Nearly 250 years of history: How the Virginia flag came to have an exposed breast on it
The Virginian-Pilot May 21, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — There’s one state flag with a nipple.
Virginia is the only state in the union boasting a flag bearing the image of a bare-breasted woman, her drooping toga exposing the left side of her chest.
She represents the Roman goddess of virtue, Virtus, and once again she has public officials pondering nudity and appropriateness for schoolchildren. But such considerations are far from new.
The discussion and the creation of visual symbols for the commonwealth date to 1776 and a young country wanting to appear strong during a war for its survival.
The current seal is a disc with images on both sides and served as the stamp of the government. The front — featuring Virtus — appeared on documents signed by the governor and authenticated bills of trade. Virtus wields a sword and spear and stands triumphantly over a slain tyrant. The Latin words “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” “Thus always to tyrants,” are written below the autocrat’s body, which lies next to a fallen crown.
The state flag features the seal’s front, and thus, Virtus’ naked breast can be seen all around the state and in front of libraries, courts, schools and the lawns of patriotic Virginians.
Virtus’ garb has changed over time, and it was mentioned last month at a Virginia Beach School Board meeting.
Board member Jessica Owen mentioned Virtus to further her argument that the district’s definition of nudity needs more clarification.
The board was discussing levels of appropriateness of materials in elementary and middle school libraries when Owens cited school policy defining nudity as “any portion thereof below the top of the nipple.”
“Are we saying any book that has the Virginia state flag in it will be removed from elementary schools? Because I can see the top, the under, the left, the right,” she said. “You get all of the nipple.”
Owens later confirmed in a phone interview that she wasn’t advocating for or against the image of Virtus on the flag.
However, not all politicians have always been so neutral on the topic.
In 2010, the state’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, made national headlines when he gave his staff new lapel pins featuring Virtus — with her chest fully covered, by an armored breastplate. The move invited ridicule by comedian Jon Stewart, and the attorney general’s spokesperson explained Cuccinelli thought Virtus needed more modest attire.
The state seal was born after Virginia declared independence.
In the summer of 1776, the Virginia Convention, delegates representing parts of the colony, appointed Patrick Henry as the first governor and well-known citizens to form a committee with the sole purpose: “to devise a proper seal.”
The team of George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee and Robert Carter Nicholas hit the stacks at William & Mary, a small college in Williamsburg. They wanted to compare their new commonwealth to the glory of the Roman Empire. They searched books for classical images and emblems. Inside the college’s library they found a depiction of Virtus in a book written in 1747, “Polymetis,” by Joseph Spence, a British scholar who traveled to Italy and studied Roman art.
They reported back to the Virginia Convention on July 5 that the seal would be engraved with Virtus, whom they called “the genius of the commonwealth,” dressed like an Amazon with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other, “treading” on the broken power tyranny, represented by a fallen man.
The back of the seal appeared on documents signed by the state secretary and shows the fully clad Roman deities of Libertas, who represents liberty; Ceres, fertility and agriculture; and Aeternitas, a personification of eternity. Libertas holds a brimless hat called a pileus, and a wand. Ceres grasps a cornucopia and wheat, and Aeternitas cups a globe in the company of a bird traditionally thought to be a phoenix and representing immortality.
Thomas Jefferson even at one point took umbrage with the seal’s design. His reasons had nothing to do with mammary glands, though; the seal would not disrobe into its current form for over another century.
Having read a description of the seal in July 1776, Jefferson wrote home to Virginia from Philadelphia that the seal’s reverse side was “too much crowded, nor is the design so striking” and that “This device is too aenigmatical, since if it puzzles now, it will be absolutely insoluble fifty years hence.”
Virtue had a different meaning to the ancient Romans than it does today, according to William & Mary’s Jessica Page, an associate professor who specializes in Greek archaeology, architectural history and ritual theory.
Virtus had a connotation of courage, general excellence and military success.
“Over time,” Page said, “it came to just signify a really good person, someone who stood up for things, someone who wasn’t afraid to not back down against the powerful.”
Scholars have described the tyrant on the first seal as resembling England’s King George III, and Virtus more like a warrior in the Ottoman Empire than a Roman deity. The seal underwent multiple alterations in the years to come.
In 1779, the original words on the back, “Deus nobis haec otia fecit” — “God has given us this ease” — were changed to “Perseverando.”
At one time, the words “Liberty and Union” were added, but were removed by the General Assembly in 1873.
It wasn’t until at least 1901 that Virtus lost her modesty.
At the behest of the secretary of the commonwealth, D.Q. Eggleston, the seal was returned to engravers. Eggleston believed that the figure looked more like a man than a woman and wanted to correct it. He instructed designers to add the breast to clarify her sex.
That her breast is uncovered in the current design actually goes along with the instructions of the 1776 Convention that instructed that Virtus appear as an Amazon.
“Ancient depictions of Amazons in painting, or sculpture or anything like that, they usually have one breast exposed,” Page said.
Other small changes also occurred, such as in 1930 when the General Assembly added leaves of the Virginia creeper to the seal as an ornamental border.
The flag of Virginia has always had Virtus on it.
While the state tinkered with the seal, it didn’t designate an official design for its flag until Virginia seceded from the union in 1861. The “Secession” Convention passed an ordinance establishing a state flag that would show “a deep blue field with a circle of white in the center, upon which shall be painted or embroidered, to show on both sides alike, the Coat of Arms, of the State, as described by the convention of 1776 ...”
Ever since 1861 as the seal’s design has changed, so too has its depiction on the flag. When Eggleston wanted a more voluptuous Virtus, the flag, like the seal, also grew boobs.
©2023 The Virginian-Pilot.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.