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 
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