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The all-seeing Eye of Providence symbol 	Source: markus dehlzeit / Adobe stock

What’s the Truth Behind the All-Seeing Eye of Providence?

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The Eye of Providence (known also as the all-seeing eye of God) is a well-known and popular symbol. This symbol has been used for centuries in both religious and secular contexts, and therefore its representation can be found in many places. For Americans, The Eye of Providence is most commonly found on the reverse of the United States one-dollar bill. This design is in turn derived from the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. The Eye of Providence has also been associated with the Freemasons, and thanks to films, such as the 2004 National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage, conspiracy theories linking the Freemasons with the founding of the United States have been popularized.

The Eye of Providence is commonly depicted as a single, realistic-looking eye within one or more additional elements: a triangle, a burst of light, clouds, or all three. The earliest-known depiction of this symbol dates to the Renaissance. Nevertheless, eyes have had a strong symbolic meaning in many cultures over the course of history.

The Ancient Egyptian Eyes

One of the most famous of these symbols is the Eye of Horus (known also as Wadjet, which means ‘Whole One’), which was immensely popular amongst the ancient Egyptians. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Horus lost his left eye during a battle with his uncle Seth. This eye was magically restored by the goddess Hathor, who is believed to have been either Horus’ mother or wife. Thus, the Eye of Horus became a symbol of healing.

The ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus. (Anne Mathiasz / Adobe stock)

The ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus. (Anne Mathiasz / Adobe stock)

In another myth, Horus presented his eye to his father, Osiris, to help him rule the Underworld. Osiris ate the eye, and he was restored to life. Thus, in this myth, the eye became a symbol of life and resurrection. These myths served to popularize the Eye of Horus as a protective symbol, and therefore it was commonly made into protective amulets. Such amulets continue to be popular even today. 

The ancient Egyptians had another symbol similar to the Eye of Horus, which is known as the Eye of Ra. Unlike the Eye of Horus, this was an aggressive symbol that focused on the destructive aspect of the god Ra. In one of the ancient Egyptian myths, Ra was becoming old and weak, which caused people to disrespect him. Ra was furious that they no longer stuck to laws, and that they were making jokes at his expense. Therefore, he decided to punish mankind by sending the ‘Eye of Ra’ to destroy them.

The Eye of Ra was a goddess (different goddesses, including Hathor, Sekhmet, and Bast, are said to possess this title) sent to earth in the form of a lion, and she immediately began her slaughter of humanity. Seeing the scale of the destruction wrought by the goddess, Ra regretted his action, and called his daughter to stop. The goddess, however, was in a bloodlust, and paid no heed to her father’s pleas. Ra, fearing that all of humanity would be wiped out if the goddess was allowed to continue on her rampage, devised a cunning plan. The god had 7000 jugs of beer mixed with pomegranate juice, which made the beer red, and he poured them in the fields around the Eye of Ra. As the goddess drank the ‘blood’, she became so drunk that she fell asleep, and only woke up three days later with a terrible hangover. By this means, humanity was saved by Ra.

The Beginnings of the Eye of Providence

Like the ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus and Eye of Ra, the Eye of Providence is also associated with the divine. As mentioned already, the earliest-known representation of the Eye of Providence is from the Renaissance. This representation is found in a 1525 painting called the Supper at Emmaus by the Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo. The subject matter of this painting is the second half of the ‘Road to Emmaus Appearance’ story found towards the end of the Gospel according to Luke.

Jacopo Pontormo’s Supper at Emmaus, where the Eye of Providence is seen above Christ. (Erick Opena / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jacopo Pontormo’s Supper at Emmaus, where the Eye of Providence is seen above Christ. (Erick Opena / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In this story, which happens after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus appears to two of his disciples who were on their way to a town called Emmaus. After reaching the town, Jesus stays with the two men to have supper with them, and this is the scene painted by Pontormo. This painting was made for the Carthusians (a Catholic religious order known also as the Order of St Bruno) of the Certosa del Galluzzo, in the suburbs of Florence. Interestingly, a few of the monks were painted by Pontormo behind Christ, who is shown blessing the bread. Above the head of Christ is the Eye of Providence, which is meant to show that God was watching the entire event.

The depiction of the Eye of Providence on Pontormo’s Supper at Emmaus shows that it started off as a Christian symbol. Within this context, the word ‘providence’ refers to ‘divine guidance’, specifically to that provided by the God of Christianity. Thus, in a way, the Eye of Providence is meant to represent a form of spiritual guidance that pious Christians ought to follow. The Eye of Providence may also be meant to represent the omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience of God.

In addition, the elements surrounding the eye take on a Christian meaning as well. For instance, the triangle is a clear reference to the Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The burst of light and clouds are meant to symbolize divinity, holiness and God himself. As a matter of fact, these elements are also sometimes used when God is depicted in works of art, for instance, when He is represented by the tetragrammaton, i.e. the name of God in Hebrew transliterated in the four letters, YHWH. Such depictions may be found on stained glass windows in Christin churches, like the abbey church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris, where the Merovingian kings of Neustria were buried.

