The Peculiar Origins of the Rock of Ages Tattoo Design

The Peculiar Origins of the Rock of Ages Tattoo Design

When a 19th-century painting was mistakenly thought to be based on an 18th-century hymn, the traditional Rock of Ages tattoo motif was born.

A surprising number of traditional tattoo designs were born because of songs, like the “Rose of No Man’s Land” lady head, but the most famous of these is clearly the Rock of Ages. When most people hear the phrase “Rock of Ages,” they probably think of the cheesy rock opera (in which Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand make out), but for tattoo aficionados, the timeless scene of a woman clinging to a cross-shaped boulder in the middle of a raging sea comes to mind. Given the murky history behind the design, many body art enthusiasts don’t even know its real origin.

The motif as we see it today actually comes from the third verse off the hymn, “Rock of Ages, A Cleft for Me,” which reads: “Nothing in my hand I bring, / simply to the cross I cling; / naked, come to thee for dress; / helpless, look to thee for grace; / foul, I to the fountain fly; / wash me, Savior, or I die.” The song was written by Reverend Augustus Toplady in Somerset, England, in 1763, after he found refuge from a thunderstorm under a large stone outcropping while hiking in a canyon. However, it wasn’t until an artist by the name of Johannes Adam Simon Oertel created a painting that unintentionally echoed these lyrics that the iconic “Rock of Ages” image rose to prominence.

Oertel’s oil painting wasn’t even titled “Rock of Ages;” it was actually called “Saved, or an Emblematic Representation of Christian Faith,” but after his design became widely imitated, people started associating it with the hymn, and the catchier title stuck. All of this happened to coincide with the growth of the traditional style, and the image of the damsel in distress became a common subject for tattoos, surviving on the bodies of sailors.

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Once the Rock of Ages image was imported into body art, it quickly became a staple. You can still see the vestiges of early tattooists in contemporary Rock of Ages tattoos. The broad sunbeams in the back-pieces by Bert Krak, Samuele Briganti, and Valerie Vargas, for instance, are a feature heralded by early pioneers in the form, like Bert Grimm. Though most modern tattooists elaborate on the Rock of Ages motif by adding their own personal touch, the design’s fundamental properties, like the crucifix of stone, have remained unchanged for more than a century.

To see more solid traditional tattoos, make sure to follow all of these artists. If you want a banger or back-piece of the Rock of Ages motif, have one of them redesign the timeless shipwreck scene for you. 

That was Bold that Holds, our series where we explore the meaning behind classic motifs in the world of traditional tattoos. We hope you enjoyed learning about the Rock of Ages design. If you want to find out more about the history behind the style, check out these other installments about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, phonographs, the Sacred Heart, and lighthouses.

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