It is used as the astrological symbol for the Moon, and hence as the alchemical symbol for silver. It was also the emblem of Diana/Artemis, and hence represented virginity. In Roman Catholic Marian veneration, it is associated with the Virgin Mary.
The crescent symbol is primarily used to represent the Moon, not necessarily in a particular lunar phase. When used to represent a waxing or waning lunar phase, "crescent" or "increscent" refers to the waxing first quarter, while the symbol representing the waning final quarter is called "decrescent".
The crescent symbol was long used as a symbol of the Moon in astrology, and by extension of Silver (as the corresponding metal) in alchemy. The astrological use of the symbol is attested in early Greek papyri containing horoscopes. In the 2nd-century Bianchini's planisphere, the personification of the Moon is shown with a crescent attached to her headdress.
Its ancient association with Ishtar/Astarte and Diana is preserved in the Moon (as symbolised by a crescent) representing the female principle (as juxtaposed with the Sun representing the male principle), and (Artemis-Diana being a virgin goddess) especially virginity and female chastity. In Roman Catholic tradition, the crescent entered Marian iconography, by the association of Mary with the Woman of the Apocalypse (described with "the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" in Revelation) The most well known representation of Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse is the Virgin of Guadalupe.
|Examples of lunes in planar geometry (shaded areas). Examples in the top row can be considered crescent shapes.|
The crescent shape consists of a circular disk with a segment of another circle removed from its edge, so that what remains is a shape enclosed by two circular arcs of different diameters which intersect at two points (usually in such a manner that the enclosed shape does not include the center of the original circle). As such, it belongs to the class of figures known as lune in planar geometry. The tapering towards the points of intersection of the two arcs are known as the "horns" of the crescent. The classical crescent shape has its horns pointing upward (and is often worn as horns when worn as a crown or diadem, e.g. in depictions of the lunar goddess, or in the headdress of Persian kings, etc.
The word crescent is derived etymologically from the present participle of the Latin verb crescere "to grow", technically denoting the waxing moon (luna crescens). As seen from the northern hemisphere, the waxing Moon tends to appear with its horns pointing towards the left, and conversely the waning Moon with its horns pointing towards the right; the English word crescent may however refer to the shape regardless of its orientation, except for the technical language of blazoning used in heraldry, where the word "increscent" refers to a crescent shape with its horns to the left, and "decrescent" refers to one with its horns to the right, while the word "crescent" on its own denotes a crescent shape with horns pointing upward.
The shape of the lit side of a spherical body (most notably the Moon) that appears to be less than half illuminated by the Sun as seen by the viewer appears in a different shape from what is generally termed a crescent in planar geometry: Assuming the terminator lies on a great circle, The crescent Moon will actually appear as the figure bounded by a half-ellipse and a half-circle, with the major axis of the ellipse coinciding with a diameter of the semicircle.
Unicode encodes a crescent (increscent) at U+263D (?) and a decrescent at U+263E (?). The Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs block provides variants with faces: 🌛 first quarter moon with face and 🌜 last quarter moon with face.
The crescent was well used in the iconography of the ancient Near East and was used transplanted by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC as far as Carthage in modern Tunisia. The crescent and star also appears on pre-Islamic coins of South Arabia.
The combination of star and crescent also arises in the ancient Near East, representing the Moon and Ishtar (the planet Venus), often combined into a triad with the solar disk. It was inherited both in Sassanian and Hellenistic iconography.
In the iconography of the Hellenistic period, the crescent became the symbol of Artemis-Diana, the virgin hunter goddess associated with the Moon. Numerous depictions show Artemis-Diana wearing the crescent Moon as part of her headdress. The related symbol of the star and crescent was the emblem of the Mithradates dynasty in the Kingdom of Pontus and was also used as the emblem of Byzantium.
The crescent remained in use as an emblem in Sassanid Persia, used as a Zoroastrian regal or astrological symbol. In the Crusades it came to be associated with the Orient (the Byzantine Empire, the Levant and Outremer in general) and was widely used (often alongside a star) in Crusader seals and coins. It was used as a heraldic charge by the later 13th century. Anna Notaras, daughter of the last megas doux of the Byzantine Empire Loukas Notaras, after the fall of Constantinople and her emigration to Italy, made a seal with her coat of arms which included "two lions holding above the crescent a cross or a sword".
From its use in Sassanid Persia, the crescent also found its way into Islamic iconography after the Muslim conquest of Persia. Umar is said to have two hung two crescent-shaped ornaments captured from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon in the Kaaba. The crescent appears to have been adopted as an emblem on military flags by the Islamic armies from at least the 13th century, although the scholarly consensus holds that the widespread use of the crescent in Islam develops later, during the 14th to 15th century. The use of such flags is reflected in the 14th-century Libro del Conoscimiento and the Catalan Atlas. Examples include the flags attributed to Gabes, Tlemcen, Tunis and Buda,Nubia/Dongola (documented by Angelino Dulcert in 1339) and the Mamluks of Egypt.
