Monday, 30 November 2015

A new depiction

In a previous article on heraldry, I went over the differences between Blazon and Emblazon: how the artistic depiction of a coat of arms can differ, while the verbal code that describes it must always be the same.

Some months ago, eagle-eyed reader Gary Smith wrote in to notify me of an irregularity in the depiction of my own arms as painted below:

Namely, the mantling (the flowing fabric shown swirling around the helmet) is reversed from what has become the standard practice: the metal (white or yellow) should be on the bottom (if the mantling were laying flat down the back of the helmet), and the tincture (red, in this case), should be on the top.

Now mantling does not even form part of the blazon: it is technically all about artistic license and the artists' need to fill in empty space, and there are a huge variety of ways in which it can be depicted (there are some good examples at this link, and this is as good a time as any to plug my pinterest on heraldic art as well). So, as heraldic sins go, the artist's decision in the above painting to have the gold mantling on the outside is about as minor as they come. And, in fact it turned out to be a happy fault in my case, since it led to Mr. Smith taking it upon himself to make a new version of my arms, which means I am now able to illustrate the differences between blazon and emblazon using my family's own arms as an example:

What makes the two versions most interesting to compare, in my opinion, is that while the former was painted by hand on parchment (and a scan doesn't to justice to the final product, with its gold and silver leaf ), the latter is an all digital creation, made primarily using clip art heraldry images (with a final result that is much nicer than what one traditionally associates with clip art heraldry). In any event I am happy to have my arms depicted by as many different artists as possible, so I was very happy to get these. He even threw in an ex libris "free of charge":

Thanks Gary!

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Heraldry 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Blazon vs Emblazon

These two coats of arms are identical, heraldically speaking

An important distinction in heraldry, not always understood by the general public, is that a coat of arms' official existence is its "blazon"—the strange description, in an odd mix of English and Norman French, which a herald would have shouted to the crowd if the bearer of the coat of arms was getting ready to joust in a mediæval tournament. The actual pictorial depiction, sometimes called the emblazon, can actually vary—so long as it remains a depiction of the blazon.

For instance, the coat of arms of Flanders is blazoned "Or a lion rampant Sable, armed and langued gules", which in regular speech means "a yellow shield with a black lion standing up on it, with a red tongue and red claws".

So, if I want to draw a picture of it, I have to draw a yellow shield with a black lion standing on it, with a red tongue and red claws—or I haven't drawn the coat of arms of Flanders. So, I pick up my paintbrush and whip something up that conforms to what was asked of me, and there you go. Job done.

Except, of course, not everyone draws their lions exactly the same. The exact shades of "yellow" and "red" are not defined. Nor is it specified what shape the shield needs to be. That doesn't matter: as long as it matches the blazon, that's which coat of arms it is. In Flanders' case, all these fit the bill:

When one thinks about it, this makes practical sense. To start with, there's the fact that some coats of arms live for centuries (Oxford University is older than the Aztecs, after all), and will therefore be painted and re-painted thousands of times through history. It would be impossible to impose a single design on a coat of arms, when it has to be adapted to buildings, bookplates, signet rings, patches on clothing, etc. Insisting on an exact shade of blue, or some precise depiction of a lion, just wouldn't be possible, across so many different media. Yet to be meaningful, coats of arms have to be unique. Confining this uniqueness to the spoken blazon meets both needs.

Even just in my own case, it makes sense that the depiction of my arms that sits atop this web page be simpler and more modern than the one that hangs in my study (a fantastic rendition of the full achievement of arms by heraldic artist Max Guéguen). The former would look amateurish blown up and framed, and the latter would be overkill to use in the header to my blog!

Another happy side effect of this distinction, between the coat of arms and its artistic depiction, is that it opens up room for the heraldic artist to showcase his talent. The armiger who appreciates this talent can get a great deal of enjoyment out of commissioning his coat of arms among different artists (I recommend the book The Art of Heraldry by Carl Alexander Von Volborth for a deeper exploration of this). I haven't found as many showcases of this online, but I link to Derwin Mak here, who has had quite a few artists render his own arms, making for quite an interesting collection on his website.

Posted by jon at 9:42 PM in Heraldry 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

On Vair

The heraldic furs, vair and ermine.

Just about the first thing one learns about when becoming acquainted with heraldry is the 'rule of tincture': the elements on the shield can be of a "metal" (Or or Argent, i.e. white or yellow), or of a "colour"—Gules, Azure, Sable, Purpure, Vert (i.e. red, blue, black, purple, or green). The rule of tincture holds that one cannot put metal on metal, or colour on colour, and, while exceptions exist, it is one of the easiest ways to distinguish true coats of arms from amateurish fakes.

