“Rock of Ages” is a popular Christian hymn written by the Reformed Anglican minister Augustus Toplady. It is also one of the most famous traditional tattoo motifs.
The story behind this classic begins in 1763. Augustus Toplady, a priest from a small village in England, was wandering from village to village when he unexpectedly caught himself in a thunderstorm with dangerous lightning. For a brief moment, the lightning showed the escape route to safety. It was indeed the rocky landscape of Burrington Combe, complete with cliffs, cliffs and caves! Quickly, he found a cave in the cleft of the rock, and waited the storm out. Augustus knew he had been blessed to find such a hiding place so quickly. While waiting for the storm to pass, he could easily picture the rock being a shelter from the storms of life. He would scribble down the opening lines to the song: “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, Let Me Hide Myself in Thee … ”
While he was praying for his life, a song text came into his head. He wrote down the text on a playing card and thus laid the foundation for the tattoo motif so well known today.
The Rock ’n’ Roll legends Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash produced cover versions of the famous original gospel version of 1830.
From the song to the painting
About 100 years after Pastor Toplady first wrote the song, Simon Oertel, a German painter, turned these beautiful notes into a painting that inspired many tattooists. The main subject is a woman clinging to a stone cross in the middle of the raging sea.
The meaning behind
Unfortunately Oertel did not pass on the exact message that lies behind his painting. This gives space for various free interpretations. Most appropriately, it might reflect the hope and conviction we will be able to defy any “thunderstorm” if we believe in ourselves firmly.
On one hand, the most common interpretation says that the woman on the motif represents a lost soul in the sea of sins, with no hope left, clinging only to the cross (Christ’s body).
Others, however, believe that the lady is a woman mourning for her drowned husband. She cannot accept his death and clings to the grave of her beloved, despite the storm. For this reason often there is a sinking ship in the background.
What does the motif mean to you? We are curious to hear your own interpretation and work out a customised “Rock of Ages” tattoo design for you 🙂
In the traditional tattoo history, the Rock of Ages motif has been tattooed countless times. Samuel O’Reiley was probably the first tattoo artist who turned this motif into a tattoo.
Sailors hoped to get a lighter punishment and especially avoid whipping if they had the Rock of Ages tattooed on their back. No one could punish the image of Jesus, they thought. Maybe this is also the reason why Rock of Ages has established itself as a backpiece classic.
Depending on the interpretation the Rock of Ages tattoo differs from others. Some tattoo artists orientate themselves on the original painting by Simon Oertel, which leads to a very simple tattoo. Others add sinking ships, mermaids or angels. There are no limits to creativity.
Our dear friend Francesco Ferrara gave his own interpretation of the Rock of Ages creating a beautiful masterpiece. Go check it out!
As inspiration you can find some photos of famous tattoo legends and the their Rock of Ages motifs. Percy Waters, Bert Grimm, Sailor Jerry and the Bowery Boys are just a few of the famous names.
Write your own song
Be the architect of your destiny and write your own story.