Symbols of Honour: Identifying Coats of Arms

Guest blog post by Adam Flynn, Renaissance Art postgraduate work placement student.

A brief examination of almost any of the incunabula contained within Glasgow University’s Special Collections quickly reveals the book as a cultural artefact; its physical condition details the various ways in which previous owners have interacted with the object in such as way as to personalize and particularize it, thereby imbuing the book with a significance beyond its textual content. Of the many idiosyncrasies and peculiarities contained within the collection of incunabula, of particular interest to myself has been the inclusion of heraldic emblems. Over the last few months, I have worked my way through Special Collections’ catalogued list of coats of arms of unknown provenance, in the hope of shedding a little light on the ownership history of these persistently elusive symbols. I will summarise how I went about the task of identifying individual arms, and the problems that I encountered in this process.

Hunterian Be.2.6 (not an elongated red lion ...)

Hunterian Be.2.6 (not an elongated red lion …)

From the outset, it was essential to have the knowledge to put newly discovered information into the official descriptive terms of already identified coats of arms. However, the esoteric science of heraldry presents many arcane codes and terminologies which instantly prove a barrier to those unfamiliar, as it did for myself. Indeed, the particularities of a heraldic device is defined according to a strict set of rules and its written description, or blazon. One does not, for instance, describe the arms contained within the Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.6 copy of works by Blondus as an elongated red lion above a series of blocks, but as D’argent au chef chargé d’un lion passant de gueules, coupe d’azur semé de seize billettes d’or. The systematic nature of the vocabulary does, however, mean that heraldry has remained a relatively consistent discipline, and once I had grasped the basics, I found it easier to describe a wide variety of heraldic symbols. A range of secondary works are essential to readily understand the many armorials that one comes across in book investigation, and I found the standard works to be especially helpful; Friar (Heraldry: For the Local Historian and Genealogist), Pearson (Provenance Research in Book History), and Boutell (Heraldry) supply the fundamentals that the newcomer to the field may need. To those for whom language barriers would present a problem, an online multi-language heraldic dictionary, like the International Illustrated Glossary, would prove invaluable.

Once the features of a coat had been accurately described, I consulted printed and online resources for coats with a similar heraldic design, based either on its official description or simply by visual examination of the coat itself, if images were available. I hoped to discover some connection to an already identified copy as this would help to at least localize the book’s provenance, if not attribute it to a specific owner, which was a far more difficult thing to do.

As I began surveying books and online catalogues I was aware of the fact that, despite a coat of arms being a unique pictorial device appropriate to only one individual or family, its interpretation may greatly differ between sources due to inaccuracies or inconsistencies in recording. Some variations – like the colour of small devices such as roundels – are of little importance, while other variations – like extensive colour variations of a blazon – are significant, as they present the coat in an entirely different way. Fortunately, a great deal of progress has been made towards the standardization of early printed book descriptions, with greater emphasis on copy-specific information, particularly with regards to early provenance.

I was reliant on a number of online tools, catalogues and databases which record copy-specific evidence in early printed books. CERL’s ‘Can you help?’ forum, in particular, offered access to the shared knowledge of scholars on problems of identification and interpretation.

I was also dependent on the collective wisdom of Twitter, regularly posting descriptions of as yet unidentified coats, with general users, other library institutions and heraldic scholars occasionally offering suggestions in the decipherment of ambiguous symbols, or suggesting further useful resources.

Despite my best endeavours, I was unable to establish the early ownership history of any other incunables containing coats of arms beyond those four mentioned in my previous blog post. I will briefly summarise those arms which resisted decipherment, in the hope that someone else will have better luck in identifying them.

Ferguson An-y.19: SMM

Ferguson An-y.19: SMM

A 16th/17th century woodcut stamp appears in Hermes Trismegistus De potestate et sapientia Dei (Venice: Damianus de Mediolano, de Gorgonzola, 10 May 1493) (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.19) and features the initials •S• •M• •M•. and the resurrected Christ holding a banner. Given the location of printing and the subject matter of the stamp, it most likely indicates an Italian ecclesiastical ownership, but we have been unable to establish a precise identification. One Twitter user suggested the initials as being a common abbreviation of ‘Santa Maria Maggoire’ – one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome – while another blogger suggested an association with Saint Michael.

Hunterian Be.1.2: Archdiocese of Cambrai?

Hunterian Be.1.12: Archdiocese of Cambrai?

