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Zadok and Melchizedek and their place in Coronation

28 April 2023

Margaret Barker looks at the biblical roots and symbolism of the Coronation

Dean and Chapter of Westminster

The centre of the Cosmati pavement, with the remains of the inscription around the central sphere

The centre of the Cosmati pavement, with the remains of the inscription around the central sphere

THE Coronation service in Westminster Abbey has deep roots not only in English history, but also in the Christian monarchies of old Europe. They looked to biblical accounts of the kings in Jerusalem, and so making a king centred not on his crowning, but on his anointing. Samuel anointed Saul and David; Nathan and Zadok anointed Solomon.

Even before the Norman conquest, the antiphon for the anointing in England was about Zadok. The Christian kings of pre-Muslim Spain were anointed, but the image was Samuel anointing David, as it was for Peppin, king of the Franks, in 751 CE. The English rite chose Solomon, and still has the Zadok anthem today.

The Hebrew Scriptures have two very different views of the kings: the final editors of most of the history books believed that the Lord was the only king for his people, and emphasised the extravagant and often evil ways of the earthly kings.

On the other hand, the Psalms sang of a God-given ruler, and prayed for him. The Prophets recorded an ideal of kingship that they projected into the future: one day such a king would come. But their future hope derived from an ancient ideal of kingship that was extolled in the Psalms, and never lost.

The tradition is that Psalm 110 described how Solomon became king. This is one of the two most quoted Old Testament passages to appear in the New Testament; the other is Isaiah 52.13-53.12. It describes the king who was also the high priest “after the order of Melchizedek”. The text of verse 3 is damaged, but reconstructing from the pre-Christian Greek translation, the Septuagint, we see that when the king was anointed he became a son of God. “Your youth has come to you,” was originally “I have begotten you.” The anointed one, the Messiah, was a son of God.

The “dew” in Psalm 110 was the anointing oil; it was often described that way. It brought resurrection, which, in temple discourse, meant a new life as a son of God.

Dean and Chapter of WestminsterDetail of the retable in Westminster Abbey

The oldest prescription for the oil is in Exodus 30, linked to Moses’s tabernacle: myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, olive oil, and “aromatic cane”, which cannot be identified for certain. This is different from the oil that has been blended and consecrated for the Coronation; it is the simpler, original blend that represented the oil from the tree of life.

The tree of life was one of the symbols of Lady Wisdom, the heavenly mother figure in the Jerusalem temple. She had many names: she was the Hidden or Eternal Lady, whom we know as the Virgin, and she was the Spirit who fluttered over the unformed state before creation.

Her gifts — the gifts of the Spirit — were conferred with the perfumed oil. Isaiah listed them as wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, received when the Spirit of the Lord — that is, the Spirit that transformed the human prince into the Lord — was anointed. He became Immanuel, “God with us”.

Then the new king sat on the throne of the Lord. This startling statement (1 Chronicles 29.23) confirms that the Davidic kings were seen as the human presence of the Lord.

The Psalms prayed for such a king. The character of the king affected the well-being of his people, and of the whole creation. Psalm 72, for example, prays for divine justice and righteousness for the royal son, to benefit his people and the land.

The disappointed Isaiah looked forward to such a king in the future, when the Spirit was poured out (again) and the wilderness became fruitful. No longer would fools be called noble while speaking folly, leaving people hungry and thirsty and ruining the poor with lies: some lines from Isaiah 32.

The anointed divine son was given wisdom to rule. At the start of his reign, before the temple was built, Solomon went to Gibeon and prayed for wisdom. He was famous as a wise man, and his wisdom came from observing the creation: trees, beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish.

The anointed king was seen as the seal of the creation whose God-given wisdom enabled him to hold all things together in harmony. There are echoes of this in St Paul’s words to the Colossians: the Anointed One was the image of the invisible God in whom all things hold together.

But the temple in Jerusalem became corrupt. Ezekiel saw the heavenly throne leaving the city, bearing the radiant man who was the likeness of the glory of the Lord. Those four “wheels within wheels” that he tried to describe were what Daniel also saw: a throne of flames with wheels of burning fire.

The throne was also a symbol of the king’s heavenly mother. Christian hymns would later describe Mary as the throne and as the heavenly chariot bringing her Son to earth.

Dean and Chapter of WestminsterThe Cosmati pavement and the high altar

In Westminster Abbey, the place that corresponds to the place of the throne in Solomon’s temple was also the place of the throne. When Henry III rebuilt the Abbey, a magnificent mosaic pavement was set there in 1268. It was made by craftsmen from Rome, and named after them: the Cosmati pavement. The design is similar to others they made, but there is one difference; this is the only one that has an inscription to explain the pattern.

Very few letters remain, but a copy made in 1443 shows that the pattern represented a new interpretation of the universe of the Platonists. They imagined a series of concentric spheres whose outermost, the primum mobile, controlled the heavenly bodies. The inscription said that the controlling sphere of the universe was in fact at the centre, where the throne was set.

This was the biblical world-view, showing the English king as a Solomon, a wise man anointed by Zadok who held together his people and the natural order.

The most important clue in this ancient puzzle is the original retable, the pictures set behind the high altar. Very little remains, but the central panel does show Jesus with the Virgin Mary and St John. As experts have observed, both the Virgin and St John are holding palm branches, which is unusual.

The palm branch was the sign of the esoteric knowledge of the old high priesthood, which must have included the beliefs about the king becoming a son of God. An early and widely known Christian tradition said that the resurrected Jesus met his mother and entrusted his deepest teachings to her. These were the traditions of the high priesthood relating to what we now call incarnation and theosis. He gave her a golden palm branch as a sign. When the Virgin died, she gave the branch and the duty to St John.

This story was known to the early Irish monks, and the royal charter for the new Minster at Winchester, dated 966 CE, shows the Virgin holding her golden palm branch. Many paintings of the death of the Virgin show St John holding one. Although often seen as the sign of martyrdom, it may be that the palm branch was the reason for the martyrdom. Palm Sunday was certainly about welcoming the incarnate King.

The Virgin and St John holding palm branches on the original retable direct us to read the Cosmati pavement in that way. The almost lost inscription set the centre of the universe at the centre of the pavement, which was the place of the throne.

The four circles surrounding the centre of the Cosmati mosaic — a pattern known from other pavements — were seen as the four wheels of the chariot throne, and the inscription interprets the pattern that way.

Henry III made many visits to Walsingham, and a devotion to this Marian tradition about the palm branch and the throne seems to be expressed in the rebuilt Abbey.

It is good to reflect on the significance of Zadok’s anointing Solomon, the wise man who learned from the natural world. Our new King’s concern for the environment accords well with the tradition represented by the place where he will be anointed.


Dr Margaret Barker is a co-founder of the Temple Studies Group and a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study.

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