Alma mater

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The Alma Mater statue at Columbia University in New York City, developed by Daniel Chester French in 1903

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.[1][2][3] Alma mater is also a honorific title for various mother goddesses, especially Ceres or Cybele.[4] Later, in Catholicism, it became a title of Mary, mother of Jesus.

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").[5]

The term is related to

alumnus, literally meaning a "nursling" or "one who is nourished", that frequently is used for a graduate.[6]


John Legate's Alma Mater for the University of Cambridge, written in 1600

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.[7] 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)[8]

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

After the

fall of Rome, the term came into Christian liturgical usage in association with Mary, mother of Jesus. "Alma Redemptoris Mater" is a well-known eleventh century antiphon devoted to Mary.[7]

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.[9][10] 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.[11][12]

In English etymological reference works, often the first university-related usage is cited as 1710, when an academic mother figure is mentioned in a remembrance of Henry More by Richard Ward.[13][14]

Special use

The University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088, the world's oldest university in continuous operation

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.

In the United States, the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has been called the "Alma Mater of the Nation" because of its ties to the founding of the country.[15]

At Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, the main student government is known as the Alma Mater Society.


Modern sculptures of Alma Mater are found in prominent locations on several American university campuses. In 1901, a bronze statue of

Low Library. A similar sculpture, cast in 1919 by Mario Korbel, sits on the main entrance steps at the University of Havana.[16]

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.


  1. ^ "alma", Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved October 11, 2018.
  2. ^ "Definition of 'Alma mater'". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 3 April 2022.
  3. . Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  4. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition
  5. ^ "BOLOGNA, L'UNIVERSITÀ PIÙ ANTICA DEL MONDO" (in Italian). Retrieved 31 August 2023.
  6. . Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  7. ^ .
  8. ^ Titus Lucretius Carus. "Liber II" . De rerum natura  (in Latin) – via Wikisource.
  9. ^ Stokes, Henry Paine (1919). Cambridge stationers, printers, bookbinders, &c. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes. p. 12. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  10. ^ Roberts, S. C. (1921). A History of the Cambridge University Press 1521–1921. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  11. ^ Stubbings, Frank H. (1995). Bedders, Bulldogs and Bedells: A Cambridge Glossary (2nd ed.). p. 39.
  12. ^ Perkins, William (1600). A Golden Chaine: Or, the Description of Theologie, containing the order and causes of salvation and damnation, according to God's word. Cambridge: University of Cambridge. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  13. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Alma mater". Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  14. ^ Ward, Richard (1710). The Life of the Learned and Pious Dr. Henry More, Late Fellow of Christ's College in Cambridge. London: Joseph Downing. p. 148. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  15. ^ "William & Mary – History & Traditions".
  16. ^ Cremata Ferrán, Mario (20 February 2014). "Dos rostros, dos estatuas habaneras". Opus Habana. Retrieved 21 January 2015.

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