Emblem remains shrouded in a cloud of mystery
THE SANTA CLARA
May 19, 2016
The earliest of the University Seal (top) from the 1880 university catalog. It made its last appearance in the 1894 catalog. The current version of the university seal (bottom) shows the dropped star in the bottom row next to the eagle’s head, second from the right. Photos provided by Jonathan Hornrighausen and Santa Clara University Archives.
Emblazoned on mugs in the university bookstore, printed on every diploma and hung on every podium across campus, the university seal is ubiquitous.
Despite its prominent placement, the symbolic image is cloaked in mystery. One persistent question lingers, what is the meaning behind the lone “sunken” star?
Encircled by the words “Santa Clara University” and the year of the school’s founding, 1851, the seal depicts a majestic eagle spreading its wings over a shield depicting the letters “IHS” and three nails. Above the eagle’s wings are thirteen stars, one of which is sunken.
The origins of the seal date back to the early founding of Santa Clara in the 1850s, according to a letter written in 1958 by former university archivist, Fr. Arthur Spearman, S.J., to a student at Loyola University in Los Angeles, now referred to as LMU.
In the letter, now located in the university archives, Spearman explains that the design most likely came from a signet ring used by university founder, Fr. John Nobili, S.J., who would sign official correspondences with red wax imprinted with the seal.
However, there is no mention of why the lone star is sunken, nor are there any surviving examples of the seal used by Nobili or successive university presidents.
Much of the design dates back to the historical founding of the university. The IHS, which are the first three letters of Christ’s name in Greek, and the three nails of the crucifix are a clear nod to the university’s Jesuit identity.
Although many believe that the stars are a reference to the 1777 founding of the original mission at the same time that the United States declared its independence, this is not entirely sure.
In reality, the 13 stars and the eagle itself reveal the political realities of 1850s California.
“(Jesuits) founded the school and even then there were people who resented immigrants, not to mention held deep suspicions about Catholics,” President Michael Engh, S.J., said in an email. “The Jesuits chose to display their loyalty to the U.S. with these American symbols.”
The sunken star above the eagle’s right wing presents far more of a mystery. According to Sheila Conway, public services coordinator of the university Archives and Special Collections, the sunken star may have been an early mistake that was never corrected. However, its meaning is still unknown.
“I do not know why the seal was designed this way and no one has ever been able to explain that to me,” Engh said. “I have my theory: that star is not sunken but actually rising to join the constellation of the others. It represents SCU soaring to join the ranks of the great universities of the U.S.”
Since 1880, the earliest surviving seal in the university archives, the design has changed in a variety of ways.
In 1880 there were 26 stars. The lettering around the seal was written in Latin until 1963 and throughout the years the design of the eagle has changed and the font of the IHS has been altered.
However, since at least 1903 the now famous 13 star design, complete with the mysterious sunken star, has been in employ.
Other than changing the lettering to reflect the university’s name change in the 1980s from University of Santa Clara to Santa Clara University, the seal remains the same. And years later, the question of that mischievous star has yet to be answered.
Contact Nicolas Sonnenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.