«The Lord said: Pass in the middle of the city, in the middle of Jerusalem and marks a Tau on the forehead of the men that sigh and cry …»

In this passage the Prophet Ezekiel advises Israel to remain faithful to God until the end, to be recognized as symbolically marked with the “seal” of the Tau on the forehead as God’s chosen people until the end of life. In fact, in the Hebrew alphabet the Taw (or Tau) is the last letter and represented the fulfillment of the entire revealed work of God. This sign was also transcribed as X, + or T and in the Greek transcription the sign was associated with the letter Tau, which then became “T” in the Latin alphabet.

The Jewish Taw

The Tau was soon adopted by Christians for a twofold reason. In fact, as the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it was a prophecy of the last day and had the same function as the Greek letter Omega, as we read in the Apocalypse of St. John: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the principle and the end. To those who are thirsty I will give freely from the source of the water of life … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end “(Revelation 21,6; 22,13 ). Secondly, Christians saw in this sign the prefiguration of the cross of Christ as fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, because it represented the means by which Christ overthrew the old Adam’s disobedience, becoming our Savior as “new Adam” .

Antoniani and Franciscans

During the Middle Ages, the religious community of Sant’Antonio Abate, with whom St. Francis was familiar, was very busy in assisting lepers. These men used the cross of Christ, represented as the Greek Tau, as a symbol of healing to defend themselves from sores and other skin diseases. In classical iconography, Saint Anthony Abate is always recognizable by the large Tau sewn on the mantle and on the habit at the height of the chest.

In the early years of his conversion, St. Francis would work with these religious in the area of ​​Assisi and would be a guest in their hospice at San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. Francis often spoke of the encounter with Christ, hidden under the aspect of a leper, as the turning point of his conversion. It is therefore beyond doubt that Francis, later, would adopt and adapt the Tau as a distinctive or signature, combining the ancient meaning of fidelity throughout life with the commandment to serve the last, lepers of his time.

The symbolism of the Tau acquired an even deeper meaning for St. Francis, from the moment in which in 1215 Innocent III promoted a great reform of the Catholic Church and he listened to the Pope’s sermon at the opening of the Lateran Council IV, containing the same exhortation of the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament: “We are called to reform our lives, to stand in the presence of God as a just people, God will recognize us by the Tau sign imprinted on our fronts”. The elderly pope, in taking up this symbol, would have liked – he said – to be himself that man “dressed in linen, with a scribe bag at his side” and personally pass through the whole Church to mark a Tau on the forehead of the people who they agreed to enter into a state of true conversion [Innocent III, Sermo VI (PL 217, 673-678)].

This symbolic image, used by the same Pope who only five years earlier had approved the new community of Francis, was immediately welcomed as an invitation to conversion. For this reason, love and faith in this sign were great in Francis, as Saint Bonaventure di Bagnoregio remembers in the “Life of Saint Francis of Assisi (Legenda maior)” Chapter IV, 1079:

“… And in reality the Saint had great veneration and affection for the sign of the Tau, he often recommended him in speaking and wrote it on his own hand under the letters he sent, as if his mission consisted, according to the saying of the prophet, in marking the Tau on the forehead of men who moan and cry, sincerely converting to Christ “.

Tommaso da Celano handed down another use of the Tau by St. Francis: he traced it on the walls, on the doors, and on the doorposts of the cells, and this affirmation is confirmed by the archeology: eg, at the time of the restoration of the chapel of Santa Maddalena (also called of the Madonna) in Fonte Colombo (RI) a Tau, painted in red, covered with a XV century tint, was found in the window of a window, on the side of the Gospel. This design dates back to the same St. Francis.


Knights Templar

The taumata cross was also symbolically adopted by the order of the Knights Templar, especially in the first period of their development. The Templar squires had a red Tau sewn on their cloak, which became a complete cross for the moment of the passage to the rank of Knight. The Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and means the fulfillment of Creation, the individual in which the second part of the Work begins, the Principle that concludes the Synthesis; it also refers to the daily Bread and to the Divine Word, that is to the physiological necessities and to the spiritual elevation in observance of the Gospel Word: “man must not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. According to some interpretations it indicates a treasure, or the place where it lies buried. But more simply we can think that it was adopted by the Order as a double reminder of both the Cross and the initial “T” letter of Templum, or “Temple”. As a Templar symbol it is sometimes found in emblems or emblems placed on the palaces or on the churches of their ancient commanderies.

