We all occasionally need a little direction – it’s easy to get off course. As man first began to sail across oceans, maps were drawn to help give direction and guide ships. The “compass rose” came to life, but for most woodworkers, the compass rose is purely decorative. I’ve been aware of it for many years, first seeing the inlay associated with boxes and trunks in areas of New England that have strong nautical ties. But it was a Pennsylvania desk-on-frame – the inlay was centered on the desk’s lid – that prompted me to research the design.
The compass rose, on a map, indicates direction, although the points represent winds. The four major winds – today, as it was in the pre-1500s – are North, South, East and West. The first letter of each direction is often transcribed just beyond its point. These are the cardinal directions. Around the time of Christopher Columbus, Portuguese mapmakers used a fleur-de-lys to signify the north wind. A cross was used for the east, which indicated the Holy Land.
A set of four half-winds, the ordinal directions, was added along the way. Ordinals winds are northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast. Those points are shorter in length on many maps, as they are in my inlay. To provide more precise bearings, 16 more points were added to the design. This is where the term “rose” was introduced because on a map, all 32 points have the appearance of a rose with all its petals intact.
A four-point compass is only the major winds – I seldom see this design used on furniture. The inclusion of the four ordinal winds makes the design an eight-point compass, which is the topic of this presentation. All 32 points is technically a compass rose.
While you may think that the decline in printmaking and sailing has lessened the notoriety of these symbols, many are still in use today as the symbol of well-known organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Seattle Mariners major league baseball team. (Would you expect anything different from Mariners?)
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