The Changing Iconography of Father Time

  • S. Macey


Though Saturn-Cronus, as Panofsky suggested in 1939, is the single most important influence on the Father Time of the Western World, the two have been very differently represented. They seem to have little more than age in common, and this impression is strengthened when we consider their natures. The accretions and metamorphoses — as benevolence, nudity, forelock, wings, hourglass, and scythe — which gave to Saturn the symbols that we have come to associate with Father Time are traced through a number of works including the illustrators of Petrarch, the emblem books, and Hogarth.

The change that we are tracing is from a Saturn who had castrated his father and devoured his own children — the saturnine and even malevolent patron of cripples and criminals — to a Father Time who by the sixteenth century was frequently depicted as the benevolent father of Truth. Among other developments, Father Time, who had earlier taken over the symbols of Death, stands back aghast from him by the time of Quarles’ Hieroglyphikes (1638). In Hogarth’s last work Tailpiece, or the Bathos (1764), Time — now more sinned against than sinning — expires surrounded by his broken symbols.

Though Father Time did not die (Cupid and he are the only characters from the old emblem books that survive), he is today a very different figure from that depicted in the earlier illustrations. The main purpose of my essay has been to delineate the changing iconography of Father Time, while a subsidiary purpose has been to relate this to important developments in technology and society.


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