Alma mater (Latin: alma mater, lit. 'nourishing mother'; pl.: almae matres) is an allegorical Latin phrase used to proclaim a school that a person has attended or, more usually, from which one has graduated.
The term entered academic use when the University of Bologna, Italy, founded in 1088 and world's oldest university in continuous operation, adopted the motto Alma Mater Studiorum ("nurturing mother of studies").
Although alma (nourishing) was a common epithet for Ceres, Cybele, Venus, and other mother goddesses, it was not frequently used in conjunction with mater in classical Latin. In the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the phrase is attributed to Lucretius in his De rerum natura where he used the term as an epithet to describe an earth goddess:
Denique caelesti sumus omnes semine oriundi
omnibus ille idem pater est, unde alma liquentis
umoris guttas mater cum terra recepit (2.991–993)
We are all sprung from that celestial seed,
all of us have same father, from whom earth,
the nourishing mother, receives drops of liquid moisture
The earliest documented use of the term to refer to a university in an English-speaking country is in 1600, when the University of Cambridge printer, John Legate, began using an emblem for the university press. The first-known appearance of the device is on the title-page of a book by William Perkins, A Golden Chain, where the Latin phrase Alma Mater Cantabrigia ("nourishing mother Cambridge") is inscribed on a pedestal bearing a nude, lactating woman wearing a mural crown.
Many historic European universities have adopted Alma Mater as part of the Latin translation of their official name. The Latin name of the University of Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum (nourishing mother of studies), refers to its status as the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Other European universities, such as the Alma Mater Lipsiensis in Leipzig, Germany, or Alma Mater Jagiellonica, Poland, have used the expression similarly in conjunction with geographical or foundational characteristics. At least one, the Alma Mater Europaea in Salzburg, Austria, an international university founded by the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2010, uses the term as its official name.
Modern sculptures of Alma Mater are found in prominent locations on several American university campuses. In 1901, a bronze statue of Alma Mater by Daniel Chester French was installed of steps of Columbia University's Low Library. A similar sculpture, cast in 1919 by Mario Korbel, sits on the main entrance steps at the University of Havana.
Later statues include Lorado Taft's Alma Mater at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Supporters of Washington University commissioned Cyrus Dallin for a sculpture for its affiliate Mary Institute in 1925.
An altarpiece mural in Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library, painted in 1932 by Eugene Savage, depicts the Alma Mater as a bearer of light and truth, standing in the midst of the personified arts and sciences.
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