A number of peace symbols have been used in various cultures and contexts, one of the most ancient being the olive branch. The symbol of the dove and olive branch was used by early Christians and was later adopted as a secular symbol. It was popularized byPablo Picasso in 1949 and became widely used in the post-war peace movement. In the 20th century the peace sign as it is commonly known today was designed for and adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The V hand signal and the peace flag became international peace symbols.
Classical AntiquityThe Olive Branch
An engraving from The London Magazine, January 1775, showing the Goddess of Peace bringing an olive branch to America and Britannia.
The use of the olive as a symbol of peace dates at least to the 5th century BC. The olive tree represented plenty, but the ancient Greeks believed that it also drove away evil spirits. The olive branch was one of the attributes of Eirene, goddess of peace (whom the Romans called Pax), on Roman Imperial coins. For example, the reverse of a tetradrachm of Vespasian from Alexandria, 70–71 AD, shows Eirene standing holding a branch upward in her right hand.
- High on the stern Aeneas his stand,
- And held a branch of olive in his hand,
- While thus he spoke: “The Phrygians’ arms you see,
- Expelled from Troy, provoked in Italy
- By Latian foes, with war unjustly made;
- At first affianced, and at last betrayed.
- This message bear: The Trojans and their chief
- Bring holy peace, and beg the king’s relief.”
For the Romans, there was an intimate relationship between war and peace, and Mars, the god of war, had another aspect, Mars Pacifer, Mars the bringer of Peace, who is shown on coins of the later Roman Empire bearing an olive branch. (See Gallery). Appian describes the use of the olive-branch as a gesture of peace by the enemies of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in theNumantine War and by Hasdrubal of Carthage.
Poets of the 17th century associated the olive with peace and a Charles I gold coin of 1644 shows the monarch with sword and olive branch. Throughout the 18th century English coins show Brittania with a spear and olive branch.
The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, contains an allegorical painting by James Thornhill, Peace and Liberty Triumphing Over Tyranny (1708–1716) in which William and Mary accept an olive branch from Peace.
In January 1775, the frontispiece of the London Magazine published an engraving of Peace descending on a cloud from the Temple of Commerce,bringing an olive branch to America and Britannia. In July that year, the American Continental Congress adopted the “Olive Branch Petition” in the hope of avoiding a full-blown war with Great Britain. On the Great Seal of the United States (1782), the olive branch denotes peace, as explained by Charles Thomson, Secretary to Congress: “The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress.”
The Dove and Olive Branch
Early Christians portrayed baptism accompanied by a dove holding an olive branch in its beak and used the image on theirsepulchres as an allegory of peace. The dove appears in many funerary inscriptions in the Roman catacombs, sometimes accompanied by the words in pace (Latin for “in peace”). For example, in the Catacomb of Callixtus there is a representation of a dove and branch next to a Latin inscription NICELLA VIRCO DEI OVE VI XIT ANNOS P M XXXV DE POSITA XV KAL MAIAS BENE MERENTI IN PACE, meaning “Nicella, God’s virgin, who lived for more or less 35 years. She was placed [here] 15 days before the Kalends of May [17 April]. For the well deserving one in peace.” In another there is a shallow relief sculpture showing a dove with a branch flying to a figure marked in Greek ΕΙΡΗΝΗ (Eirene, or Peace). The symbol has also been found in the Christian catacombs of Sousse, Tunisia (ancient Carthage), which date from the end of the first century AD.
Christians derived the symbol of the dove and olive branch from two sources. The first was the New Testament comparison between a dove and the Spirit of God that descended on Jesus during his baptism. The second was the pagan symbol of the olive branch. The New Testament comparison has a parallel in the Talmud, which says that “the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters like a dove,” but in Jewish tradition the olive branch is not used as a peace symbol and neither theHebrew Bible nor the New Testament mention the dove or the olive in connection with peace.