The Knights of Tau

The white Tau was the distinctive emblem of another Hospitaller Order, risen more or less in the same period as other more famous ones, such as that of the Hospitallers of San Giovanni, called the Order of the “Friars of San Jacopo di Altopascio”, officially announced in April of 1239. Since the tasks of assistance and care of the pilgrims ended up including a work of protection against them, the order also included among its ranks of the Knights armed with the sword, which soon became known as the Knights of the Tau. The Order soon acquired fame, honors and wealth, so much so that it spread far beyond the territory of origin (the Tuscan village of Altopascio, in the province of Lucca) and to include “obedience” throughout Italy, as well as in Europe like France, Spain, Germany and England. The decline of this religious-chivalric order began in the fourteenth century also due to the transfer of the seat of the papacy to Avignon, which caused a reduction in traffic to Rome. The order was definitively suppressed in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, and his assets were ceded to the St. Stephen’s Militia created in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
To influence these religious orders in the adoption of the Tau were probably not just the biblical passages. In fact, in the medieval period, this symbol deeply permeated everyday life. In fact, even the geographical representations of the world were traceable to this sign. In fact, illustrations are frequent in which the World is represented divided into the three continents then known: Asia, which was generally placed in the upper part of the map, while Europe and Africa in the lower part, respectively, in the part left and in the right one of the lower half. The three continents were then separated from each other by a sea that took the form of a “T”, and the whole was inscribed in a circumference. This representation, also known as “T-shaped globe”, did not pretend to be a real representation of the world but rather a symbolic one.

Rose-Cross and Freemasonry

The Tau makes its appearance as a symbol also in the following centuries, especially in the esoteric context. For example, in the “Fama Fraternitatis”, first manifestation of the movement of the Rosicrucians, first appeared in Cassel in 1614, it is said that the tomb of the eponymous father, Christian Rosencreutz, was discovered by some confreres. At the center of the tomb was a round altar covered with a copper plate, on which the following inscription was engraved: “Hoc Universes compendium nisus mihi sepulcrum fuit” (“I have reserved this tomb of the Universe for sepulcher”). Under the altar another copper plate covered the body of the eponymous, which was found intact, holding a parchment of parchment written with golden characters, and entitled “T”: it is called “our most great treasure after the Bible and should not be exposed lightly to the censorship of the world “.
In the context of Freemasonry, the shape of this letter recalls two instruments of masonry, the hammer of the stonemason and the double-right-angle team. But as a symbol it assumes its highest significance in the emblem of the Rite of the Royal Arch, where it appears in the form of the “Triple Tau”. This glyph, inscribed in an equilateral triangle and in a circle, is considered a sacred symbol par excellence, which for Jung represents in the collective unconscious the delimitation of the sacred sphere and the fixation on a universal spiritual center. Originally it was a Tau superimposed on an H, to indicate “Templum Hierosolymae” (Temple of Jerusalem), then acquiring its own symbolic autonomy.



