What is Heraldry?

What is heraldry?

The word Heraldry is derived from the Germanic word Herold, in modern Swedish härold, which evolved from the ancient Teutonic word Hariovisio or Hariovald which signified a person skilled in deciphering the symbols of gods and families (Brajkovic 1995). Neubecker (1997) writes that the heraldic rules were created by the heralds. This is why we call everything that is associated with Coats of Arms, as Heraldic. Even the science and the art of Arms is called Heraldry. Wasling (1997) and von Volborth (1973) also states that the word Heraldry was evolved from the title herald.
This is precisely what Heraldry is: the science of Coats of Arms. Heraldry can also be defined as a system of rules that govern the appearance of Arms, the use of Arms and inheritance of Arms. In addition, this Heraldry is also a help-science of History (Raneke 1995b, Zmajic 1996, Zovko 1998 and others).

What is a Coat of Arms?

Coat of Arms, also called Armorial bearings or simply Arms, are the central subjects of heraldry as a science, and the central motives of heraldic art.
Coats of Arms are defined as colored, hereditary and permanent symbols for individuals, families, clans, businesses, church dignitaries, cities, municipalities, etc.. These symbols are manufactured using medieval gear: shields and helmets (Brajkovic 1995).
A similar definition (Anderson 1993) denotes Coats of Arms as brands that represent the families and the natural or legal persons in the same was as a name, but in an image format. This definition was developed by Arvid Berghman’s famous definition that says that the Arms is to the eye what is the name is to the ear.
Bäckmark and Wasling (2001), defines Armorial bearings as an image. It has a decorative function. The image is a sign of its owner’s identity and therefore must be unique. It is also firmly associated with the owner over time.


Figure 1. Coat of Arms is an image that has a decorative function and is a sign of its owner’s identity. Picture: Davor Zovko.

Berghman (1987) writes: So what is a Coat of Arms? Coats of Arms are individual’s, familie’s or different communitie’s representing ideas, which received shapes accordance with heraldic rules, developed the centuries (…) (p. 6).

This definition, the above named definitions, and all other definitions of Arms agree that a sign or label must be designed in accordance with heraldic rules, to be qualified as a Coat of Arms.

An Armorial bearing must also be depicted on a surface. Von Volborth (1981) writes that the shield is the only mandatory part of a Coat of Arms. Shields can be used alone, unlikely any other part of the Arms. Most of all arms of cities and female arms in many countries, consists of shield alone. Shield is that surface on which a weapon label depicted.

Figure 2. Shields is the only mandatory part of a Coat of Arms. Arms may consist of only a shield.

A Coat of Arms consisting of a shield, a helmet with mantling and a crest, is a complete Arms (Zovko 1998 and many others). Bäckmark and Wasling (2001) writes that a complete Arms consists of a shield and a crest. They point out that the helmet’s function is merely to carry the crest.

Arms may have other parts. These are: motto, supporters, postament, crowns, and others. Motto is a compressed sentence, which usually reflects the Armiger’s philosophy of life. Motto is printed on a scroll that is placed immediately under the shield. Supporters are usually human or animal figures, standing on postamentet, flanking and holding the shield. Crown is placed on the helmet. If the Arms is depicted without a helmet or with more than one helmet, the crown is placed on the shield, or both the shield and the helmet.

Figure 4. Parts of a Coat of Arms. 1 – Shield (Escutcheon), 2 – Helmet (in this case Barred Helmet), 3 – Crest, 4 – Coronet, 5 – Neck gem, 6 – Mantling , 7 – Supporters , 8 – Motto, 9 – Postament. Arms of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Painting Davor Zovko.

Some of these elements are also symbols of rank of nobility. Supporters in Sweden may be worn only in arms of Peers with higher ranks (Bäckmark and Wasling 2001). Coronets of rank show that the Armiger is noble (Bäckmark and Wasling 2001). In Sweden, noblemen use three types of coronets of rank: coronet of lower nobility, coronet of barons and coronet of counts (Raneke 1990).

Figure 5. Swedish coronets of rank. 1 – Lower nobility, 2 – Baron, 3 – Count. Pictures Davor Zovko

Even helmet could be used as a atribut of rank. A royal decree issued in Sweden in 1762 by King Adolf Fredrik, regulated that the barred helm was to be used only in Arms of noblemen, while the tilting helm could be used by anyone (Berghman 1934). Arms of noblemen could be depicted even with other atributs (Bäckmark and Wasling 2001). Barons can decorate their Arms with two helmets, counts with three helmets.

Tancos-FRAM Lennstrand-FRAM
Figure 6. Berred helm and tilting helm. Barred helmet could be used only in Arms of noblemen while the tilting helmet can be found in any Arms (Zovko 2009 p. 47). Picture Davor Zovko.

Pictures with Arms as well as Arms per se, are works of art (Heim 1978, von Volborth 1987). Arms are depicted in various styles and those styles belong to the most common art styles: the Gothic, Renaissance as well as Baroque and Rococo. The Gothic style (1150-1530) and early Renaissance (around the 1400s and 1500s) are the most important art epochs of heraldic art (von Volborth 1987). It is natural that the Arms are depicted in contemporary styles. But it happens often that images of Arms are inspired by older styles.

The most frequently used art techniques or the material elements of the artistic language (Peic 1971) in heraldic art, are: graphics (in the broad sense), watercolor, guash, oil and pastel paintings, woodcuts, glass and other engraving. I would state that the images of Arms are rendered in accordance with laws of the real art and characterized by the psychic elements of the artistic language. Von Volborth (1987) describes the characteristics of a heraldic artwork. He writes that a heraldic composition must be accurate, but also aesthetic. Lines, proportions, symmetry, colors and tonal values must be used properly. Even the greatest artists in a some art eras liked to paint heraldry. One of them was Albrecht Dürer.

Who is entitled to Arms?

Medieval Lawyer Bartolus de Saxoferrato answered this question already in Foyrteenth century and wrote: ”Quilibet potest sibi assumere arma et insignia illa portare et in rebus propriis impingere.” (Anyone can assume Arms and wear such symbols or depict them on the belongings).

Thera are however two important conditions that every new Coat of Arms must obey:

– The new Arms must be unique. Every symbol depicted on an existing shield is protected as private property.

– The new Arms must be composed in accordance with the rigorous rules of Heraldry.

 Copyright © Davor Zovko

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