At the top of most Habsburg buildings sits an unexpected aerie; an enviable perch from which a golden double-headed eagle has watched the comings and goings of people for centuries. There is no doubt of the bird’s imperial authority — a crown hovers above the creature’s head, and its talons grip bejeweled scepters. With outstretched wings, the eagle remains ever ready for flight in either of the directions it is facing.
The eagle has long been a symbol of imperial power — since the time of the Roman emperors — and is thought to originate in Hittite iconography. During the Byzantine era, the eagle earned a second head to represent the empire’s East-West nexus and the secular and spiritual power combined in the emperor. The imperial eagle was later adopted by the Holy Roman Empire during the medieval period (to symbolize a king’s elevation to imperial power upon his crowning as an emperor by the pope), at which time the creature also earned a halo. As members of the Habsburg family frequently held the Holy Roman Emperor title, the double-headed eagle remained associated with the dynasty even after the empire’s dissolution in 1806, at which time the Habsburgs adopted the eagle (sans halo) for the new Austrian Empire.