St. Anthony Abbot

St. Anthony Abbot was born in 251 d. C. a Coma, the current Qumans, a small town located in the heart of Egypt. The life of the saint is accurately described and spread in Vita Antonii starting from about 357, by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. The work, translated into various languages, became popular both in the East and in the West and made an important contribution to the affirmation of the ideals of monastic life. The son of well-to-do Christian farmers, he was an orphan at the age of twenty and with a legacy to administer and a younger sister to look after, he soon felt he had to follow the evangelical exhortation: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell that that you own and give to the poor “. Thus, distributed the goods to the neediest and entrusted the sister to a female community, followed the solitary life that already other anchorites were doing in the deserts around his city, living in prayer, poverty and chastity. In search of a penitent lifestyle without distraction, he asked God to be enlightened and, thanks to the encounter with several ascetics, he decided to become a hermit. The etymology of the name of Antonio, from the Greek Αντώνης (Antōnīs), Αντώνιος (Antōnios) means precisely those who cope with his adversaries. And in fact after a few years of this experience that began for him hard tests. In these first years of complete solitude, he was tormented by very strong temptations, obscene thoughts and doubts about the actual opportunity of such a solitary life, not followed by the mass of men or by clergymen. Moreover, the instinct of the flesh and the attachment to material goods, which he had tried to suppress in those years, returned to being overpowering and uncontrollable. He then asked for help from other ascetics, who told him not to be afraid, going forward with confidence, because God was with him. Discovered by his fellow citizens, who, like all the Christians of those times, came to the hermits to receive advice, help, consolation, but at the same time disturbed their solitude and recollection, Antonio moved farther away, towards the Red Sea. On the mountains of Pispir there was an abandoned fortress, infested by snakes, but with a spring source: the saint moved there in 285 and remained there for 20 years in absolute solitude. Following the example of Jesus guided by the Spirit retired to the desert “to be tempted by the devil” he dedicated himself to an even more rigid life of solitude, seen as the only means that allowed man to purify himself from all the bad tendencies, personified in the biblical figure of the devil. To escape too many onlookers who went to the Red Sea fortress, he decided to retire to a more isolated place. So he went to the desert of the Thebaid, in Upper Egypt, where he began to cultivate a small vegetable garden for his sustenance and some disciples who came to him from time to time. He lived in the Thebaid until the end of his very long life. He died at 106, on January 17, 356 and was buried in a secret place. Athanasius reports that Anthony had hidden the place of his death to his disciples, but he gave them the tunic and cloak as precious relics. According to some historians Antoniani, first of all Aymar Falco, the body of the saint would have remained hidden for about 170 years from the year of his death. Its discovery is limited to 529, at the time of Emperor Justinian. Carried to Alexandria, he was buried in the church of St. John the Baptist. Occupied by the Saracens Egypt, the body was transferred to Constantinople on June 12, 670, to protect it from vandalism and looting.
The popularity of the saint’s life, an example of the ideals of monastic life, explains the central place his representation has constantly had in sacred art. Because of the widespread veneration, we find images of the saint, usually depicted as an elder monk with a long white beard, in illuminated manuscripts, capitals, stained glass windows, wooden sculptures for altars and chapels, frescoes, tables and altarpieces placed in places of worship. With the advent of the press his image also appeared in many recordings that the devotees began to hang in their homes. In the medieval period, the cult of Saint Anthony was made popular mainly by the order of the Antonian Hospitallers, who also consecrated the iconography: it portrays the saint by now over the years, while he incites shaking a bell, in the company of a pig , an animal from which they obtained the fat to prepare emollients to spread on the sores and give relief to the sick. In some cases, given its ability to cure, in fact, the disease of the ignis sacer or herpes zoster, better known by the name of fire of St. Anthony, the saint is depicted with fire at his feet. The crushed snake, which we can sometimes find at his feet, represents the saint’s perseverance to cope with the temptations of the devil, which is represented precisely in the typical form of the snake. The pilgrim’s staff, which often ends with a red tau-shaped cross and the cloak with the same sewing symbol, which the Antonians wore with absolute determination, complete its simple but decisive iconography. On the other hand, very rare are the depictions of the hermit surrounded by sensual women who represent the carnal temptations to which the saint had to face in his life.

Saint Francis

Saint Francis was born in Assisi in Umbria in 1181. His mother gave him the name of John. However, his father, Pietro Bernadone, a cloth merchant, who was out during the birth of the child, renamed him to Francesco (as if he had called him “the Frenchman”) because he did not want his son to be a man of God , but a merchant who shared his passion for France. Francesco lived a rather carefree and rich existence. He was always happy and charming and everyone loved him. He was a born leader. Francesco developed his father’s love for France and wanted to be a knight. He had the chance to get the prestige he wanted when Assisi declared the war to his longtime enemy, Perugia. Many of his companions were killed, but because of the social stature of Francis, he was instead taken prisoner and detained for ransom. Repossessed by his father, he returned home where he became ill for over a year. Francis spent the next 25 years spending more time in prayer and crying for his sins.
The Ministry of San Francesco
While he was praying at the Church of San Damiano, he heard Christ speak to him saying: “Francis, repair my church”. In order to satisfy this request, he sold some of his father’s assets. This made his father very angry. Francis threw his rich clothes in the presence of the bishop. Having seen this, the bishop covered it with his cloak as a sign of accepting it in religious life. After this gesture, his father disinherited Francesco. Francesco in San Damiano rebuilt the church with his own hands. He did not realize that God did not intend to rebuild the church of San Damiano, but rather the universal Church that suffered from scandal and avarice and external heresy. In 1208, attracted by his way of life, the first companions were associated with Francis and with them in 1209 he went to Rome to ask Innocent III to approve their form of religious life. The Pope grants them permission to preach, postponing, however, to the approval of the Rule. Driven by the desire to witness to Christ in Muslim countries, Francis tries several times to go there. Finally in 1219 he reached Damietta, in Egypt, where, during a truce in the fights of the fifth crusade, he was received and protected in person by the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.
During the Christmas night of 1223, in Greccio, Francis wanted to recall the birth of Jesus, making a living representation of that event. It is from this episode that the tradition of the nativity scene originated.
The weeks from the middle of August until the end of September 1224 Francesco passed them to La Verna, an area located between Tuscany and Romagna, and there, on the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, on September 14th, he received the stigmata the signs of the crucifixion of Christ on the hands, on the feet and on his side.
In the last two years of life of Francis there is also the composition of the Canticle of Brother Sun (or Canticle of the Creatures). These are years in which Francis is increasingly troubled by the disease (suffering from severe liver disease and trachoma in the eyes). When his condition worsened definitively, Francis was brought back to the Porziuncola, where he died on the night between 3 and 4 October 1226, at the age of 45. The following day his body, after a stop at San Damiano, was taken to Assisi and buried in the church of San Giorgio.
Francis of Assisi was canonized July 19, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX. On 25 May 1230 his body was finally transferred from the church of San Giorgio and buried in the current Basilica of San Francesco quickly built by Friar Elia on behalf of Gregory IX between 1228 and 1230.


