Heraldry, Pt 3: Charges
Designing New Characters
July, 2006: Mischief
Heraldry, Pt 3: ChargesMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Charge is a blanket word for every kind of image that can be painted on a shield.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of charges, ranging from the mythological to the natural, from the architectural to the technological (the latest not rarely in modern military heraldry). I cannot reasonably hope to write here about anything but a tiny fraction of the existing charges ( anything else would be the work of many years, and would quickly bore anyone but the most dedicated heraldists), but I will provide links to heraldry sites for those of you who wish to do some research on the topic.
Charges are usually divided in two groups: honorable ordinaries (or proper charges) and common charges.
Proper charges are so called because they specifically belong to heraldry and cannot be found in any other field. In English heraldry there are just nine:
Chief, Cross, Pale, Saltire, Fesse (sometimes spelled fess), Pile, Chevron, Quarter, and Bend.
The cross is without any doubt one of the oldest charges. Its heraldic use is said to go back to the early so-called Crusades (1), in which the different nations of Christendom reportedly were distinguished by crosses of different colors (2).
The plain heraldic cross has arms of equal length crossing in the middle, even though, given the usual shape of the shield, the horizontal arm often looks shorter than the vertical one.
This is also called a Greek cross to distinguish it from the Latin cross, in which the arms meet at about one third of the vertical arm (3).
Although the cross as a symbol is universal and has a plethora of meanings (often related to the sun or the four directions), in heraldry it is exclusively used in its Christian value, often to express faith or a strong connection to the Holy Land. It is of course very common in the insignia of religious orders or of members of the clergy.
In time, the plain cross developed many different forms; it probably has the highest number of variations of any charge in history. Here are a few examples:
The saltire, although commonly known as Saint Andrew’s cross, it is not counted among variant cross shapes but is a different ordinary.
The common charges group consists of everything but the proper charges; usually it is further divided into three subdivisions: natural figures (animals, trees, flowers, human body, celestial bodies, etc.) artificial figures (buildings, weapons, clothes, jewels, musical instruments, etc.), and chimerical figures (dragons, griffins, unicorns, salamanders, two-headed eagles, etc.).
Animals, either real or chimerical, are considered the noblest among the common charges. They can be portrayed full body or represented only in part (for instance, head, paw, tail or forequarters). They can be of any accepted color or metal but are most often painted in their proper color, the one nearest to that of the real animal: black for the boar; red, silver, or black for the fox; red or black for the eagle, black or silver for the dog; and red or gold for the lion, the most popular beast in heraldry.
The lion alone may be drawn in about 30 different attitudes, some of which you can see here.
A lion is said to be disarmed if portrayed without claws and teeth, armed if teeth and claws are in a tincture ( color or metal) different from the rest of the body. It may also be enraged (or incensed) if shown with fire coming out of the mouth and ears.
The most common poses for a lion are numbers 1 and 6: rampant and passant. (In ancient texts a lion passant was usually called a leopard, but the name did not imply a different breed of animal, referring only to the specific pose.) If the lion’s head is turned toward the viewer (numbers 2, 7 and 10) it is called guardant (staring), if it is looking towards the back (numbers 3 and 8) the proper term is reguardant--so number 8 is a lion passant reguardant, while number 2 is rampant guardant.
Number 4 is a linguistic curiosity; it is properly blazoned as a lion rampant coward. Coward was, at the beginning, a purely heraldic word, describing an animal with the tail between its legs, its modern meaning is derivative. Two rampant lions facing each other (number 5) are, of course, combatant (fighting).
The fortune of the lion in heraldry may be explained with the multiplicity of its symbolic values: royalty, bravery, courage, and strength, but also ferocity, ire, and instinct not tempered by thought. It is not by chance that, in the Major Acana of the Tarot, the strength card is traditionally rendered as a woman (4) controlling (or fighting with) a lion.
My space for July is almost finished; next month, for our last issue on heraldry, I shall introduce some chimerical charges, explain the most common partitions of the shield and conclude with the do and don’ts of heraldry in the modern world.
Bonomi-heraldryillo7 composed with material taken from http://www.heraldica.org/topics/glossary/
Bonomi-heraldryillo8 and Bonomi-heraldryillo9 composed from from Chiusano, Saporiti, Elementi di Araldica, Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito Roma 1995.
1) Crusade is a modern word historians of the Middle Ages would rather not use, contemporaries often speak of ‘armed pilgrimage’.
2) The most often quoted are red for the peoples speaking the language of the Franks, green for the Flemish, white for the English, black for the Germans.
3) Contrary to what it is written in a recent bestseller now turned movie, there is no such thing as a ‘peaceful’ cross (allegedly the Greek one) as opposed to a belligerent cross (the Latin one), both are used equally in Christian symbolism and have the same meaning. By the way I would also like to point out that symbology does not exist as a discipline per se.
4) Some may wonder why strength is usually a woman, and not, for instance, a representation of Hercules, the probable answer is that both in Italian and French (the languages of the countries from where the oldest known Tarot decks come) strength is a feminine word.
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