The Heraldry of Sacred Music (Part I)

Author: Duane Galles


by Duane L.C.M. Galles

"Hark, the herald angel sings" recalls the messenger, rather than the armorial, functions of the herald. Yet at the same time this venerable carol suggests a real link between armory or heraldry and sacred music. In the strict sense, of course, no heraldry of sacred music is possible, since only persons bear coat armour. Ideas, disciplines, methods of study do not, for they are not persons. Not being persons, they cannot have rights, including the right to arms.

Yet in the broad sense there is a heraldry of sacred music. It includes the heraldry of those persons possessed of coat armour who cultivate sacred music, i.e., of musical armigers. These are the active subjects of the heraldry of sacred music. Also included within the heraldry of sacred music are the contributions of sacred music to the heraldic alphabet or to the language of heraldry. These are the passive subjects of the heraldry of sacred music.

What follows is a serialized survey of the heraldry of sacred music in several parts. The first part provides a short introduction to the origins of heraldry, its language, its development, its administration, and a short survey of the various parts of a complete coat of arms or armorial achievement. Parts two and three will survey the armorial musical alphabet, the contributions made by sacred music to the language of heraldry. Finally, the series will close with a rapid survey of the heraldry of several notable musical armigers.

Sacred music begins as music, as an art. Sacred music is, as the of 1903 tells us, music written for the liturgy or melody devised to clothe a sacred text. Thus sacred music is distinct from religious music, which, though employing religious themes, is not written for use in the liturgy using a liturgical or scriptural text. And sacred music is most distinct from profane music, which, however edifying, has, or should have, no place in the temple or the liturgy. All this was happily restated in the recent Roman guidelines on concerts in church.

It is similar with heraldry. Heraldry is an art of identification, whether of families or of persons or of institutions which arose in France during the twelfth century, and still retains the impress of its French origins. It began as a system of identification to distinguish members of the feudal age's warrior class.

To some it is ironic (or worse) that the Church should have any truck with a system "born in blood." It is a venerable maxim that (the Church does not thirst for blood). Yet if Christ chose water, oil, bread and wine to be the instruments of salvation it is hardly surprising that the sacramental Church which He bequeathed to His disciples should use created instruments in its pilgrimage to its supreme end.

Since heraldry is an instrument which the Church adapts for her own ends, there is no distinct or proper church heraldry. Just as sacred music begins with music, with true art, and places it into the service of the liturgy, so sacred heraldry begins with the art of heraldry, with its own forms and laws, which the Church then merely adopts and adapts it to her own ends.

Indeed, as used by the Church, heraldry surely reflects the constitution of the Church. The Church is a communion of persons and a communion of communions. From the very fact that persons in the Church have the right to privacy, to their good name and identity, and to their own (approved) form of spirituality (canons 214, 220), one can conclude that those enjoying the unique distinction which the possession of armorial bearings provides have a canonical right to those arms.

Besides recognizing and protecting the right to arms, the Church also makes active use of coat armour. , said Gratian, the father of canon law; there are two kinds of Christians, lay people and clerics. The Church is a hierarchical communion, Vatican II's constitution, , article 10, reminds us. All this is reflected in her heraldry. Lay Christians use the customary form of secular heraldry, unless they be also religious. But just as clerics are required by canon 284 to wear clerical dress, so their coat armour is distinctive.

The pope, for example, bears his own personal coat of arms and many popes have born the arms which for centuries their families have used to identify themselves and their possessions. But since the fifteenth century the pope has ensigned his personal arms with the keys given by Christ to Peter in token of his ministry as universal pastor. These special ensigns are thus tokens of an ecclesiology of service and emblems of Peter's special charism.

Bishops "impale" their personal arms with those of their diocese and this, too, betokens service. There is also deeper symbolism. Impalement in heraldry does not mean being thrust through with a spear. Rather, it is a form of marshaling or arranging two coats of arms on a single shield whereby one coat occupies the right or dexter half (from the perspective of one holding the shield) and the other the left or sinister side of the shield. Husband and wife marshal their arms in this fashion and so their arms are joined on one shield as they themselves are joined in one in matrimony. In this light, heraldic "impalement" can be seen as a vestige of the notion that a bishop is wedded to his see. Heraldically it may be said to betoken this doctrine as surely as the ring placed on the bishop's finger at his consecration.

The hierarchical nature of the Church is also shown forth in heraldry by the way in which the various grades of prelates are carefully set off and distinguished. Priests, too have their special armorial ensigns. Finally, while the consecrated life belongs, as Lumen gentium, article 44, tells us, to the Church's life and holiness and not to her hierarchical structure, religious, too, have their distinctive emblems in church heraldry, as we shall see presently.