The TAU and San Francesco

San Bonaventura da Bagnoregio in Legenda Maior and Legenda Minor narrates some episodes where TAU and Francesco are described,

LEGEND MAIOR (Life of St. Francis of Assisi)

In reality the Saint had great veneration and affection for the sign of Tau; he often recommended it in speaking and wrote it on his own hand under the letters he sent, as if his mission consisted, according to the prophet’s words, in marking the Tau on the forehead of men who moan and cry, sincerely converting to Christ.
An inhabitant of Cori, in the diocese of Ostia, had totally lost the use of the leg and could not walk or move. Finding himself in such severe distress and despairing of human help, one night he presented his complaints to St. Francis, as if he saw him present in this style: “O Saint Francis, help me. Do not you remember the service I gave you and the devotion I’ve always shown you? I have brought you on my ass, I have kissed your sacred feet and your sacred hands; I have always been devoted to you, I have always been generous with you: and now I am dying among these cruel torments “Driven by these laments, the Saint immediately realized that he does not forget the benefits received and is grateful to his devotees, appearing in company of another friar, to the man who watched in prayer. He told him that he had come to his call and that he had brought the medicine to heal it. He touched the injured part with a stick in the shape of Tau, bursting the tumor and giving him perfect health. But he did something even more wonderful: he left the sacred sign of the Tau on the spot where the wound had been healed, in memory of the miracle. This was the sign with which St. Francis signed his letters, whenever charity urged him to send some letters.
But behold: while our mind, distracted by the variety of the facts narrated, lingers now on the hour on the other of the miracles performed by the blessed father, has again met, under the guidance of God, with the Tau, that is with the sign of salvation. This happened thanks to the merits of Francis himself, the glorious bearer of the cross, and allows us to point out that the cross has become the most solid testimony of the glory that he now enjoys, triumphing with Christ in heaven, as had been the cause of his merits excellences and of his salvation, when he followed the militia of Christ, here on earth.

LEGENDA MINOR (Short Life of St. Francis)
A friar named Pacifico, when he was still living for centuries, met the servant of the Lord, who was preaching in a monastery near the village of San Severino. When the Lord’s hand fell upon him, he saw Francis marked in the form of a cross by two splendid swords, placed transversely: one of the swords stretched from head to feet and one extended from one hand to the other, through the chest. He did not know Francis in person, but recognized him immediately, after he was shown to him by means of that miraculous vision. Strongly amazed, compelled and frightened by the strength of his words, he was, so to speak, pierced by the sword of the spirit that came out of his mouth and, despised definitively the vain honors of the world, joined the blessed father through the profession of his own life . Later, he progressed in every form of holiness proper to religious life and became minister of the Order in France – in fact he was the first to exercise the office of minister in that country. But first, he deserved to see on the forehead of Francis a great Tau, who stood out for the variety of colors and made his face wonderfully beautiful and adorned. Since it is necessary to know that the man of God venerated this sign and was very fond of him, he often recommended him in speaking, with it he started his actions and wrote it on his own hand under those notes he sent for charity, almost as if everything his commitment was, as the prophet says, in marking the Tau on the forehead of men who moan and cry, turning to Christ sincerely.


