Alma mater (Latin: alma, lit. 'nourishing', mater; pl. [rarely used] almae matres) is an allegorical Latin phrase for a university, school, or college that one formerly attended. The phrase is variously translated as "nourishing mother", "nursing mother", or "fostering mother", suggesting that a school provides intellectual nourishment to its students. Fine arts will often depict educational institutions using a robed woman as a visual metaphor.
Before its current usage, alma mater was an honorific title for various Latin mother goddesses, especially Ceres or Cybele, and later in Catholicism for the Virgin Mary. It entered academic usage when the University of Bologna adopted the motto Alma Mater Studiorum ("nurturing mother of studies"), which describes its heritage as the oldest operating university in the Western world. It is related to alumnus, a term used for a university graduate that literally means a "nursling" or "one who is nourished".
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' De rerum natura, where it is used 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 (2.991–93)
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's press. The device's first-known appearance is on the title-page of 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. In English etymological reference works, the first university-related usage is often cited in 1710, when an academic mother figure is mentioned in a remembrance of Henry More by Richard Ward.
Many historic European universities have adopted Alma Mater as part of the Latin translation of their official name. The University of Bologna Latin name, 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 similarly used the expression 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 country's founding. 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.
The ancient Roman world had many statues of the Alma Mater, some still extant (e.g., at the Palatine Hill in Rome).
Modern sculptures are found in prominent locations on several American university campuses. For example, in the United States: there is a well-known bronze statue of Alma Mater by Daniel Chester French situated on the steps of Columbia University's Low Library; the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign also has an Alma Mater statue by Lorado Taft. 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.
Outside the United States, there is an Alma Mater sculpture on the steps of the monumental entrance to the Universidad de La Habana, in Havana, Cuba. The statue was cast in 1919 by Mario Korbel, with Feliciana Villalón Wilson as the inspiration for Alma Mater, and it was installed in its current location in 1927, at the direction of architect Raul Otero.