Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Heraldry - history's shorthand

My ancestor's coat of arms
The cross shows an ancestor to be a crusader.
 Billets indicate diplomatic service to the state. 
Heraldry has been called both the “shorthand of history and the noble science.” An inherited system of colors and symbols for personal identification, heraldic designs are an artistic expression of genealogies; the knowledge of the badges, knots, charges, crests, coats of arms, helmets, and other devices became a science. Developed to identify knights on the battlefield and in tournaments, these symbols also identify the bloodlines of nobles and monarchies. The knights of Faerie tales and many other wondrous childhood stories are full of characters with heraldic insignia. In Arthurian lore heroic knights Lancelot, Gawain, and the Green Knight have heraldic emblems unique to them. When monarchies merge through marriage, heraldic designs are created to reflect the new alliances and families.

Today heraldry is also a global system symbolizing national, civic, military, and religious hierarchies, as well as family lineage. A coat of arms must be granted and can, in extreme cases, be abated. The United States Army Institute of Heraldry provides heraldic services to government organizations, including the Executive Office of the President: The great seal of the United States Presidents was designed in 1782. Military Armed Forces award heraldic ribbons of honor to their heroes: the Medal of Honor is awarded for "gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty," the Army Distinguished Service Cross is awarded for “extraordinary heroism.”
My ancestor's coat of arms

Heraldry has appeared on flags from its beginning. Flags and standards emote strong feelings of belonging. Flags are not exclusive to nations or nobility; the military holds regimental colors in highest honor. Identity is linked to heraldic insignia; few may remember that communists were called “Reds” because their (Bolshevik) flag was red.

The coat of arms of the state of Massachusetts is a blue shield with an Indian holding a bow and a five pointed star upon it. There have been several designs. A stained glass window above the Grand Stair Case at the state house shows all the seals used in Massachusetts, including royal seals of colonial days.

Religious iconography is evident worldwide. The arms of Pope John Paul II display the symbols of the papacy: the crossed keys and tiara. These emblems also symbolize the marriages and generations of families, and so family heraldry is a continuing historic record of genealogies like a family tree. It is interesting to note that of all the monarchies that engaged in WWI, few families still remained after WWII; their coats of arms are, for some, the only reminder of their family heritage.

Much of the symbolism used in Heraldic designs, such as the double-headed eagle, lion, unicorn, dragon, and griffin, as well as the shield, crown, sword, and ashera pole, comes from antiquity. The combination and placement of these symbols conveys meaning, designating family, rank, and nationality. A legitimate coat of arms must be confirmed by the proper authorities and, on very rare occasions, can be revoked. What symbols would you use to design a heraldic emblem for yourself or your family?

Michelle earned her post-graduate degree at the University of Wales, decoding prehistoric images, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales and tracing them to their roots. She is an author, columnist, publisher, artist, and teacher. Her artwork, inspired by her love of symbolism and folklore, has appeared in galleries from Massachusetts to California. Michelle is co-owner of White Knight Studio.
     Books by Michelle, available at Amazon:


Symbology ReVision: Unlocking Secret Knowledge  
Symbology: Hidden in Plain Sight
Symbology: My Art and Symbols 
Symbology: Fairy Tales Uncovered 
Symbology: Decoding Classic Images 
Symbology: World of Symbols 
Symbology: Secrets of the Mermaids


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book One - The Lost Unicorn


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Two - The Lost Mermaid

The Fairy Tales: Once-Upon-A-Time Lessons First Book

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