Heraldry had its genesis during the twelfth century and arose out of the needs of war. With the development of increasingly sophisticated armour, the identity of its wearer had become obscured. To indicate the identity of combatants some sort of system of clearly visible marks was needed. Military necessity thus summoned into existence the art and science of heraldry. , arms exist to distinguish between persons, wrote the very celebrated civil lawyer, Bartolus of Sassoferato, in his treatise on heraldry, , written about the year 1354.

Simplicity was the keynote in the earliest heraldry. To begin with the various reinforcing parts of the shield were tinctured in widely contrasting colors. Clearly, light on dark or dark on light would be more visible at a great distance. From this common sense notion arose the first heraldic charges and the basic rules of the use of heraldic colors. The light colors in heraldry are called the "metals," and these are silver and gold. The dark colors are the primary colors: red, blue, green, purple and black. Strictly speaking only these latter are termed "colors" in heraldry. Together both groups are called "tinctures."

Beyond brilliant colors heraldry employs brave forms. For visibility's sake the earliest heraldic designs were very simple. They are called the honorable "ordinaries" and include the chief, the uppermost horizontal third of the shield; the pale, the center vertical third of the shield; bend, the diagonal third of the shield; the fess, the center horizontal third of the shield; the bar, one-half of the fess; the cross, a combination of the pale and the fess; the chevron, a sort of inverted "V."

But since the possibilities in the heraldic world would have been rather limited if heraldry would have remained confined to these simplest of designs, soon a wealth of other charges was introduced into the heraldic universe. Almost every member of the animal or vegetable kingdoms (real or imagined) has been placed into service in the amorial world. Lions, tigers, bears, unicorns, roses, lilies, sunflowers, as well as the sun, the moon, and the stars are employed.

Music, too, as we shall see in parts two and three of this essay, made its contributions. And in the world before Raphael, these figures were drawn abstractly and without much attention to perspective and foreshortening. Most importantly, tinctures were expressionistic rather than natural. Indeed, the art of heraldry bears a spiritual kingship with the art of Georgia O'Keefe or Franz Marc. It a world of brave forms and brilliant colors. Thus, while one could never hope to meet a blue boar in the real world, the chances are considerably improved if one roams about the heraldic universe. Nor does a blue moon or Marc's blue horses seem improbable to the herald.

Language exists to communicate and one communicates by comparing and contrasting. Thus, words are referents to common experiences. The language of heraldry developed in the high middle ages when knighthood was in flower and when England's Norman elite spoke French. Not surprisingly, the language of administration in England was French, as was the language of the English royal court until the reign of Edward III (1312-1377). The common law courts also used French. Only the Court of Chancery, which until the days of Sir Thomas More was presided over by clerics, used another language. Chancery proceedings were in the language of the Church, Latin. English courts, in fact, continued to use French or Latin and eschew the vernacular until the eighteenth century, when the vernacular was at length adopted.

Since the English heraldic court or court of chivalry never sat after 1737, heraldry never got the chance to update itself and so continues to bear the impress of this French tradition. Thus in heraldry silver is and gold is . A mountain is , not green. A lion's tongue is , not red. An adder is , not black. A moon is , not blue. Similarly, postures are described . A lion, thus, is not walking, but rather . Nor is he lying, but rather . Nor is he rearing, but rather . There is a culinary analogy. When it is "on the hoof," it is a cow, a sheep, a calf, a pig, a deer. When it is on the table, meat takes on French airs and becomes beef, mutton, veal, pork and venison.

As time passed, coats of arms tended to become more complex and rules grew up governing the use of language in heraldry. Thus, if one of the older and simpler charges (the ordinaries and subordinaries) is used in connection with smaller, subsidiary charges, the former is always described as "between" the latter, if they surround it. Subsidiary charges are described as "on" it, if they rest on a fess or a cross or a pale or some other "ordinary."

Heraldry began with the armed forces, but it soon proved itself too valuable to be left the peculiar possession of soldiers. In an age when literacy and alphabetism extended little beyond the clergy, the value of a seal to authenticate deeds, charters and other documents quickly became obvious. Indeed, in 1307, King Edward I ordained that every religious house equip itself with a seal to be used to authenticate charters. Heraldry quickly found a new , and the marriage of heraldry and sigiliography (or the study of seals) was consummated. Not only would heraldry be useful to identify combattants, it could also be used on seals to distinguish and mark a person's property or right to property. Henceforth, any non-combattant needing to identify property-noble ladies, gentlewomen, ecclesiastics, corporations-now found coat armour highly useful. In short, by the end of the middle ages heraldry had ceased to be the perquisite of the warrior class and had spread to most property owners.

