Leveling with Labels
Conventions Pt 2: The Art Show
August 2006; Water
Heraldry, Pt 4: Charges
Heraldry, Pt 4: ChargesMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Last month I promised to say more about charges, namely those of the chimerical group. Here they are:
Most of the chimerical charges are mix-and-match animals: for instance, take a lion's hindquarters, tail, and ears; an eagle's head, wings, legs, and talons, and put it all together to form a four legged animal. The result is the griffin (or gryphon ), without a doubt the most represented animal among the chimerical menagerie.
There may be some variations in shape, but the griffin is always a mix of lion and eagle, and it is usually drawn segreant and passant segreant.
Segreant properly means 'with spread wings'. The griffin shown here should be blazoned in full: rampant segreant, but 'rampant' is usually omitted.
A variant shape of griffin, without wings and with large ears is called the male griffin.
The griffin's symbolic meaning is usually defined as valour, bravery, and vigilance.
Another popular animal in medieval iconography (although not overly used in English heraldry) is the dragon. It is usually drawn four-legged and winged, with a scaled body, serpent's head, and a barbed tail (in French heraldry sometimes the dragon has a fish tail).
If the dragon lacks wings it is called a lindworm, and if it has no legs it is a serpent. When it hangs by the head it represents a vanquished dragon.
The red dragon has long been the national emblem of Wales; although the dragon itself does not appear in the Welsh coat of arms (1) it does in Wales' national flag.
The heraldic dragon symbolizes valiant protection.
Both griffin and dragon can appear in coat of arms not only as charges but also as tenants (2).
It may sound strange to see the panther listed among chimerical animals, but the heraldic panther it is a peculiar case. The one used in English heraldry is a spotted feline, without mane, always borne guardant and usually incensed(i.e. with fire coming out of ears, nose and mouth), while the so called continental panther has a bovine (or avian) head, the forelegs of an eagle, taloned or hoofed hind-legs and (allegedly) a wolf's body.
The meaning quoted for the English panther is fierceness tempered with tenderness, especially towards children.
Another interesting case is that of the mermaid. The mermaid is half woman and half fish, but in her heraldic incarnation she can have one or two tails. In the latter case, she often holds them in her hands. If she is drawn in a wooden bathtub or with wings or serpent tails, then it is known as Melusine, the mythical ancestress of the French house of Lusignan. Her legend was first put in writing by Jean d'Arras at the end of the XIV century.
Melusine was the daughter of Elynas, king of Scotland and of the fey Pressyne. The two had married with the clause that Elynas would never enter the room where Pressyne gave birth to their children, when he broke the promise; his wife took their just-born triplets and went to Avalon. Years after the three sisters came to know their father's deed and punished him, Pressyne, enraged, cursed them. Melusine, the eldest, was condemned to take the shape of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday.
Later Melusine married a French lord, Raymond of Poitou, and asked him to promise he would never try to see her on a Saturday--a promise promptly broken when, suspecting his wife to cheat on him, Raymond made an hole in the wall of Melusine' s chambers to spy on her. The fey then flew away, in the form of a dragon, never to return.
The mermaid symbolizes eloquence. It is often used as a tenant, and (together with the melusine) as a crest.
Up until now, all our examples have been of the simplest occurrence: the shield treated as a whole, with one tincture for the field and a single charge. Probably that was the case for the oldest coats of arms, but nowadays most of the existing coats are composed of parts bearing different fields and charges. Such coats of arms are said party (divided); the name of an ordinary is added to show in what direction the partition occurs.
As an example, number 1 is party per chief, number 2 per pale (the commonest partition), number 3 per fesse, number 4 per bend.
Number 5, though, is not usually called party per cross, quarterly being used instead. The quarters are numbered from one to four, starting with the top left (dexter chief in blazon, since left and right are always declared with reference to the person holding the shield, not to the viewer).
Field and charges both can be partitioned.
Only the head of a family had the right to bear his house's coat in its original form; the sons (including the first-born during his father's life) had to change in some way the coat with the so-called marks of cadency indicating in this way their personal identity.
This could be done in different ways, for instance: changing tinctures and keeping the same charges, changing the numbers of identical charges (for instance two lions instead of one), changing the position or shape or the charges, or (now most used) adding some specific figures used only to mark the order of birth.
Here they are, in order of use; other marks are sometimes quoted, up to the ninth-born son, but are not historically attested.
Tempting as it may sound to search for one's family's coat, a word of caution is needed: the same family name alone is not enough to grant use of a coat of arms; proof of direct descent from the person who was first granted it is needed.
In some European countries, improper use of a coat of arms is against the law and an offender might be sentenced to pay a steep fine.
If one is willing, new coats can be registered with existing Colleges of Heralds, but the process is long and might be expensive, requiring also the assistance of a trained herald to design a coat in accordance with the rules and uses of the country.
If you would like your own personal emblem without the fuss involved in getting a proper coat of arms, as I do, there is a different possibility, which will be treated in one of the coming issues of EMG-Zine.
of the Welsh national Coat of Arms in Wales, the flag being widely preferred by Welsh nationals. 2) Figures represented holding the shield upright, non-essential parts of a full Honour of Arms
Illustration credits Griffin from Chiusano, Saporiti, Elementi di Araldica,
Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito Roma 1995, tav.30
Welsh flag from http://www.openclipart.org/ (online library of public use clipart)
Continental panther from http://www.heraldica.org/topics/glossary/
Example of partitions painted by the author, base shield taken from Chiusano, Saporiti, ibidem
Marks of Cadency from http://www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker/Jpglossc.htm
ttp://www.heraldica.org/ general resource.
http://www.digiserve.com/heraldry/pimbley.htm On-line heraldic dictionary.
http://www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker/Jpglossa.htm#Armes%20pour%20enquerir glossary of heraldic terms.
http://www.cdli.ca/CITE/medieval_heraldry_intro.htm interesting (and fun) introduction to heraldry for children.
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