Monday, 19 April 2021

The Catholic Church's Disappearing Art Form: Heraldry

If you are interested in the subject, I would suggest joining the Facebook groups Ecclesiastical Heraldry and  Ecclesiastical Heraldry Fan Club.

From Religion Unplugged

By Timothy Nerozzi

WASHINGTON— “Gules, chape ployé Or, with the scallop shell Or; the dexter chape with a moor's head Proper, crowned and collared Gules, the sinister chape a bear trippant (*passant) Proper, carrying a pack Gules belted Sable.”

That mess of language is the blazon of a heraldic achievement – historically, one of the most important possessions of a high-ranking Catholic clergyman, but an increasingly ignored art form inside and outside the Church today.

Heraldic achievements are formalized designs that convey the identity of an individual, group or institution. Each piece of an achievement carries a meaning or message about its bearer, their family or their organization.

And for every new bishop that is consecrated, a new heraldic achievement is required.

There are specific rules for everything from the colors one can use to the symbols one can put on their shield. Different clerical offices allot different rights for arms-bearers. These rules are ancient and complicated, but they have remained extremely consistent for hundreds of years.

But nowadays, for as many well-made and tasteful heraldic achievements as there are, there are just as many that flatly break the rules. Whether their importance is shrugged off or a church official simply fails to understand what exactly a heraldic achievement is, the Catholic Church’s standard for this precise artwork is dropping.

These crudely designed and poorly rendered arms can be maddening to heraldic experts: wrong colors, tacky symbolism and misappropriated details can completely confuse and clutter the bishop’s most important personal mark – arguably something more important than even his own signature.



Official rendering of Pope Francis’s papal coat of arms provided by the Vatican. Image courtesy of the Vatican.

Fr. Selvester is a Governor-at-large of the American Heraldry Society, a member of the New Jersey Catholic Historical Commission, and the founder of his own heraldry research organization, The College of Ecclesiastical Heraldry.

“The Church doesn't endow clergy with the right to have a coat of arms but it does give them the right to ensign their coats of arms with appropriate symbols unique to the Church and to their station as clergymen,” said Fr. Guy Selvester, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Washington, N.J., in an interview on the subject.

Heraldry has been used in the Catholic Church for ages. It encourages the use of various decorations and details for an individual’s achievement depending on things such as clerical status, chivalric order membership, and the reception of papal awards.

For example, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals are all permitted to display a galero, or wide brimmed clergyman hat on the top of their armorial achievement. From there, the color of the hat depends on the rank of the individual. Generally speaking, priests are only permitted to use a black galero, bishops and archbishops can use green, and cardinals can use red.

Additionally, details such as the number of tassels hanging from the hat, as well as the use of the miter, cross and shepherd’s crook are also allotted according to a list of rules. Different knighthoods can offer chains to be hung from the bottom of the shield. Other awards and distinctions can manifest other details.

The details and design philosophies can be complex. In countries such as the United Kingdom, there are entire government offices dedicated to secular heraldic law that have the authority to take legal action on inaccurate or copied designs.


Archbishop James Byrne's coat of arms above the main entrance into St. Raphael's Cathedral in Dubuque, Iowa. Creative Commons image.

But the church is far less centralized on the matter.

“There is no central governing heraldic authority within the Church,” Fr. Selvester said. “At one time there was a kind of authority called the Collegio Araldico but it no longer regulates heraldry in the Church. The Church is primarily, almost exclusively, concerned with regulations for the external ornaments around the shield which indicate the rank and sometimes the function of the bearer of that coat of arms.”

Some officials, knowing little to nothing of the general design guidelines for their coats of arms, treat the symbol like a mere logo or icon. They don’t take their commission for their coat of arms to a professional heraldry designer and simply hand the work to whatever commercial artist is willing to do it.

”This is another reason so many bishops' coats of arms are horrible. Some well-meaning ignoramus who can draw well offers to cobble something together,” Fr. Selvester said. “Many times the bishop himself comes up with the design and it's a veritable curriculum vitae in symbols. This is precisely what a coat of arms should NOT be. It includes everything from their favorite color to the their favorite food and it looks horrible.”


Coat of arms of Martin John Spalding, Archbishop of Baltimore, from his Pastoral Letter Promulgating the Jubilee (1865) (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s easy to understand why this disconnect exists. A church leader, bishop, cardinal, or otherwise, inherits with his new role a flood of spiritual and temporal responsibilities. The needs of the faithful, the administration of a diocese, the governance of the church — a high-ranking member of the clergy has too many concerns to count.

In the midst of feeding the poor, leading worship or ordaining priests, what worry is a coat of arms to a bishop who has never paid them any mind and is most familiar with them from the pages of history books?

In a world that has moved beyond medieval blazons and shields, the personal signature and the diocesan letterhead carry more weight to the outside world than the color of the wide-brim hat above a coat of arms. Appreciators of heraldry obsess and dissect their art not because it carries material benefits or helps with the workings of the church in a practical way, but because the art is and of itself a thing that they admire. Not only the images and the designs, but the history and craftsmanship — the meaning inherent.

And so, it seems, the Church is crawling inch by inch to a point where a decision will have to be made.

Are these images of shields, crooks and hats worth preserving? Are the proper forms of tinctures and the meanings of colors something that needs protection? Is the symbolism of a seashell or a flower an art that cannot be lost?

If the answers to these questions is no, why are bishops forced to adopt them?

And if the answer is yes, when will their owners be expected to take them seriously?

Heraldry is an art form with a complex history. Now students of the practice are forced to wait and see if it has a meaningful future.

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