Heraldry: Overview

Arms of EulenbergHeraldry in its basic form is a system of identification, based on designs projected onto a shield.  The compositions vary patterns of line and color, and bear geometric patterns and stylized representations of animals and objects.  It originated as a means of recognition on the battlefield, and developed further on the tournament ground; the heralds for whom this study is named were officers on both fields.

Heraldry grew beyond this martial origin to provide a means of identification and authentication of acts and writings by a wider class of society, including women, clerics, and corporations.  Heraldic expression includes accessories to the shield, such as the crest shown in the composition at left.  Heraldry continues to provide symbols for nations, provinces, cities, dioceses, and corporations, mainly but not only in Europe.

Why do I care about it?  I find beauty in its color and line, in its balance and harmony, in the meaning and associations embedded in each design, in its economy of expression and graceful stylization, in the delicate exchange between the fixed elements of each Angel From the Hyghalmen Rolldesign and the artist’s freedom, in the way different designs are marshaled into one, and in its power to communicate without words.  There is much joy in reading this secret language, if you take the time to master it.  The old writers called heraldry a science, because there is a body of knowledge a person must learn in order to understand what he sees, and to create new designs.  But really it is more art than science.

Heraldry has been an important element in the decorative art of every province of Europe for nearly 900 years, and every province and every period has its own distinctive style.  It lies at the intersection of art and history – a 19th century writer called heraldry “the writing table of history,”1 and indeed you can read history in heraldry if you know what to look for.

Emblem of the Netherlands MarinesEighteenth century ordinanzaI include in this field not only heraldry as strictly defined, but also flags, medal-ribbons, insignia, signs and symbols, and iconography.  All these fields share the property of transmitting complex ideas as well as sensual pleasure without words, through the visual elements of color, line and form.  In my view, they are all one continuous study.  My essay “Heraldic Pleasures” explains in more detail how I got into this field, and what the sensual and cognitive pleasures are that I think it offers.2

This page of my website contains the following sections.

Coming soon, but not yet ready:

  • A gallery of heraldic images;
  • A more advanced reading list than the few titles mentioned in the introductory list;
  • Links to heraldic websites; and
  • A catalogue of my heraldic library.Albanian-10-leke-piece


Coat of arms: Arms of Eulenberg, by Otto Hupp, from Münchener Kalender, 1902.  Hupp was a leader in the 19th century rediscovery of the Renaissance style in heraldic art.

Angel: From the Hyghalmen Roll, c. 1400, manuscript in the College of Arms, London.  It represents the medieval concept of the Emperor and the Pope sharing the dominion of the earth between them, under God.  In my essay “Heraldic Pleasures” I discuss this image in more detail.  Hyghalmen is pronounced High-Almain.

Flag: Eighteenth century ordinanza (regimental flag) of the Swiss Regiment Fatio in Sardinian service, by David Lilienblatt.  Reproduced with permission.

Badge: Emblem of the Netherlands Marines.  From a philatelic cover.

Coin: Albanian 10-lekë piece, 1939, from the period of Albania’s subjection to Fascist Italy.  Note the fasces to the sides of the eagle.

  1. James Planché, in The Pursuivant of Arms, or Heraldry Founded upon Facts (London, 1852).
  2. The essay is a slightly altered version of Chapter 6 of my Autobiography.