The Eye of Providence shown on the wall of a Church. (suprunvitaly / Adobe stock)

The Eye of Providence shown on the wall of a Church. (suprunvitaly / Adobe stock)

Freemasonry and Conspiracy Theories

In time, the Eye of Providence was adopted by the Freemasons, who drew inspiration from the use of human organs to represent abstract concepts by ancient cultures. Thus, the open eye was meant to symbolize watchfulness, and the Eye of Providence, being the eye of the Supreme Being (since by this time many no longer believed in the Christian God, but some other kind of divine or higher power out there). This was meant to represent the watchfulness and care of the divine for the universe.

In addition, this symbol was meant to remind the Freemasons to maintain their standards of morality, as they are being watched over by a higher force. Furthermore, the Eye of Providence may be regarded as a sign of spiritual illumination and revelation. In some instances, the Eye of Providence is placed within or above the square and compasses, arguably the most recognizable symbol of the Freemasons.

The freemason / Eye of Providence symbol with the square and compass. (markus dehlzeit / Adobe stock)

The freemason / Eye of Providence symbol with the square and compass. (markus dehlzeit / Adobe stock)

One interpretation states that the square represents morality or virtue, whereas the compass represents boundaries or wisdom of conduct. Another interpretation of the symbol states that the square deals with matters concerning the earth and the body, whilst the compass deals with those of the heavens and the soul. It may also be said that since the points of the compass are placed below the square, it is meant to signify that one is only dealing with the moral and political meanings of the symbol, but not their deeper philosophical and spiritual ones. Moreover, the intersection of the compass and square may be understood as denoting the intermingling between the divine and the human, and that there is a spiritual dimension even in the most mundane aspects of life.

Numerous conspiracy theories have linked the Freemasons with the founding of the United States through the Eye of Providence. This symbol is also found on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. The seal (both its obverse and reverse) is also printed on the reverse of the United States one-dollar bill, and the symbol is therefore, quite literally, in most Americans’ pockets.

The Eye of Providence shown on the left side of the United States one-dollar bill. (Public domain)

One common conspiracy theory claims that the application of the Eye of Providence on the Great Seal was a way for the Freemasons to project their watchful power over the country. As already mentioned, the Freemasons saw the Eye of Providence as a symbol of the Supreme Being, rather than their own power, and that it was to remind them to uphold their standards of morality. Therefore, it is unlikely that they would have used it as a symbol of their power.

A slight variation to this conspiracy theory is that the American government is always watching its people. Though this is certainly not the intention of the symbol, if one were to return to its original meaning. In this case, it is meant to show that God is watching over America, and that the country was being created under His watchful eye. The phrase ‘In God We Trust’ on the reverse of the one-dollar bill is further evidence of the symbol’s association with God, rather than with the American government.

The Great Seal

The Eye of Providence on the Great Seal of the United States is surrounded by a triangle and a burst of light (like the ones used in Christian art), and it is placed on the top of an unfinished pyramid. The design of the seal was finalized in 1782, and the description of the reverse, as found in Charles Thomson’s (who was the Secretary of Congress) “Remarks and Explanation,” adopted by the Continental Congress (June 20, 1782) is “Reverse. The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the New American Era, which commences from that date.” Interestingly, whilst drawings of the obverse were made as soon as the design was adopted, the first drawing of the reverse was only made four years later, in 1786. This was drawn by James Trenchard, an engraver from Philadelphia, for the October 1786 issue of the Columbian Magazine.

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States with the Eye of Providence shown at the top. (Ipankonin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States with the Eye of Providence shown at the top. (Ipankonin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The second drawing of the reverse that we know of was made by Benson L. Lossing, an artist and historian, in 1856. The drawing was meant to accompany an article he had written on the Great Seal for the July 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Lossing made some changes to Trenchard’s design, and this second drawing has influenced all later realizations of Thomson’s written description of 1782 (including the one on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, which follows almost exactly Lossing’s design). This is except for the Great Seal Centennial Medal that was struck in 1882. The reverse of the medal followed Trenchard’s design closely, and it was the first realization of the seal’s reverse to be issued officially by the American government.

Incidentally, the Continental Congress was provided with a design for the Great Seal’s reverse, in case it wanted to impress the back surfaces of wax pendant seals, which it had been using for treaties between 1815 and 1871. The back surfaces, however, were never impressed, and enthusiasm for cutting a die of the reverse gradually diminished. Therefore, not one reverse die has been cut till this day.             

Trenchard’s design of the Great Seal places the Eye of Providence atop an unfinished pyramid with 13 steps. This number is symbolic, as it represents the 13 original British colonies that formed the United States. The two mottos mentioned in Thomson’s description are in Latin, and are as follows, Annuit Coeptis (meaning ‘He [God] has favored our undertakings’, and Novus Ordo Seclorum (meaning ‘a new order of the ages’). The former is placed over the Eye of Providence, whilst the latter under the pyramid. The year of the Declaration of Independence, in the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI (1776), is found on the bottom step of the pyramid. One of the changes made by Lossing to Trenchard’s design was to replace the right Eye of Providence with a left one, and this has remained ever since. In addition, Lossing’s pyramid, which is rather square, as opposed to Trenchard’s elongated one, is given a deep perspective, and the ground around it is filled with flowers and grass.

Top image: The all-seeing Eye of Providence symbol        Source: markus dehlzeit / Adobe stock

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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