The military origins of heraldry have certainly left their mark on it administratively. In England the lord high constable and the earl marshal acquired jurisdiction over the soldiery and over armory. But when the office of lord high constable went into abeyance in 1521, the earl marshal acquired the sole armorial jurisdiction. As recently as 1954 his lieutenant and surrogate would preside over a session of the English court of chivalry.

In the Holy Roman Empire heraldry was differently administered. Grants of arms and titles could issue from the emperor and the imperial chancery, but, except in the case of the highest dignities, titles and grants of arms were usually obtained from the counts Palatine or . Before 1806, when Napoleon dissolved the empire, local rulers seldom granted arms and the empire included a vaster territory than merely Germany. Besides Germany the empire included northern Italy, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Belgium, Luxembourg, and (until 1648) Holland and Switzerland. Between 1355 and 1806, some 2000 grants of arms by are recorded. It is estimated that a further 500 grants went unrecorded.

Roman law-which with custom governed armorial matters across Christendom -called the power of these heraldic authorities "voluntary jurisdiction," meaning that it was an exercise of the officer's or will. In law, personal status was conferred by an exercise of voluntary jurisdiction and the , in addition to granting armorial bearings, could grant legitimations, adoptions, academic degrees, and name notaries public and poet laureates.

The same Roman law applied to heraldry in England and its armorial authority, the earl marshal. In the exercise of his voluntary jurisdiction the earl marshal is assisted by a corps of armorial officers who were incorporated in 1484 by royal charter as the college of arms. These officers include three kings of arms bearing the titles of Garter king of arms, Clarenceaux king of arms, and Norrey king of arms. There are also six heralds (bearing the names of Chester, Windsor, Richmond, Somerset, York, and Lancaster) and four pursuivants (Portcullis, Bluemantle, Rouge Croix and Rouge Dragon).

But besides his voluntary jurisdiction, the earl marshal also had "contentious" jurisdiction, i.e., the power to adjudicate claims between contending parties and to enforce the law of arms on his own initiative. The procedures of his court were borrowed from Roman law and canon law and thus were similar to the processes of continental and ecclesiastical courts.

Scotland has a separate armorial establishment headed by the Lord Lyon king of arms who continues by statute to enjoy contentious as well as voluntary jurisdiction. His court is a Scottish court of record. He is assisted by a group of heralds and pursuivants.

The Irish republic in 1943 created its own office of chief herald of Ireland who makes grants of arms to Irish citizens and persons of Irish descent. A famous grant of his is the 1961 grant of arms to the American president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In 1951, Spain revived and reformed the office of Cronista Rey des Armas, lodging the chronicler's office within the ministry of grace and justice. In 1962, the Republic of South Africa created its own bureau of heraldry headed by a state herald who continues to register arms. More recently, on June 4, 1988, Canada acquired an armorial establishment within the office of the governor general of Canada, headed by a chief herald of Canada and assisted by Saint Laurent, Athabaska and Fraser heralds.

In the United States public heraldry at the federal level is administered by the institute of heraldry in the United States army. Created during the First World War, the institute was placed on a statutory basis in 1957 and in 1960 acquired its present name. It supplies armorial devices to armed forces units and to federal civilian agencies.

The heraldry of private persons remains unregulated in the United States. During this century a number of private persons have designed armorial bearings for ecclesiastics and some musical armigers. Two of the most distinguished heraldists who might be mentioned were Pierre de Chaignon LaRose and Dom William Wilfrid Bayne. The committee on heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogy Society has since 1928 published a roll of arms of private persons lawfully entitled to armorial bearings in the United States.

A coat of arms or, more accurately, an achievement of arms or armorial achievement consists of several parts not all of which are always present in a given coat of arms. These parts vary depending on the status and dignity of the armiger and on the specific rules of the armiger's national heraldry.

The basic part of any armorial achievement is the shield which bears the "coat of arms" in the strict sense. Over the centuries this shield has taken several forms, varying from the many spade-like shields to the oval cartouche. From the renaissance to, the time of Paul VI, popes have preferred the cartouche rather than the shield. Nor do female armigers use the shield. Instead of a shield for ladies the convention since the renaissance is to display their arms on a diamond-shaped lozenge or on a cartouche, unless they be sovereigns in which case they employ a shield. Because some coats- especially quartered ones-fit poorly on a lozenge, abbesses, for example, often display their arms on a cartouche.

The helmet rests upon the shield and varies with the rank of the armiger. In English heraldry there are different helmets for gentlemen, knights, peers, and royalty. Ladies and Roman Catholic clerics do not use helmets. In the case of the latter this is an application of the maxim , the Church does not thirst for blood.

Atop the helm is the crest held in place by a torse (or wreath of twisted cloth) or, sometimes, by a coronet. If the helm is not used, neither is the crest, and so women and Roman Catholic clerics use no crests with their arms. The French, too, often omit the crest and, if part of the noblesse, merely place the coronet of their rank atop their shield. The Spanish or gentleman often uses a helm but with no crest other than an undistinguishing panache of ostrich plumes atop the helmet.

