A 60 second RU history lesson: the Rutgers Latin motto ‘Sol iustitiae et occidentem illustra’

charterwindowThe Charter Window in Rutgers’ Kirkpatrick Chapel

Better late than never.

As it so happens, yesterday—26 March 2009—marked the 373rd anniversary of the founding of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Perhaps you celebrated it. If not, here’s a 60 second history spot on why it matters for Rutgers folks…

On 26 March 1636, goes the story, Utrecht’s students saw their two year old “Illustrious School”—sort of like a medieval junior college—upgraded to university status. From that point on they were able to obtain academic and doctoral degrees—and (among other privileges) to escape taxes on beer and wine.

Now here is where we must turn to a 1995 pamphlet by Roelof van den Broek, Hy leeret ende beschuttet. Over het wapen en de zinspreuk van de Universiteit Utrecht, which Professor Leen Dorsman, official Historian of Utrecht University, generously summarized for the benefit of Rutgers Classics.

Already from its start in 1634 the Illustrious School seems to have used a sun emblem with Latin motto ‘Sol Iustitiae Illustra Nos‘ (“Sun of Righteousness, Enlighten Us”). For instance, the professor of classical studies (Justus Liraeus) used the phrase in his inaugural lecture. Perhaps the verb “illustra” was meant to evoke the “Illustrious School” itself.

In any case, on Opening Day in 1636, Utrecht University’s first “Rector Magnificus” was presented with those visuals and text on the official seals and crest of the new university.

The points shooting out from the sun in the contemporary Utrecht logo are in fact not sunrays but stylized flames. In the emblem of the original 17th century Sol one can also see some small engraved lines between the flames: those represent the rays of the sun. This all goes back to an older tradition in which God was presented as a sun with flames and rays (i.e., the power to both burn and radiate). The shield in the center of the sun is that of the town of Utrecht.

And here is where the Rutgers angle comes in. The seal of Rutgers (est. 1766 as Queen’s College) is directly adapted from that of Utrecht, but without the town shield, and with a slightly altered motto: ‘Sol Iustitiae Et Occidentem Illustra‘ (“Sun of Righteousness, Enlighten also the West”). The Latin is a conflation of the Biblical texts of Malachi 4:2 and Matthew 13:43.


Now, the ‘Illustra‘ motto is not found in the earliest charter of our university, dated 20 March 1770. [That’s another anniversary that you just missed—Ed.]

However it does show up on the earliest extant Rutgers diploma, which is that of Simeon DeWitt, Class of 1776.

dewitt2Seal from the diploma of Simeon DeWitt, Class of 1776, with “Sun of Righteousness” and Latin motto. Credit: Thomas Frusciano / Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives

So it certainly does go back to the earliest decades of the institution. Indeed, it was almost certainly one Rev. John H. Livingston (1746-1825) who suggested that Queen’s College adopt the Utrecht seal and motto.


The Reverend John Henry Livingston, president of Rutgers 1810-1825

But there’s just a bit more to say…

Livingston, a Yale graduate (matriculating at age 12!), was educated for the ministry at Utrecht. After four years in Holland in 1770 he became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church of New York, from which post he played the leading role in reconciling factions in the Church and establishing Dutch theological education on American soil. As early as 1772 the trustees of Queen’s College wanted Livingston as their institution’s president. That was to come only in 1810, after years of close involvement with the young (and struggling) Queen’s College.

As for precisely when the College took up its Latin motto—well, for that, we’ll have to wait for a promising senior thesis on the whole topic of the Rutgers motto (from Biblical origins to the present second) by Rutgers Classics and Music double major Jessica Shao’09. Probably by the time of Rutgers’ first-ever commencement, which took place in October 1774.

Precisely a century ago, Rutgers alumni set up a plaque at Utrecht University to honor the Rev. John H. Livingston. Utrecht refers to it in this 1916 congratulatory letter to Rutgers, on our university’s 150th anniversary:


Utrecht props to Rutgers at our university’s 150th anniversary (1916)

Rutgers’ Livingston Campus however is named after a different Livingston: William Livingston (1723 –1790),  Governor of New Jersey (1776–1790) during the American Revolutionary War and a signer of the United States Constitution.

Zon der gerechtigheid, schijn ook over het Westen—indeed!

raritancrossingDutch settlers crossing the Raritan in 1730 (as recreated in 1916)

2 responses to “A 60 second RU history lesson: the Rutgers Latin motto ‘Sol iustitiae et occidentem illustra’

  1. Cool stuff

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