In the Bible story of Noah and the Flood, a dove returns to Noah with a freshly plucked olive leaf (עלה זית alay zayit) rather than an olive branch. This is not said to represent peace either in the text or in rabbinic explanations, which interpret it as “the young shoots of the Land of Israel” or the dove’s preference for bitter food in God’s service rather than sweet food in the service of men. But early Christians drew parallels between baptism and the flood, the First Epistle of Peter (composed around the end of the first century AD) comparing the salvation through water in baptism to Noah’s salvation through water. The Carthaginian Tertullian (c.160 – c.220) compared Noah’s dove, who “announced to the world the assaugement of divine wrath, when she had been sent out of the ark and returned with the olive branch” with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that descends in baptism, “bringing us the peace of God, sent out from the heavens”. In the fourth century, St. Jerome‘s Latin Bible, possibly reflecting this Christian comparison between the peace brought by baptism and the ending of the Flood, rendered the Hebrew Bible’s “olive leaf” in Noah as “olive branch” (ramum olivae). By the fifth century, St Augustine of Hippo confirmed the Christian reading of the pagan olive branch into Noah, writing that, “perpetual peace is indicated by the olive branch (oleae ramusculo) that the dove brought with it when it returned to the ark.”
In the earliest Christian art, the dove represented the peace of the soul rather than civil peace, but from the third century the dove began to be shown in situations of conflict such as Daniel and the lions, the three young men in the furnace, Susannah and the Elders and Noah and the Ark. Before the Peace of Constantine (313 AD), in which Rome ceased its persecution of Christians, Noah is normally shown in an attitude of prayer, a dove with an olive branch nearly always flying toward him or alighting on his outstretched hand. According to Graydon Snyder, “The Noah story afforded the early Christian community an opportunity to express piety and peace in a vessel that withstood the threatening environment” of Roman persecution. For Ludwig Budde and Pierre Prigent, the dove refers to the descending of the Holy Spirit rather than the peace associated with Noah. After the Peace of Constantine, Noah appeared only occasionally in Christian art.
Medieval illuminated manuscripts such as the Holkham Bible showed the dove returning to Noah with a branch, and Wycliffe’s Bible, which translated the Vulgate into English in the 14th century, uses “a braunche of olyue tre with greene leeuys” (“a branch of olive tree with green leaves”) in Gen. 8:11. Even illuminations in Jewish manuscripts in the Middle Ages could show Noah’s dove with an olive branch, for example, the Golden Haggadah (about 1420). English Bibles from the 17th century King James Bible onwards, which translate Noah direct from Hebrew, use “olive leaf”, but by this time the dove with an olive branch as a symbol of peace in Noah was firmly established.
- Late 15th century In the late 15th century, a dove with an olive branch was used on the seal of Dieci di Balia, the Florentine committee known as The Ten of Liberty and Peace, whose secretary was Machiavelli; it bore the motto, “Pax et Defencio Libertatis” (Peace and the Defence of Liberty).
- Late 18th century In 18th century America, a £2 note of North Carolina (1771) depicted the dove and olive with a motto meaning: “Peace restored”. Georgia’s $40 note of 1778 portrayed the dove and olive and a hand holding a dagger, with a motto meaning “Either war or peace, prepared for both.
- Early 19th century The Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace, also known as The London Peace Society, formed on Quaker initiative in 1816, used the symbol of a dove and olive branch.
- Early 20th century A German war loan poster of 1917 (see Gallery below) showed the head of an eagle over a dove of peace in flight, with the text, “Subscribe to the War Loan”.
- Mid 20th century Picasso‘s lithograph, La Colombe (The Dove), a traditional, realistic picture of a pigeon, without an olive branch, was chosen as the emblem for theWorld Peace Congress in Paris in April 1949. The dove became a symbol for the peace movement and the ideals of the Communist Party and was used in Communist demonstrations of the period. At the 1950 World Peace Congress in Sheffield, Picasso said that his father had taught him to paint doves, concluding, “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war.” At the 1952 World Peace Congress in Berlin, Picasso’s Dove was depicted in a banner above the stage. The dove symbol was used extensively in the post-war peace movement. Anti-communists had their own take on the peace dove: the group Paix et Liberté distributed posters titled La colombe qui fait BOUM (the dove that goes BOOM), showing the peace dove metamorphosing into a Soviet tank.