Ecclesiastics should not nowadays make use of ensigns of secular rank about their armorial shields, although cardinals until 1644, bishops until 1915, and other prelates until 1968 were free to do so. Today the only approved non-clerical additions to the shield indicative of rank which are permissible among Roman Catholic clerics are the badges of the two ecclesiastical orders of knighthood, the Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Other papal orders-such as the Order of Christ, the Order of the Golden Spur, the Order of Pius, the Order of Saint Gregory, and the Order of Saint Sylvester-are considered civil decorations of merit and should thus not be displayed armorially by ecclesiastics. Nowadays all clerics indicate their state in life by placing above their shield the broad-brimmed ecclesiastical hat in the color and form suitable to their degree.

Where used, the crest and torse hold in place the mantling, which originally was merely simple cloth placed on the head and neck to avert the glare of the sun. Later it was slashed and scalloped according to the vagaries of fashion, finally becoming very elaborate and fanciful.

Peers (or titled noblemen) and certain other high dignitaries have armorial supporters, which are simply human or animal figures which hold or support the armorial shield. While today supporters are not employed by ecclesiastics, certain lay musicians signally honored might still make use of them. As a knight grand cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), for example, was entitled to a grant of supporters.

Mention has been made several times of the ecclesiastical hat. Nowadays it supplants the helm, crest and supporters in the arms of Roman Catholic clerics. Since 1968 it may not ensign arms already ensigned with a mitre and crozier. This hat varies in color and form depending on the rank of the ecclesiastical armiger. Basically it is a broad- brimmed, flat-crowned hat from which cords and a varying number of tassels depend on either side of the shield.

In form it is like the "red hat" or cardinalitial introduced by Pope Boniface VIII in 1342. It remained the very symbol of the cardinalate until abolished in 1968 by Paul VI. Since 1644 cardinals have been required to use their armorially and protonotaries apostolic and certain other inferior prelates of the papal household often used their special ecclesiastical hat as well to signal their papal appointment.

In earlier centuries bishops and abbots often used a mitre above their arms instead of the hat. Moreover, in France the lower clergy often ensigned their arms with a biretta instead of an ecclesiastical hat. Today in the United States there is a tendency for the mitre to appear over the arms of the diocese and for the ecclesiastical hat to be used over the impaled arms of the diocese and its bishop.

The number of tassels on the ecclesiastical hat indicates the armiger's ecclesiastical rank. Cardinals, patriarchs, and primates have fifteen tassels depending from their ecclesiastical hat on either side of the shield. These are arranged in rows of one, two, three, four, and five tassels. The hat of archbishops has ten tassels, that of bishops or other prelates has six tassels, that of canons three, minor superiors two, and simple priests one.

Color further serves to indicate the rank of the armiger. If the fifteen tassels be green rather than red, the armiger is a patriarch or primate rather than a cardinal. Six green tassels indicate a prelate enjoying the episcopal character (or a territorial abbot or prelate). By contrast a bishop's vicar general or vicar episcopal-being a local ordinary under canon 134 and thus a prelate-would have a black hat with six black tassels, unless he were a member of the pontifical household and thus had the use of a more distinctive prelatial hat. Abbots and other major superiors of clerical religious institutes-being also ordinaries-use the same black hat with six black tassels.

For members of the pontifical household the color of the hat is different. Honorary prelates of His Holiness (formerly called domestic prelates) have a violet hat with violet cords and six violet tassels. Protonotaries apostolic created since 1968 have lost the use of the mitre in certain liturgical celebrations but they retain in heraldry the violet prelatial hat with red cords and six red tassels to indicate their special link with the Pope. Chaplains of His Holiness (a conflation of the former privy chamberlains and papal chaplains) have a black ecclesiastical hat decorated with violet cords and six violet tassels.

In theory cathedral and collegiate church canons use a black hat with black cords and three black tassels. But many chapters of canons by indult have been conceded more impressive insignia-often the insignia of one of the grades of the pontifical household.

Religious, both men and women, circle their shield or lozenge with a rosary. For this reason a knight of justice of the Order of Malta (who is a professed religious) surrounds his shield with a rosary.

This, then, is an outline of the history, development and forms of heraldry. Heraldry differs somewhat from region to region and, since the Church respects cultures not contrary to the evangelical message, she perforce respects these heraldic differences. Just as Polish music differs from French music so Polish heraldry differs from French heraldry. Such differences are legitimate and we shall see some of them as we explore the heraldry of sacred music in the remaining parts of this series.


This article appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of "Sacred Music." Published by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103.