A Heraldic Designer Critiques Ecclesiastical Arms, 1907

by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose

Originally published in The Magazine of Christian Art, Vol. 1, No. 1 (April 1907) and Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1907)

I. Certain Popular Errors

To a student of heraldry, particularly if he be a Churchman, there are few more melancholy proofs of the modern degradation of the “noble science” of Armoury than the ecclesiastical arms and seals used in the Episcopal Church in America from its foundation to the present day. That a body of ecclesiastics, already versed in an abstract and beautiful symbolism, and, theoretically at least, carrying on the traditions of a scholarly past, should be so seemingly unaware of the canons of an ancient, well-ordered system of heraldry as to be willing to perpetuate on seals, brasses, stone, and glass, heraldic solecisms, is a discredit both to the Church and to modern scholarship. Although a knowledge of Latin is not very widespread among the American clergy, still if an inscription in misspelled and ungrammatical Latin were to be found within a church and the attention of the vestry or rector were called to it by a competent Latin scholar, the authorities of the church would feel humiliated until the inscription were either removed or corrected. And yet the attention of various Dignitaries has been called, by more or less competent heralds, to the farcically improper “arms” at present borne by several American sees and prelates, without the least effect.

The trouble is, in the first place, due, I think, to the fact that the true nature of heraldry is very generally misunderstood; and, in the second, as a natural corollary, to a disposition on the part of the general public to accept the statements, theories, deductions, and inventions of the first amateur herald at hand. The layman says, quite honestly: “This is a subject I do not understand; it must be very abstruse, for even its terminology is unintelligible to me; therefore Blank, who uses the jargon with surprising ease, writes in an authoritative manner, and makes extremely pretty designs, undoubtedly knows what he is about.” Blank, on the other hand, with equal honesty, says to himself: “I have, after serious effort, familiarised myself with the vocabulary of blazon, and have conscientiously read and grasped the principles laid down in this ‘Handbook of Heraldry;’ it is really a very simple and charming art,—there is no reason why I should not practise it.” So the busy layman accepts Blank as an Authority; and Blank, having digested practically all that the author of the Handbook had to impart (Blank, of course, has regarded the author as necessarily an Authority), proceeds to transfer his confidence in the author to himself. He will, therefore, with the best of intentions, rush in where even a trained herald will fear to tread, with the most surprising results, of which he is the last one to become aware; and Bishops and committees will accept his devices. It is the case of the author of the immortal “English as She is Spoke,” over again. In no other subject is it more true than in heraldry, that a little learning is a dangerous thing. A “gentleman’s knowledge” of heraldry is not difficult to acquire, and is a legitimate source of innocent pleasure to its possessor. It is only when this gentlemanly “little learning” attempts to become constructive that trouble begins.

And the trouble is almost invariably traceable to the single “Handbook of Heraldry” which has been the amateur’s armorial Gospel. Woodward, in his valuable work on “Ecclesiastical Heraldry,” somewhat bitterly remarks: “Manuals of, and Introductions to, Heraldry have been sufficiently abundant. For the most part compilations from their predecessors, and showing very little original investigation or research, the ‘crambe repetita’ has been dished up ‘ad nauseam;’ but more advanced treatises have been very few and far between.” The manuals that have been most accessible to American readers are two or three English “Mid-Victorian” text books, and an occasional brief volume published in the interest of some American firm of stationers; or occasionally an old volume of Guillim is purchased at an auction and reverently read. Now no one with a knowledge derived only from these popular manuals has the slightest warrant to speak, much less write, with authority on heraldry; in no other field of learning would such sciolistic fatuity be tolerated. The amateur remains an amateur until he has patiently gone over at least a respectable part of the printed field; in France, from the imaginative Sicile le Herault to, say, the casual Gourdon de Genouillac; in Germany from the ingenious Rüxner to the polyteuchal modern successors of Siebmacher; in England, from Dame Juliana Berners to the universal—-and sensible-—Woodward or the punctilious Mr. Fox-Davies. Between these is a somewhat painful array of works of the first importance that may not be ignored. He will then be prepared to undertake the beginnings of “original research,” starting with the various early Rolls of Arms and collections of seals in the several great European museums and libraries. Only now will he begin to understand how misleading the necessarily limited and unnecessarily dogmatic statements of his once prized Handbook may be to a beginner.