The Broken Rifle
The broken rifle symbol of War Resisters’ International
The broken rifle symbol is used by War Resisters’ International (WRI) and its affiliates but predates the foundation of WRI in 1921. The first known example of the symbol is in the mast-head of the January 1909 issue of De Wapens Neder (Down With Weapons), the monthly paper of the International Antimilitarist Union in the Netherlands. In 1915 it appeared on the cover of a pamphlet, Under det brukne Gevaer (Under the Broken Rifle), published by the Norwegian Social Democratic Youth Association. The (German) League for War Victims, founded in 1917, used the broken rifle on a 1919 banner. In 1921, Belgian workers marching through La Louvrière on 16 October 1921, carried flags showing a soldier breaking his rifle. Ernst Friedrich, a German who had refused military service, founded the Anti-Kriegs Museum in Berlin with a bas-relief broken rifle over the door, and the Museum distributed broken rifle badges, girls’ and women’s brooches, boys’ belt buckles, and men’s tie pins.
The White Poppy
In 1933, during a period in which there was widespread fear of war in Europe, the Women’s Co-operative Guild began the practice of distributing white poppies as an alternative to the red poppies distributed by the Royal British Legion in commemoration of servicemen who died in the First World War. In 1934 the newly-formed Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which was the largest British peace organization in the inter-war years, joined in distributing white poppies and laying white poppy wreaths “as a pledge to peace that war must not happen again”. In 1980, the PPU revived the symbol as a way of remembering the victims of war without glorifying militarism.
Roerich’s Peace Banner
Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) was the founder of a movement to protect cultural artifacts, whose symbol, a maroon on white emblem consisting of three solid circles in a surrounding circle, has been used as a peace banner. In 1935 a pact initiated by Roerich was signed by the United States and Latin American nations, agreeing that “historic monuments, museums, scientific, artistic, educational and cultural institutions” should be protected both in times of peace and war. According to the Roerich Museum, “The Banner of Peace symbol has ancient origins. Perhaps its earliest known example appears on Stone Age amulets: three dots, without the enclosing circle. Roerich came across numerous later examples in various parts of the world, and knew that it represented a deep and sophisticated understanding of the triune nature of existence. But for the purposes of the Banner and the Pact, Roerich described the circle as representing the totality of culture, with the three dots being Art, Science, and Religion, three of the most embracing of human cultural activities. He also described the circle as representing the eternity of time, encompassing the past, present, and future. The sacred origins of the symbol, as an illustration of the trinities fundamental to all religions, remain central to the meaning of the Pact and the Banner today.”
The Peace Sign
The Third of May 1808 by Goya, referred to by Gerald Holtom as one of his inspirations for the peace sign – although he said that the peasant had his hands stretched downwards.
The internationally recognized symbol for peace (☮) was originally designed for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Holtom in 1958. Holtom, an artist and designer, made it for a march from Trafalgar Square, London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment atAldermaston in England, organised by the Direct Action Committee to take place in April and supported by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Holtom’s design, the original of which is housed in the Peace Museum in Bradford, England, was adapted by Eric Austen (1922–1999) to ceramic lapel badges.
The symbol is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D,” standing for “nuclear disarmament”. In semaphore the letter “N” is formed by a person holding two flags in an inverted “V,” and the letter “D” is formed by holding one flag pointed straight up and the other pointed straight down. Superimposing these two signs forms the shape of the centre of the peace symbol. Holtom later wrote to Hugh Brock, editor of Peace News, explaining the genesis of his idea in greater depth: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya‘s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.” Ken Kolsbum, a correspondent of Holtom’s, says that the designer came to regret the symbolism of despair, as he felt that peace was something to be celebrated and wanted the symbol to be inverted. Eric Austen is said to have “discovered that the ‘gesture of despair’ motif had long been associated with ‘the death of man’, and the circle with ‘the unborn child’,” possibly referring to images in Rudolf Koch‘s The Book of Signs, (Das Zeichenbuch, 1923) an English edition of which had been published in 1955.