The Roman Catholic fashion of depicting Madonna standing or sitting on a crescent develops in the 15th century.
The goddess Diana was associated with the Moon in classical mythology. In reference to this, feminine jewelry representing crescents, especially diadems, became popular in the early modern period. The tarot card of the "Popess" also wears a crescent on her head.
Conrad Grünenberg in his Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1486) consistently depicts cities in the Holy Land with crescent finials. Flags with crescents appear to have been used on Ottoman vessels since at least the 16th century. Prints depicting the Battle of Lepanto (1571), including the print by Agostino Barberigo of Rome made just a few weeks after the battle, and the Martino Rota of Venice in the following year, show the Ottoman vessels displaying flags with one or several crescents in various orientations (as do the monumental paintings commissioned later based on these prints). Rota also shows numerous crescent finials, both on ships and on fortresses depicted in the background, as well as some finials with stars or suns radiant, and in some cases a sun radiant combined with a crescent in the star-and-crescent configuration. The official adoption of star and crescent as the Ottoman state symbol started during the reign of Mustafa III (1757-1774) and its use became well-established during Abdul Hamid I (1774-1789) and Selim III (1789-1807) periods. A buyruldu (decree) from 1793 states that the ships in the Ottoman navy have that flag.
Muhammad Ali, who became Pasha of Egypt in 1805, introduced the first national flag of Egypt, red with three white crescents, each accompanied by a white star. The association of the crescent with the Ottoman Empire appears to have resulted in a gradual association of the crescent shape with Islam in the 20th century. A Red Crescent appears to have been used as a replacement of the Red Cross as early as in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877/8, and it was officially adopted in 1929. While some Islamic organisations since the 1970s have embraced the crescent as their logo or emblem (e.g. Crescent International magazine, established 1980), Muslim publications tend to emphasize that the interpretation of the crescent, historically used on the banners of Muslim armies, as a "religious symbol" of Islam was an error made by the "Christians of Europe". The identification of the crescent as an "Islamic symbol" is mentioned by James Hastings as a "common error" to which "even approved writers on Oriental subjects" are prone as early as 1928.
Madonna on the crescent, Bad Waldsee church (17th century)
Portrait of a Lady as Diana by Pompeo Batoni (1760s)
The crescent has been used as a heraldic charge since the 13th century. In heraldic terminology, the term "crescent" when used alone refers to a crescent with the horns pointing upward. A crescent with the horns pointing left (dexter) is called "a crescent increscent" (or simply "an increscent"), and when the horns are pointing right (sinister), it is called "a crescent decrescent" (or "a decrescent"). A crescent with horns pointing down is called "a crescent reversed". Two crescents with horns pointing away from each other are called "addorsed".Siebmachers Wappenbuch (1605) has 48 coats of arms with one or more crescents, for example:
Three examples of coats of arms with crescents from the Dering Roll (c. 1270): No. 118: Willem FitzLel (sable crusily and three crescents argent); no. 120: John Peche (gules, a crescent or, on a chief argent two mullets gules); no. 128: Rauf de Stopeham (argent, two (of three) crescents and a canton gules).
The crescent remains in use as astrological symbol and astronomical symbol representing the Moon. Use of a standalone crescent in flags is less common than the star and crescent combination. Crescents without stars are found in the South Carolina state flag (1861), the flag of the Maldives (1965), the flag of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (1981) and the flag of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (c. 2002).
Crescents, often with faces, are found on numerous modern municipal coats of arms in Europe, e.g. Germany: Bönnigheim, Dettighofen, Dogern, Jesenwang, Karstädt, Michelfeld (Angelbachtal), Waldbronn; Switzerland: Boswil, Dättlikon, Neerach (from the 16th-century Neuamt coat of arms); France: Katzenthal, Mortcerf; Malta: Qormi; Sweden: Trosa.
The crescent printed on military ration boxes is the US Department of Defense symbol for subsistence items. The symbol is used on packaged foodstuffs but not on fresh produce or on items intended for resale.
The term crescent may also refer to objects with a shape reminiscent of the crescent shape, such as houses forming an arc, a type of solitaire game, Crescent Nebula, glomerular crescent (crescent shaped scar of the glomeruli of the kidney)., the Fertile Crescent (the fertile area of land between Mesopotamia and Egypt roughly forming a crescent shape), and the croissant (the French form of the word) for the crescent-shaped pastry.