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Colourful peacock illustration on a white background.

Heraldry: The Artistic Codes Of Lineages


With military origins, heraldic shields artistically tell the history of a succession.

Heraldry, and the interest upon it, goes hand in hand with a search for origins: each of us is the fruit of countless historical relationships and circumstances such as migrations, wars, alliances and betrayals which memory doesn’t always share with us. In this sense, heraldry condenses a part of history, and therefore of the essence of those who hoist it.

Although it is commonly associated to nobility contexts, heraldry is present in our everyday surroundings: in national and municipal coats of arms in virtually every country (including micronations), and, of course, in national flags.

But the art of heraldry came in response to the need to identify and create a hierarchy, expressed by the European nobility of the 13th Century: this code, which is both aesthetic and military in nature, used visual synthesis during a time when few knew how to read, to include a variety of information regarding a lineage and a defined social condition. In its most practical sense, military heraldry was used to distinguish the different units available in a battlefield, and the meaning and division of coats of arms are conserved in aspects of nomenclature and figures used in composition.

Unicorn crest illustration on a white background.

Like any art, the rules of heraldic composition have their own traditions and peculiarities. A coat of arms typically has a shield, which is the canvas featuring several distinctive elements. The surface of each coat of arms is called the field, which is divided into two or more partitions. The colors are called tinctures, and are divided into metals (gold and silver) and colors, which have unique names: red is “gules”, blue is “azur”, green is “vert”, purple is “purpure” and black is “sable.” For its part, the color of white human skin is “carnation.”

As in the Tarot de Marsella, which originated in the same period, heraldic coats of arms have different figures in order for each family or territory to distinguish itself. The figures are divided into natural (animals, plants), artificial (castles, forts, objects) and chimerical (dragons, griffins, sirens, etc.). Lastly, each coat of arms can include supporters, which are external elements surrounding the shield, such as animals or people, as well as crowns, feathers, military forts, etc. This area includes decorations and medals given to knights during battles or services performed for the king — because of their medieval origins, an heraldic shield is a sum of insignia of dependency or submission, whether military or divine.

Illustration of a bumble bee and a crown crest on a white background.

It is interesting to point out that heraldic etymology goes back to herald, from the French, héraut, which means messenger. In this way, we can understand that a coat of arms or heraldry is a type of messenger of the position and social status of its bearer, but we can also note that it involves a metacode: a striking visual monogram which offers, in an aesthetic way, a huge amount of information. Of the heraldry’s fundamental roles is to convey history and identity, therefore it works as a sort of semantic foundation, a narrative axis along a territory –be it home, feud, or empire– and its inhabitants.


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