The symbol became the badge of CND and wearing it became a sign of support for the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain. An account of CND’s early history described it as “a visual adhesive to bind the [Aldermaston] March and later the whole Campaign together … probably the most powerful, memorable and adaptable image ever designed for a secular cause.”
Not patented or restricted, the symbol spread beyond CND and was adopted by the wider anti-war movement. It became known in the United States in 1958 when Albert Bigelow, a pacifist protester, sailed a small boat fitted with the CND banner into the vicinity of a nuclear test. Buttons with the symbol were imported into the United States in 1960 by Philip Altbach, a freshman at the University of Chicago. Altbach had traveled to England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU) and on his return he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol. Between 1960 and 1964 they sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses. By end of the decade it had become a generic peace sign, crossing national and cultural boundaries.
The Peace Flag
The peace flag flown from a balcony in Italy
The international peace flag in the colours of the rainbow was first used in Italy on a 1961 peace march fromPerugia to Assisi organised by the pacifist and social philosopher Aldo Capitini (1899–1968). Inspired by the peace flags used on British peace marches, Capitini got some women of Perugia hurriedly to sew together coloured strips of material. The march has been repeated many times since 1961, the most recent in 2010. The original flag was kept by Capitini’s collaborator, Lanfranco Mencaroni, at Collevalenza, near Todi. In 2011, plans were announced to transfer it to the Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia.
The flag commonly has seven rainbow-colored stripes with the word “Peace” in the center. It has been explained as follows: “In the account of the Great Flood, God set the rainbow to a seal the alliance with man and nature, promising that there will never be another Flood. The rainbow thus became a symbol of Peace across the earth and the sky, and, by extension, among all men.”The flag usually has the colours violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red from top to bottom, but some have the violet stripe below the blue one (as in the picture below) or a white one at the top. A picture of Capitini’s first peace flag, carried by Anna Capitini and Silvana Mencaroni, shows the colours red, orange, white, green, violet, indigo and lavender.
The use of the flag became widespread with the Pace da tutti i balconi (“Peace from every balcony”) campaign in 2002, a protest against the impending war in Iraq. In 2003, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported the opinion of leading advertising executives that it had become more popular than the Italian national flag. In November 2009, a huge peace flag, 21m wide by 40m long, was made in Lecce, Salento, by young members of “GPACE – Youth for Peace – Give Peace a Chance Everywhere”.
The V sign
The crane, a traditional symbol of luck in Japan, was popularized as a peace symbol by the story of Sadako Sasaki (1943–1955), a girl who died as a result of the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima in 1945. According to the story, popularized through the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, in her last illness she started folding paper cranes, inspired by the Japanese saying that one who folded a thousand paper cranes was granted a wish.
Mars celebrated as peace-bringer, bearing an olive branch, on the reverse of a coin struck under Aemilianus
Early Christian representation of baptism,Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome, 3rd to 4th century CE, showing dove with branch.
Cartoon from Punch, 1919. “OVERWEIGHTED.President Wilson: ‘Here’s your olive branch. Now get busy.’ Dove of Peace: ‘Of course I want to please everybody; but isn’t this a bit thick?'”
Communist demonstration in the German Democratic Republic, c.1950, with dove symbols inscribed, “Für den Frieden” (For Peace)
A Tōshō-gū shrine in Tokyo, Japan, on which paper cranes have been hung. The shrine also shows a dove in flight
Tri-lingual wordmark used to represent peace between Israel and Palestine: the Hebrew word “Shalom” in blue, the Arabic word “Salaam” in green and the English word “Peace” in orange
Lennon Wall in Prague, Czech Republic