Among the library’s catalogued incunabula is a copy of Boccaccio’s De montibus, silvis, fontibus (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.1.12), containing an 18th century armorial bookstamp, the official heraldic designation of which is as follows: a shield bearing three lion rampant and a sceptre(?) surmounted by a miter and crosier. While we believe this bookstamp to be French – having been purchased by Hunter at a French sale – one online user suggested Venetian provenance, although this has yet to be confirmed. The prevalence of the trois lionceaux charge (i.e., the three lions rampant) in heraldry makes identification especially challenging. However, the presence of the mitre clearly indicates an ecclesiastical provenance, and so after an online suggestion, we began surveying the armories of 18th century French Bishops, but to no avail. A Northern-French provenance is a possibility, as the stamp bears a similarity to the arms of the Archdiocese of Cambrai, except for the notable omission of the sceptre in the latter.

Hunterian Be.1.6: Sperelli family?

Hunterian Be.1.6: Sperelli family?

Requiring further provenance research is a book printed by Vindelinus de Spira in Venice in 1471 – Cicero: Epistolae ad familiaris (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.1.6), decorated with an unidentified painted coat of arms comparable to one attributed to Alessandro Sperelli (1590-1671), Bishop of Gubbio, Italy. The latter coat is, however, charged with an additional gold bezant (roundel), and this variation may be explained by the heraldic system in which gradual alterations in the design of an armorial help to distinguish one family member from another. A more extensive investigation into the genealogy of the Sperelli family may be necessary in order to explain the particularities of its heraldic composition, and attribute it to a specific individual within the Sperelli lineage.

Hunterian Bf.1.3: a connection with Lignamine?

Hunterian Bf.1.3: a connection with Lignamine?

More work is also required in the decipherment of an Italian coat of arms found in both Sp Coll Hunterian Bf.1.13 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.2.11. At the suggestion of Dr Martin Davies, we have begun to search for any individual connected to the book’s printer, Johannes Philippus de Lignamine, who regularly sent out copies of his publications to eminent or favoured individuals, so that we might put a name to its earliest owner.

Euing BD9-d.5: a knotty problem

Euing BD9-d.5: a knotty problem

A particularly enigmatic coat of arms that has so far resisted decipherment is contained within the Sp Coll BD9-d.5 copy of works by Josephus. The shield within the lower margin contains the figure of a grey-bearded man wearing a black hat and a knee-length black garment, surrounded by an intricate knot pattern. In heraldry, many coats of arms bear elaborate knots, or entwined ropes, emblazoned upon them. They often appear as charges in naval heraldry, but are also common in ecclesiastical emblems, symbolizing knotted Franciscan cinctures, although such a provenance cannot be confirmed with regards to this particular coat. The significance, if any, of the overhand knot as shown here also remains unknown.

Research into the early ownership history of a Franciscan coat of arms contained within Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.3.14 has also proven difficult. The decorated shield representing the crossed arms of Christ and St Francis is the universal symbol of the Franciscan order. With no variant features or particular idiosyncrasies which would aid in narrowing down the provenance, any attempts to precisely localize this copy and attribute it to a specific Franciscan order have, quite understandably, proven problematic.

Hunterian Bg.3.14: Franciscan

Hunterian Bg.3.14: Franciscan

Despite being unable to decipher these arms, the process nonetheless gave me an insight into the sheer variety of heraldic designs, and the skill required to officially describe the particular features of each.

In the first week of my placement I was told – perhaps, warned – that I would soon be seeing coats of arms everywhere – and indeed, it is only after spending many hours engaging with these symbols that I have become fully aware of their complete omnipresence. My eye now catches the varied assortments of arms dotted inconspicuously throughout Glasgow city centre. Even more recently, while studying a 15th century illustration of the Apocalypse, I was surprised to note the seemingly incongruous inclusion of an elaborate coat of arms alongside an image of the Antichrist’s demonic army. Upon further reading, it seems the book’s patron had used the power of heraldry to score political points by prominently displaying the arms of a rival noble in close proximity to these diabolic creatures, in order to tarnish the reputation of his opponent by symbolically affiliating him with the forces of evil. I find this serves as an fascinating example of the functional adaptability and enduring social and cultural importance of coats of arms, of which it has been my great pleasure to have had the opportunity to engage with over the past few months.

A flickr set has also been created to summarise these findings.



Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. I’ll look out for coats of arms from now on!

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