The Story of Heraldic Art
The story of heraldic art begins in the dim mists of time. We in fact do not know exactly when the first emblems that could be called heraldic were painted on shields. Shields, an early form of defence form a flat surface ideal for decoration and the Ancient Greeks certainly decorated shields with totemic emblems. In Europe it is generally considered to be the 12th Century when heraldic emblems as we know them began to appear. However, on the Bayeux Tapestry produced sometime after 1066 there are banners that depict patterns and emblems. We do not know if this is artistic whim on behalf of the embroiderers or representations of actual pennons. It is clear that 'heraldic' art predated the later science of heraldry.
Certain classes of knightly society in the early medieval period were decorating their shields and carrying banners before any firm sense of order was established. It became apparent that the devices carried by these early knights needed at least to be recorded in some form. This began in the 12th Century and those responsible for this were possibly troubadours who had proven memories to recall the great stories and sing the heroic ballads. Slowly rules began to be established and particular members of courts and households were appointed as Officers of Arms who would accompany their masters in time of war to identify worthy enemies and record dead on the battlefield from their devices. Not that too many of the nobility died in battle, as they were often worth more alive than dead in the form of ransom. These same officers would also perform another function in peacetime and perhaps their primary one, that of heralding or announcing participants in the tournaments by recognising their personal emblems. The Heralds as they became known were directly responsible for governing, scrutinising the use of heraldry and designing coats of arms for those individuals who were entitled to bear them. Heraldry evolved into a direct 'science' with its own language and distinct peculiarities.
But what of the art? Heraldry was and still is a visual language. The blazon, the official and highly specific language of heraldry may describe the components and colours of a coat of arms but to the layman this archaic and obscure language, remains a mystery. For example, 'per pale Or and Vert a lion rampant Gules' means very little, but painted on a shield divided vertically in half gold and green with a standing upright red lion is instantly recognisable and to a medieval audience who saw this shield they would know that the knight bearing this device was non other than William the Marshal.
Unfortunately, we do not know the names of the artists who were commissioned to paint these early arms and the same still holds true. How many people know the names of artists working for the College of Arms in London or the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh today? The artists of the Middle Ages would have been members of the various painters' guilds found in cities and towns all over Europe. They would serve their apprenticeship in the guild working in the studio of a master artist until such time that they presented their 'Masterpiece' and gained their 'Freedom' to establish their own studios. They were not specifically heraldic artists and in the early years of the art form were often illuminators. Later painters who completed all kinds of decorative commissions. That said, the emblem most used on coats of arms associated with the painters Guilds and artists in the medieval period was the white shield. Singularly used but more often repeated three times. The blank shield being emblematic of a shield awaiting painting pointing to the fact that heraldic art was an important mainstay in the work of early artists.
The first treasures of heraldic art are the Rolls of Arms. These spectacular items were pieces of vellum stitched together in long lengths and the arms of knights and nobles of a region, court or organisation painted on them. Later they were produced in book form. They are truly beautiful things to study and many museums hold these priceless artifacts in their collections. Some have been digitised allowing study without handling the precious vellum. Shields and crests would have been painted for war and for parade. They would have been the best that money could buy. Heraldry is primarily about display, identification and honour. The knight would be advertising himself in the tournament or on the battlefield to his opponents. He would be projecting himself in full view to those who would want to challenge him. In a world of wealth and display he would be flaunting and competing to show himself as both wealthy and worthy. We hear often of knights and nobles wearing coronets or jeweled wreathes on the battlefield, having fine armour and swords and so it stands to reason their shields, the visual representation of their name and family would have been one of their most valued and prized possessions and deserving of the finest artistic treatment.
As armour improved and shields became less necessary, banners and standards perhaps now became the main form of identification. These would have been either embroidered or painted. There are some fine examples in the museum of Bern which were captured at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. Whereas 'coats of arms' were once worn they increasingly became used as other decoration by way of carvings in wood for example or on stall plates of orders of chivalry. Heraldic emblems would be displayed still as decorative items perhaps on hangings, tapestries or fabrics. Coats of arms were certainly found in the books commissioned by wealthy families, and we see this in the beautifully illuminated manuscripts belonging for example to the Dukes of Burgundy, The Duke of Berry and John Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V and numerous others. We also see coats of arms painted on triptychs which proves the point that heraldry as art was as important as painting and that the artists had to be proficient in all painting. Certainly, the so-called Early Netherlandish Primitives who painted the triptychs of the 15th Century were proficient heraldic artists.
The rise of the printed book produced gave rise to other new forms of heraldic art. The heraldic wood engravings of Albrecht Durer and many other renaissance artists are well known and superb examples of this craft. Later metal engraving allowed for even finer depictions. During the 18th and 19th centuries however, heraldic art went somewhat into decline during the period of what is termed the 'heraldic decadence' and became a shadow of its former self. With the renewed interest in the medieval spearheaded by men like Augustus Pugin and the Pre Raphaelite-Brotherhood heraldic art had a rebirth, returning to a more medieval aesthetic and artists such as GW Eve had a profound influence on the art of this period.
As technology progresses so the art of heraldry changes and adapts. The rise of the personal computer has opened new avenues for gifted heraldic artists to explore. Unfortunately, it has also enabled the less scrupulous to steal and copy other artists work. Thankfully there are a few very talented artists who do everything with a computer that a painter might do with a pencil, brush and paint. Their work has added to the rich history of this art form. Traditional heraldic painting continues too. Numerous grants of new arms are still given in countries England, Scotland, Belgium, Spain, South Africa, Malta and Canada being the most notable examples and some very fine art is produced by the artists of these heraldic authorities. Many of the finest artists working today are self-taught. It should also be mentioned that until 1987 there was only one art course in the world that specifically taught the art of heraldic painting along with calligraphy and manuscript illumination. In many respects it was like the Guild schools of the mediaeval period. Where the students were taught by a Master artist and after three years graduated with a Diploma. The course was at Reigate School of Art, Surrey, England. It was founded by arguably the greatest heraldic artist of the 20th Century, Anthony Wood 1928 - 2022 in 1965. He along with the supremely talented John Ferguson and Dan Escott taught some of the finest artists working in the field today, who still use many techniques and skill sets familiar to those artists of the 12th- 16th Centuries.
Heraldic art is as popular today thankfully as it once was. However, one must tread warily, and it must be advised that those seeking a coat of arms use only professionals. This Confraternity represents some of the finest heraldic artists working in the world today. They all have careers spanning decades and are celebrated among their peers. Some are recognised Masters. All are highly skilled and are continuing to keep this beautiful art alive by maintaining a very high degree of responsible professional artistic ability.