Reading further, most introductions to heraldry will then note that there are two "furs", Vair and Ermine, which are exempt from this rule: they can be placed on a metal or a colour, and can have charges of a metal or a colour on them.

The existence of furs is, nowadays, something of an oddity in heraldry. Today everyone would accept that many other patterns, such as chequy or lozengy, are just as exempt from the law of tincture as vair is, and anything "semy" of anything else has the same properties as ermine. Moreover, the specifics of the furs have long since vanished, with "vairy" available in any colour and metal combination, and ermine also having become equally diversified.

There seems no good reason, then, why one particular pattern of bell-shaped blue and white, or of white covered with a specific black charge, should be given such special treatment. But to think in this way is to ignore history, and surely heraldry is a subject, if ever there was one, which ought to understand its history.

What makes vair and ermine special is simply the fact that they were, in point of fact, furs, which were commonly worn in Europe in the middle ages, strips of which, it seems safe to presume, were also used to adorn shields of knights in armour.

Ermine, for its part, is still seen today, in the coronation robes of peers as well as certain university hoods and such like. Looking at the actual fur, it's fairly easy to see how its stylised representation is, in fact, a fairly good depiction of what the fur looks like.

Vair is a different story: the heraldic pattern doesn't look like much of anything in the real world, and definitely not an animal's fur of any kind. But it was in fact meant to be a fur, though in this case one, depicted at left, that isn't often seen today.

Well, never underestimate the ineptitude of the anonymous mediaeval artist. (That's unfair, of course, as a visit to any French cathedral will quickly show you.) But indeed, squirrel fur, which presents itself as an alternating white underbelly and brown or grey exterior, does form a regular pattern when extended to a cape. And, when artists depicted their lords wearing such capes, they took to drawing them with a regular pattern, which, while not fur-like, does still show a clear inspiration from the actual fur.

So, in time the representation came to be standardised, and once the fur fell out of common use, there was no real chance of anyone reverting to a more accurate depiction. The white and blue bell shapes were there to stay.

So, to sum up, vair and ermine merit their special status (in heraldic textbooks, anyway), due to their historic use as actual furs that date back to a proven historic use on coat armour in the middle ages. That said, as design elements, they are indeed no different from other divisions of the field (vairy, pean, argent semy of trefoils gules, or what have you). Only their historic roots set them apart.

Posted by jon at 11:00 PM in Heraldry 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

This is not your coat of arms

It's unfortunate that heraldry is such a misunderstood subject that I feel obligated to title this article that way, but things being what they are it's a necessary step, to prevent someone googling "Craven coat of arms" or "Craven family crest" and ending up here. These are not your coat of arms, they're mine.

The notorious "Coat of arms for the Name of Jones, Smith, or whatever," purchasable by mail order or in one's local shopping mall, represents no more than improper and illegitimate armorial bearings.

I'll just link to this page at the American College of Heraldry as a standard disclaimer, and assume anyone reading further is already aware that a coat of arms does not belong to a name, but to an individual, and there are accepted rules and traditions that define how those arms are transmitted to his or her offspring. There are a great many people in the world with the surname Craven, and as I've explained before, we are not all related by any stretch. Unless you are my paternal grandfather or descended from him, then, these arms are not yours, and this article is only for heraldic interest.

My family's arms, then, are blazoned as follows:

Gules a fess Vair, in chief a cross crosslet fitchy between two fleurs-de-lys, in base a salamander, all Or.

As my grandfather bears them, they look like this:

(There I put them on a French-style shield, for variety.) Since I am the eldest son of his eldest son, I show my relation to the armiger by adding a label of five points, which is why I could insist at the start that the arms depicted were mine, and mine alone. Eventually I should inherit the undifferenced coat, presuming I live long enough.)

As it happens, grandpa has the distinction of having raised eight sons (and one daughter), meaning that my uncles could nearly run through the entire Anglo-Irish system of cadency marks, if they chose to. For fun I've made up a few images to show what that might look like:


(* Tracy and Duffy's arms shown are only hypothetical, since changing one's last name also generally entails changing one's coat of arms. But what's shown is what would have been their coat of arms at birth.)

Anyway, it's not quite as memorable as the sign on the house at Clear Lake, but it is an interesting coincidence that the traditional cadency marks match up with our family structure so well!

Posted by jon at 10:00 PM in Heraldry 
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