TAU and Freemasonry

In the Masonic context the Tau is present in the symbol of the triple Tau.
The triple Tau is a figure formed by three of these crosses gathered in one point, and therefore resembling a letter T resting on the crossbar an H. This emblem, placed in the center of a triangle and a circle – both emblems of the divinity – constitutes the jewel of the Royal Arch as practiced in England, where it is so esteemed to be called “the emblem of all emblems,” The Royal Arch is the great emblem of Freemasonry. “The Prophet Ezekiel speaks of the Tau cross or tau as a mark that distinguishes those who were to be saved, for their sorrow for their sins, by those who, as idolaters, were to be killed.It was a sign or sign of favorable distinction, and with this allusion we can suppose that the triple tau is used in the rank of the Royal Arch as a mark that designates and separates those who know and worship the true name of God from those unknown to that august mystery.The Royal Arch is present in the Rite of York and in the Rite Sc ozzese, represents one of the most widespread Masonic rites of perfection in the world. It is born from the complete union of the Symbolic, Capitular, Cryptic, Chivalric degrees in a single Masonic system. The largest Masonic group under the same Labar is the Grand International General Chapter of the Freemasons of the Royal Arch.
His “birth” is traced back, as regards the Royal Arch Masonry, to the creation in Hartford, Connecticut, of the Great Chapters of the United States of America (October 24, 1797), the CD. Grand Royal Arch Chapter, of England (18 March 1817), of Scotland (28 August 1817), of Ireland (11 June 1829). Already in 1806 the Grand Royal Arch Chapter became the General Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch of the United States of America, which in 1954 assumed the name of General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons International, following the spread of the masonry of the Royal Arch in the world.



The TAU in Jewish and Biblical tradition

The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tau, is considered “the seal of the saint, blessed be he”. The same graphema that distinguishes it, ת, evokes a brand, a sign of recognition.
The noun tau, which is traced three times throughout the Hebrew Bible, two of which in the fundamental passage of Ez 9, and one in Job, means properly sign, seal, signature. The first letter of this word is just the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which in this sense, placed to fulfill the succession of the twenty-two letters that make up the language of God, describes well the seal of the Lord over all creation, His signature in the world created by him. The Kabbalistic tradition points out that tau is also the last letter of the Hebrew noun emet, truth: it is thus configured also as a seal, the fulfillment of what most explicitly characterizes God, His truth and infallibility.
In chapter 9 of the book of Ezekiel, God invites us to punish and exterminate those who profane the sanctuary and the holy city of Jerusalem, after having marked a tau (properly a mark, a seal: here appears not the letter but the word tau, and the Greek translates meaningfully with semeion, which means sign) “on the forehead of those who sigh and cry for the abominations that are accomplished in the city” (Ez 9,4), in such a way that they are not touched by extermination (Ez 9, 6).
The tau, the seedion, is therefore properly the seal that indicates the intervention of the Lord and ensures its protection: it must be noted that the Greek word semeion is traced, while translating a Hebrew word different from the tau, but with similar meaning, in Gen 4:15, concerning the sign that God places on the forehead of Cain not to be killed, to underline how the Lord always protects human life, created and blessed by him, even if men are guilty of terrible crimes. No man therefore has the right, according to Gen 4, to put an end to the life of another human being, independently of the work of these.
Likewise, the term semeion is found in the Greek version of Exod. 12.13, where it translates the same Hebrew word that is found in Gen 4, 15 in reference to the sign made by the Jews, with the blood of the lambs sacrificed on the first night of Easter, in Egypt, on the doorpost of their houses, because the angel of the Lord did not strike their firstborn with his wound. Starting from these references, it is hypothesized that the sign referred to in these cases is properly the tracing of a tau, which thus explicitly becomes the symbol of salvation from death and the presence of God: even in the presence of a different Greek term , but with the same meaning, we tend to interpret as a tau also the seal with which the elect of the living God are marked in Ap 7,4 and in several other passages of the last book of the New Testament, as Ap 9.4 where repeats the situation of Ez 9.4. 6, and it is emphasized the prohibition to hit and damage those who have the seal of God on the forehead.
The kabbalistic tradition insists that the grapheme of tau is composed of the graphemes of two other letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a dalet and a nun, which respectively describe, in the interpretation, the emptying of oneself and humility: this suggestion represents one more element to understand why, in the Christian tradition, the sign of tau, the seal of the living God, is brought closer to the cross of Christ, to the condition of a servant assumed by him (see the Christological hymn of St. Paul, Phil 2) , 6-11), also through the reference of Ap 14,1, where it is specified that the one hundred and forty-four thousand elect of God, marked in Ap 7,4, bear written on the forehead “the name of the Lamb and the name of His Father” .
Ultimately, tau evokes the presence of the Lord, it is the sign of his salvation and it is understandable that, in the Christian tradition, the tau letter of the Greek alphabet, which has the form of a cross, and which retains the same name of the Hebrew letter that recalls the seal, thus evoking, through the double reference to the biblical sign and the torture suffered by Jesus, sign and instrument of salvation for Christians, the new covenant in the blood of Christ.

Laura C. Paladino
Biblist and Historian, Professor of Hebrew and Greek at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *