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Coats of Arms

by Justin Bednarz

The ancestors of the corporate logo.

Coats of arms are long-established and yet still ubiquitous ornamental tags of legitimacy and belonging, cueing an instinctual notion of establishment and old authority. Well, mostly. Something's gone missing as the more regal ages have bowed to modern times, in which sportsmen, military men, level-12 knights in Dungeons & Dragons, Irish pubs, and, of course, the theatrical restaurant Medieval Times utilize the coat of arms' cryptic but familiar presence. Donald Trump has his own coat of arms, and you can wear one too, if you have means and access to a department store, mall, or any clothing vendor up on its trends.

A coat of arms is official insofar as it is recognized by the College of Arms; it was that body's task to set forth and document all arms in existence, to insure that duplication did not occur, after the proliferation of coats of arms in England, around the 16th century, when the suppression of private armies moved the sporting and military uses of heraldry into something more like a popular decorative art. Though originating in England, there are Colleges of Arms in many European countries, as well as Canada, and a military branch quite similar to a College of Arms here in the States. A person claiming his individual coat of arms as being an official coat of arms can only confirm this with a documented nod from the College of Arms. The College requires that there be a direct male lineage to an ancestor who was granted a coat of arms, though the grounds by which one is granted a coat of arms was no clearer than that.

Heraldry began in the 13th century as a largely practical affair, as a means to distinguish knights. Clad in armor that concealed their face, knights' coats of arms played the same role as the numbers and uniforms of National Football League players:  confirming one among an elite group of warriors, sponsored by great wealth. And just as there is a desire of the masses of fans to wear today's professional athletes' jerseys, as a form of self-expression through clothing, so there is also an individual message in each coat of arms.

Over time, heraldry became a complex system of inherited social status; charges, the symbols within the divisions, or impalements of the shield, could be added to a crest when one married. In the cases of high society marriages, the divisions became more intricate, to contain all the boastful relevance of the decendency of their and their spouses' families, with rights to charges passing on to their children. This all became a mess that needed some training to disentangle, even then.

With today's dwindling mass interest in symbols that can be read in one "correct" way, the purpose of the iconic coat of arms has been relegated to a small part of our visual world, largely as the sign of a corporate presence, and the majority of people today would be hard put to explain the meaning of a frontal facing barred helm atop a coat of arms.

But as with cheaper imitations of high fashion products today, there was in heraldry room for trickery of message from the beginning. There were ways to make one look more important than one was. For example a "crest coronet" resembles a crown, and a person could, officially, place as many of these as could fit within his shield. There is evidence that even in heraldry's heyday, the system was confusing when used for more practical purposes, so in feudal times there were men called Blazons, who explained each combatant's crest for the audience at jousts or sporting contests.

The coat of arms, traditionally, was not meant to be used by an entire family, but specialized and tweaked for the individual so each had a unique and original variation. The accumulation of impalements, or divisions within a shield, and charges, the symbols within these impalements, was a sign of there being a longer established lineage of the family. Also, a person could add to the complexity of his coat of arms by being granted an augmentation, an additional adornment atop the shield, usually a helm, with the type and positioning of it indicating its bearer as a commoner, knight/baronet or peer. Cadency marks noted male seniority, with seemingly arbitrary symbols for first son to sixth. Though there was a clearly defined set of symbols for certain charges, there was a great deal of freedom in the creation of a families charge, though they were often as simple as a sort of pun off of the family name they represented, the name "Lyon" being rendered as a lion, for example.

Though it still exists, the College of Arms is now ignored by designers with very different agendas, borrowing the visual qualities alone of the language and symbols of heraldry to make a frame for their fashion. While the appropriation of heraldry by fashion reflects a disinterest in the meaning behind a high-status tag, the sort of fashion clearly borrowing from heraldry still indicates one's having class. Logos and brand names serve a similar purpose, though we no longer share an official language behind such imagery; a logo merely indicates the name of the brand, and most any American teen will tell you what a capital "AF" seen in the right context stands for.

Original art courtesy Justin Bednarz.

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Articles in this Issue

Manzanar, by Karen Piper
The Phoenix Agent, by Robley Wilson
The Life of One Man as Found in the Garbage, by Elizabeth Monoian
My Berlin, by Karin Finell
Coats of Arms, by Justin Bednarz
Criminology, by Ralph Gardner
Paranormal Technology, by Alex Boese
Athletics, by Zack Hample
October 2006


Justin Bednarz, born in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, has been educated at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen Michigan, the College of Ceramic Arts at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and is currently tackling the remainder of a BFA as a part time student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. His department of focus has gone from Ceramic Art to Painting to Interactive media and he is currently focusing in General Sculpture Studies. He is also a poet and singer for the Rock 'n' Roll band "Man Alive!" based out of Baltimore.

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