On Umbrellas and Sovereignty


Sultan of Morocco
The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage – Eugène Delacroix

Ever since the Babylonian era, sovereigns and heads of states have been parading under parasols- summery versions of the umbrella. The Caliph of Mamelouk Egypt, The Doge of Venice, the Pope in Rome or the Sultan of Morocco – Immortalised by Delacroix, all swaggered under its shade.

It’s called a Mizalla in the Arab world, and an Ombrellina in Italy. In Asia, a white Umbrella has always been a potent symbol of sovereignty, still used to this day in temples and on crests.

From a symbolic and political point of view, the umbrella offers a great advantage: it allows to play on the visible and the veiled. By tilting it, the powerful disappears. In the land of Islam or Byzantium, the caliph or the emperor often hide behind a veil, which is lifted at the key moment of hearings or ceremonies. By masking a sovereign’s face, the power is put in display, it dramatizes their authority. The umbrella extends this ambiguity: it draws attention to power while contributing, at least in part, to hide it.

Today, we live in a time of hyper-publicity of power: politicians appear in all media, everywhere and all the time. We want to know everything about them: their heritage, their state of health, their love interests and the foxy muses that whisper tweets into their ears every morning. The ancient and medieval powers prefer to play on a rather fine dialectic of the hidden and the visible, which preserves the mystery of power, its majesty. It also helps to consecrate the body of the sovereign: one can not touch the caliph or the Byzantine emperor, nor look the pope in the eyes.

Umbrellas and The Cosmos

Umbrella Cosmos

But the umbrella has another meaning, another interest: it represents the world. The cupola of the parasol represents the celestial vault, the handle the axis of the world. In 1220, the chronicler Ibn Hammad explicitly formulated it, comparing the parasol to a “cloud that appears above the caliph’s head”. Christian kings use two objects instead of one: the scepter and the dais. Sitting on his throne, under the dais that symbolizes the sky, the king dominates the world.

The big advantage of the umbrella, compared to the canopy, is its mobility: try parading on horseback under a canopy… In addition, the umbrella must be held: this allows the sovereign to honor one of his relatives by entrusting him with this prestigious role.

What is very interesting is that this conception of the world is found in several civilizations: Scandinavian mythology, for example, conceives of the world on the model of a huge tree, Yggdrasil, whose branches cross the different universes. On the pavement of the Cathedral of Otranto unfolds a magnificent medieval mosaic representing this tree, proof that the pattern still subsists in Christian settings.

But if a tree looks like an umbrella: a vertical axis, a dome that unfolds at the top. The Pope or the Doge of Venice did not realize it, but when they parade under an umbrella, they use an object that comes both from the Eastern political repertoire and Nordic mythology … The umbrella is accordingly a symbol of the cosmos that allows the ruler to stage himself as master of the world.

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