The reason for this lies in the fact that the relation between the compiler of a manual and the general practice of heraldry is analogous to that between a grammarian or a lexicographer and the language of which he is writing. The office of both of the latter is to determine by a general survey the usage of the past and the present and to distinguish between elegant and inelegant forms,-—between the more or less constant “good use” and the evanescent colloquial or vulgar use. In a brief primer it is difficult for a grammarian to do more than indicate certain elementary proprieties of structure; if the teacher attempt from the primer alone to construct more ambitious forms, the chances for error are many. So, too, a “pocket dictionary” is no safe indication of the resources of a language. One cannot with a slight knowledge of a few of the underlying principles of heraldry determine “a priori” what certain armorial bearings should or should not have been or be. For example, an American writer several years ago urged that in future adoptions of arms by the American sees the “episcopal purple” appear, as being a well-nigh indispensable feature of diocesan arms. As a matter of fact, among the one hundred and thirty or more shields of the Anglican (British and Colonial) sees known to me, on not one does the tincture “purpure” occur. In short, heraldry is not an “exact science” (as an enthusiastic Churchman recently miscalled it) in which definite forms are always predicable. The term “science” has, of course, been used; as, for example in “La Science Héroïque,” by Vulson de la Colombière, 1664, but the editor of the later enlarged edition felt called upon to apologise for it. The 1660 folio of Pierre Paillot is entitled “La Vraye et Parfaicte Science des Armoiries,” and early English writers followed suit. But one might as well speak of the “true and perfect science of rhetoric,” or call grammar an exact science. The truth is that heraldry, or to use the more precise term, armoury, is susceptible of scientific study and research just as is language; and has been subject to an even greater number, proportionally, of variations of usage, mutations of forms, and developments of laws than has language itself, and in a seemingly more irresponsible fashion. It is only from the written and spoken records of a language, only from actual painted, carven, and engraved shields of arms that we can determine what has been linguistic or armorial “good use” at a given period.

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The terms “arms” and “seal” are so often incorrectly used as synonyms … that I fear this somewhat slovenly confusion of mind may be widespread. I can only hope that the reader will, with this caution, sharply distinguish between the two when they appear in these papers. He will then understand, of course, how well designed arms may appear on a badly designed seal; how incorrect arms may appear on an otherwise impeccable seal; how many Sees may use seals, as at present, without having ever adopted arms; and how the adoption of arms by a Diocese need not involve the abandonment of an old unarmorial seal to which the Diocese may be sentimentally attached.

II. Diocesan Arms

The old heraldic maxim, Arma sunt distinguendi causa, —- that the essential function of a coat of arms is simply to identify its owner,—- is too often forgotten by committees on diocesan arms. A diocesan shield is not required to display the ethnological, civil, and religious origins of the diocese, its geographical peculiarities, its chief commercial products, or even its religious aspirations. To demand this of a shield is wholly to misunderstand heraldry. And yet I have had requests from bishops and committees to embody all of these features in a single coat. The briefest study of the best British and continental ecclesiastical arms will lead to a different view. Some of these features it is legitimate and even desirable to introduce in a diocesan shield, but the danger point is reached much sooner than amateur designers suspect. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the beautiful feudal coats and the best later grants from the point of view of sound heraldry and good design is their simplicity. The second maxim which should govern a committee is, Simplicitas formæ antiquitatis nota. So the old armorialists used constantly to declare that the “noblest” coats were almost always the simplest; and in my first paper I gave examples of coats sufficiently simple and sufficiently distinguished to make this point clear. To be sure, the great and rapid multiplication of arms, and the necessity that each coat should be differentiated from the other, soon rendered the extreme simplicity of the oldest shields difficult to retain in new designs. But it none the less should be striven for as far as possible.

And apart from historical considerations, there are practical as well as æsthetic reasons for simplicity in a diocesan shield. Consider the uses to which such a shield may properly be put. It may be carved in stone on a church wall or portal: the figures then should cast simple, distinct shadows in a definite relation to one another, so that the design may be readily grasped. Painted in a high chancel window, the details should not be so many or so minute as to effect a mere blur of colour: the design should have “carrying power,” and nothing aids perspicuousness more than simplicity. Engraved upon a gem or embroidered upon an orphrey, it should not present to the artificer too complicated a problem for clean-cut workmanship. And, finally, such symbolism as appears upon the diocesan shield will in the end be more readily intelligible to the average layman if simple than if complicated.

But the beginner, particularly the American beginner, is singularly unaware of the heraldic dignity of simplicity. He will tell you that nothing could be more “noble” and less simple than, let us say, the écu complet of the Austrian Empire with scores of quarterings and its consequent “charges,” a variation of which led Napoleon on first seeing the arms of the Archduchess Marie Louise to inquire whimsically if he had married a menagerie. Or to take a less complicated and better known example, he might aver that there is nothing simple about the royal British Arms, and yet they are a sufficiently “noble” precedent. But the British arms (like the full Austrian arms) are a combination of separate coats displayed upon a single shield, —- England, Scotland, and Ireland, —- each of which considered by itself is wholly and beautifully simple in design.

Right here we come to the rock upon which amateurs founder: the distinction between “simple” (using the word now its technical sense), and “compound” coats of arms. A technically “simple” coat is one in which is completely represented only a single dignity, fief, or line of descent, in a homogeneous unit of design. Additional charges, bordures, marks of cadency, etc., may accrue to this coat without affecting its essential character as a “simple” coat. A new simple coat may even be devised, and frequently is by the College of Heralds, from two or more existing coats, having the original charges combined in such a way that the result is none the less a “simple,” single homogeneous coat of arms. But to do this correctly requires much more than the very rudimentary knowledge of heraldry supplied by the popular handbooks. A “compound” coat comes into being as soon as a shield is parted per pale (vertically), per fess (horizontally), or quarterly in any number and the resulting compartments are filled with two or more mutually independent designs. In this manner one may show in addition to the original coat of arms, arms of alliances, and various dignities or fiefs attached to the original coat of arms; but there is always at least one compartment in which the original dignity or patrimony of the owner of the compound shield is clearly and independently exposed. Theoretically, no coat of arms ever begins its heraldic existence as a compound.