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Numen Lumen: The UW’s Not-So Secret Seal

The eye of Sauron is upon you. At least, that’s what it feels like when you meet the gaze of the university’s Numen Lumen seal. The symbol, and its accompanying motto, are, in fact, meant to bring to mind a higher power.

Esther Seidlitz
February 09, 2022

The eye of Sauron is upon you. At least, that’s what it feels like when you meet the gaze of the university’s Numen Lumen seal. The symbol, and its accompanying motto, are, in fact, meant to bring to mind a higher power.

Numen Lumen is a Latin phrase that has a few possible translations, including “God is the light,” and “God our light.” If you prefer a more universal or spiritual interpretation, John Lathrop, the UW’s first chancellor, had a slightly different take: “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light.”

You may be wondering why the UW uses this seal if no one truly knows what it means. The Numen Lumen motto was the first official seal of the UW, chosen on February 11, 1854, to replace the 50-cent piece that was simply a stand-in when the paperwork establishing the UW was signed in 1848. Lathrop based the design of the Numen Lumen seal not on Tolkien-esque villains or illuminati imagery, but on the dominant religious sentiment of the people of Wisconsin at the time.

Broad interpretations of Numen Lumen allow the motto to transcend and even connect people of any and all belief systems. No matter what guiding power an individual Badger reads into Numen Lumen, the UW community is united in the goal to build a brighter future. UW president Conrad A. Elvehjem outlined these goals alongside the Numen Lumen seal in a 1962 welcome flyer:

“Our University’s purpose is threefold: To teach the young people of today and to help them become the good citizens and leaders of tomorrow; to improve our daily life and lot through research; and to serve the state and its people.”

Though the university now opts to use its W crest more heavily than the somewhat unnerving eye with sunrays shooting out of it, Numen Lumen remains an important part of the UW’s tradition. The symbol can be found on campus across a variety of images, marketing materials, and buildings throughout UW–Madison’s history.

The Numen Lumen seal had its eye on dancers at the junior prom in 1926.
University Archives, S04058
A gardener plants an elaborate flower bed in the shape of the Numen Lumen seal right in front of Lathrop Hall in 1949.
University Archives, S16289
A person dressed as the Numen Lumen seal promotes a costume party held by the International Club in 1951. (We’re not sure if this is supposed to be a threat or an enticement.)
University Archives, S14092
A worker polishes the Numen Lumen seal set in the floor of Memorial Library in 1953, the same year that Memorial Library opened.
University Archives, S12612
UW President Conrad Elvehjem welcomes visitors to campus with the all-seeing Numen Lumen seal in 1962.
University Archives, S09074
The 1962 commencement program made for a bright affair with a prominent Numen Lumen symbol and a hymn titled, “Light for All.”
University Archives, S09075
Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, stood in front of the Numen Lumen seal to deliver the 1971 commencement address.
University Archives, S10894
The Numen Lumen seal joins Bucky in decorating the cover of the 2009 Badger yearbook.
University Archives
Alumni Park features one of the most prominent iterations of the Numen Lumen seal still on campus, bridging past traditions and current accomplishments.
Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications
Another Numen Lumen seal included in Alumni Park, this cut-out version can be found on Badger Pride Wall, along with many other UW icons.
Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications

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