Coats of Arms in Modern Times
Updated: Jul 4
“Coats of arms,” also known as heraldry designs, came into general use among European nobility in the early 12th century. Initially, heraldic designs were personal, used by individual noblemen to identify the solders under their command. The colorful designs were emblazoned on the shields and sometimes the back of each soldier’s armor. Many royal families had the image of their heraldry design cast in a bronze plate (called a “seal”) which they used to imprint the image on documents as a means of authenticating those documents. The family’s heraldry design and seal were part of the eldest son’s inheritance.
In time, heraldry designs and their associated seals were adopted by kingdoms, and then whole countries as the need grew to identify whose troops were whose in the heat of battle as well as to authenticate official documents.
Heraldry designs that were painted on the back of surcoats received the French name, cote a armer, or “coat of arms.”
During the Third Crusade (1189–1192), many of the soldiers wore surcoats over their metallic armor against the intense heat of the sun they encountered in the Middle East. The leaders of the three most powerful states of Western Christianity (England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire) adopted distinctive heraldry designs that were painted on the back of surcoats. These received the French name, cote a armer, or “coat of arms.”
By the mid-14th century, the use of coats of arms and their associated seals spread to cities as civic identifiers, to royally-chartered organizations, such as universities and trading companies. Despite no widespread regulation, heraldry designs remained consistent across Europe, where tradition alone governed both the design and the use of coats of arms. A whole vocabulary of heraldry arose that persists to this day.
What is known as the Great Seal of the United States
is the national coat of arms for the US.
What is known as the Great Seal of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1782 and kept by the Secretary of State, is the national coat of arms for the United States. Its design began on July 4, 1776, the same day American independence from Great Britain was declared. The image was promptly cast in a large bronze plate for imprinting on important federal documents, such as treaty ratifications, international agreements, appointments of ambassadors and civil officers, and communications from the President to heads of foreign governments, to authenticate them as having been issued by the US government.
In the 9th century, well before coats of arms, the Church experienced one of its most troubling challenges. A group of influential Spanish nobles and clergymen began circulating falsified papal decrees and church documents, some dating as far back as the Council of Nicaea (in 325) in an attempt to shape church laws and practices to suit their liking. These documents are collectively called today the False Decretals. The False Decretals first appeared at the Council of Soissons in 853. These falsified documents were alarmingly effective; and it was not until the beginning of the 12th century that their authenticity became widely doubted. (1)
Initially used to mark official documents, ecclesiastical coats
of arms later evolved into a system for identifying particular clergymen and dioceses.
This was right at the time that coats of arms and their associated seals were coming into use. So, the Church saw this as a means for the pope, the bishops and dioceses to authenticate documents which they issued. Thus began what has come to be known as “Ecclesiastical heraldry.” Ecclesiastical heraldry are heraldry designs and their associated seals used by the Church for dioceses and high-ranking clergymen. Initially used to mark official documents, ecclesiastical coats of arms later evolved into a system for identifying particular clergymen and dioceses. Today, most all bishops, including the pope, have a personal coat of arms and an associated seal. Each bishop formulates his own design.
Ecclesiastical heraldry differs notably from other heraldry in the use of special insignia around the Shield to indicate rank in the Church. The most prominent of these insignia is the low crowned, wide brimmed hat, called the “galero.” The color and ornamentation of this hat indicate the person’s rank. Cardinals are famous for the "red hat" in their coat of arms, while other offices have distinctive colors of the hat, such as green for bishops, customarily with a defined number of tassels that increases with rank, and black for priests holding special office (such as provincial of an order, abbot of a monastery, or rector of a seminary).
Other insignias often include the Processional Cross, and the episcopal mitre (ceremonial hat) and crosier (cross). Also, a motto and specific shapes of Shields are more common in ecclesiastical heraldry. In the Catholic Church, display of a cross behind the Shield is restricted to bishops as a mark of their dignity. The cross of an ordinary bishop has a single horizontal bar or traverse, known as a Latin Cross. An archbishop uses the Patriarchal Cross with two traverses, also called the Cross of Lorraine. The Papal coats of arms have their own heraldic design customs.
Let me share with you a description of a bishop’s coat of arms with which I am familiar, that of Thomas J Olmsted, Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. (2)
Each bishop’s coat of arms has the ecclesial hat, or “galero” with tassels. For Bishop Olmsted, the galero is green indicating a bishop. There are also six tassels, also indicating a bishop. (Ten tassels indicate an archbishop and fifteen tassels indicate a cardinal.) Below the galero is the Processional Cross and Shield. The Cross is placed in back of the Shield and extends both above and below the Shield.
The Shield, which is the central and most important feature of any heraldic design, is described in 12th century terms that are archaic to our modern language. The description is presented as if being given by the bearer with the Shield being worn on their arm. consequently, where it applies, the term dexter (Latin for “right”) and sinister (Latin for “left”) are reversed as we view the Shield from the front.
The “dexter impalement” (the left side of what we view) identifies the bishop’s diocese. In this case, the bird rising from the fire indicates the Diocese of Phoenix. On the blue field background is placed a silver mountain to represent Camelback Mountain, a significant element of the Phoenix skyline.
Arising from the mountain is a gold bird that is coming forth from red flames to represent the mythological phoenix, that arose from the ashes, and for which the City of Phoenix is named. Above the phoenix is a gold cross, a formy fitchée. The vertical portion of the cross resembles a spike which is taken from the coat of arms of the Diocese of Tucson to signify that it was from the territory of Tucson that the Diocese of Phoenix was formed in 1969.
The “sinister impalement” (the right side of what we view) identifies the bishop himself. For this, Bishop Olmsted retained the design that was adopted at the time he was selected as Coadjutor Bishop of Wichita and which he used during his tenure as the Bishop of Wichita. (A coadjutor is a bishop appointed to assist a diocesan bishop.) Bishop Olmsted’s design also embraces the coat of arms of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, the bishop’s home diocese. And, the design is in the national colors of red, white and blue to honor our nation’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, for whom the city of Lincoln was named.
Bishop Olmsted uses the phrase “Jesus Caritas.” This phrase expresses his intention, throughout his ministry to be guided personally by the “Love of Jesus.”
In the lower part of the design, the field is divided by a vertical red pillar, known as a “pale,” and this pale displays the stylized heart and cross of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity. The Fraternity is a school of spirituality for clergy and laity that promotes the ideals expressed in the bishop’s episcopal motto, namely that it is in, for and through Jesus Caritas (“Love of Jesus”) that the world is redeemed. The white pillars on either side of the red pale represent the disciples, who were sent two-by-two by Jesus, to proclaim the Gospel. This also recalls that Bishop Olmsted’s first name, Thomas, means “twin.” The upper portion of the design contains a silver star on a blue field to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For his motto, Bishop Olmsted uses the phrase Jesus Caritas. This phrase, which is the name of his ecclesial fraternity, expresses his intention, throughout his ministry as a shepherd, to be guided personally by the “Love of Jesus” and to help others to know and to rejoice in that love.
So, coats of arms and their associated seals continue to serve a very important purpose, even in modern times.
‘Till next time,
Dcn Bob Evans
June 29, 2020
1 “False Decretals,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010.
2 The description here of Bishop Olmsted’s coat of arms is largely drawn from a 2006 article by, then Deacon, now Father, Paul J, Sullivan.