Heraldry of Humility and Pride
A characteristic form of Christian art is heraldry. As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man (1925), ancient Egyptians “had a sort of heraldry; that is, decorative art used for symbolic and social purposes.” Nevertheless, their kind of heraldry is no longer with us. No one writing to a genealogical service hopes to get a copy of the ancestral hieroglyphics.
Rather, depending on one’s form of snobbery, some people covet and others condemn the colorful coats of arms that evoke the height of medieval chivalry. Such heraldic achievements, as they are called, recognize distinguished service, and it bears recalling that coats of arms are granted to individuals (not families) and to corporations.
In Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), James Bond prepares to go undercover as a Scottish knight. Bond explains to M that his alias comes from an ancient family and has “a coat of arms that looks like a mixture between a jigsaw puzzle and Piccadilly Circus at night.”
Of course, elaborate coats of arms such as Bond caricatured imply a long and illustrious lineage. A fine example is the arms granted to Winston Churchill, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill’s coat of arms elegantly brings together heraldic devices used within his two great families, the Spencers and the Churchills. In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II made him a Knight of the Garter, thus encircling his coat of arms with the belt and motto of the Order of the Garter.
To social levelers, it all seems pretentious and preposterous, but medieval heraldry reflects a Christian worldview that sought to distinguish a right relationship between the individual and the institution. As Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “The art of heraldry means independence; an image chosen by the imagination to express the individuality.” On the other hand, he wrote, “The science of heraldry means interdependence; an agreement between different bodies to recognise different images; a science of imagery.”
Heraldry as art and science long occupied Chesterton. He had trained as an artist, and the symbolic use of animals and colors fascinated him. He wrote about heraldry in essays and short stories, such as “The Heraldic Lion” (1905) and “The Perishing of the Pendragons” (1914). As already mentioned, he mused upon it in The Everlasting Man, and he addressed it in Chaucer (1932).
In his book on Chaucer, Chesterton explained the magnitude of heraldry for medieval people. In their world, he wrote, “heraldry was not a mummery or even a mystery,” but was rather “a meaning part of a passion for significance which made all colours, stones, planets, beasts, and flowers emblematic.” To a medieval way of thinking, God’s creation could never be meaningless.
Relevant to Chesterton’s subject and indicative of how seriously medieval Christians took these matters was a case brought before the Court of Chivalry. That there were such courts says a lot about the importance given to heraldry. Along those lines, coats of arms cannot simply be made up by anyone who wants to impress or annoy the neighbors. As James Bond discovered, and as his creator enjoyed describing, in London there functions the College of Arms, scholars responsible for maintaining records of existing coats of arms and for devising new ones.
The case Chesterton cited dragged on from 1385 to 1390 and now receives attention because one of the many witnesses called was Geoffrey Chaucer, Esquire, today best known as the author of The Canterbury Tales but then perhaps better known as a soldier and public servant. A case from a late fourteenth-century heraldic court may seem a bit dusty, but in its day it was as important as any modern lawsuit over infringement of copyright or trademark.
The dispute arose from two unrelated knights using the same coat of arms. The case is known as Scrope (pronounced Scroop) v. Grosvenor, and both Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor claimed the right to wear on their shields a yellow (representing gold) diagonal stripe on a blue background, or, in the technical terminology of heraldry, “Azure, a bend or.” Scrope won the case, but the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster, still object, one form of protest having been to name one of their racehorses Bend Or.
Although these examples have been British, from the twelfth century to our own day heraldry has marked the length and breadth of Europe and beyond. Once one gets the knack, one can recognize the Borgia bull from Spain to Rome, and one can spot the azure and argent bendy fusils (or lozenges) of the kings of Bavaria from Munich to western Pennsylvania. Elements of Bavarian heraldry occur in America because in 1846 monks from Bavaria, with backing from King Ludwig I, founded the first Benedictine monastery here, Saint Vincent, and the new monastery’s coat of arms took features from the arms of William Penn (his father had been a knight) and those of royal Bavaria.
Mention of the Borgias, a family that has produced several scoundrels and one canonized saint, brings us to papal coats of arms. Popes are monarchs, albeit elected not hereditary, and so they are entitled to heraldic identification. Papal heraldry dates to the thirteenth century and has occasionally indulged in canting, heraldic punning. One such instance was Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) having on his arms a dove of peace.
All prelates and priests, as well as monasteries and schools, may have coats of arms. The great medieval universities still bear coats of arms, and abbots of monasteries impale (another technical term) their priestly arms alongside the abbey’s arms. Sometimes, when the Church finds herself in lands without formal heraldic authorities, creation of coats of arms can become freelance and fanciful, if not gauche.
Whether ecclesiastical or secular, silly examples are best left unnamed. All the same, along with offering a chance for punning, heraldry’s dignity also corrals a whimsical menagerie. Heraldic beasts include unicorns, double-headed eagles, and the four beavers on the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company. As Chesterton wrote in St. Francis of Assisi (1923), in a sense Francis, surrounded by heraldry and chivalric ideals, “did see a bird sable on a field azure or a sheep argent on a field vert,” and because “the heraldry of humility was richer than the heraldry of pride,” Francis could lay claim to kinship with the sun and the moon.
image: Fr Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr