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Heraldic concepts

Last modified: 2007-02-10 by phil nelson
Keywords: heraldic concepts | petra sancta | saltire | cross | saint patrick | saint andrew | blazon |
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Petra Sancta method

The Petra Sancta method was created in 1638 to render colors in black and white images of coats of arms. Each colour (called tincture) is represented by a different hatch. In heraldry tinctures have old French names; tinctures are divided into "colours" (or "smalts") and "metals". It is better to avoid using metals on metals and smalts on enamels. The natural colours (e.g., the pink of skin) is left empty.

metal English translation symbol used description of symbol mnemonic
argent (silver or white) empty the empty paper
or (gold or yellow) points bright surface

tincture English translation symbol used description of symbol mnemonic
gules (red) vertical lines the left line on an "R"
azure (blue) horizontal lines the horizontal line on an "A"
sable (black) vertical and horizontal lines almost full
vert (green) backslashes the left side of a "V"
purpure (purple) slanted lines "between" red (vertical) and blue (horizontal)  
sanguine (blood red) slashes like purple
tenne (orange) dots and vertical lines O=R+Y
marron (brown) crossing bendwise and palewise  
fer (grey) crossing bend sinister and palewise

Giuseppe Bottasini, António Martins and Željko Heimer

Source: Heraldika 1 [cir88] by Milos Ciric, Belgrade, 1988

According to 'Grand Larousse Illustre' du XXe sie`cle' (1932), the method was named after his inventor. The Jesuit and heraldist Silvestre Petra Sancta, or Pietra Santa (Roma, 1590 - Roma, 1647) was rector of the college of Loreto. Later, he settled in Roma and published there two famous treaties of heraldry (in Latin): Blazons and emblems of nobility (1634) ; Coat of Arms of the Great Famlies(1638).

Anyway, Neubecker says that Petra Sancta did not invent the method but popularize it in his second treaty (Latin title: Tesserae Gentilitiae). Petra Sancta also proposed new elements of the external decoration (around the shield) for the princely arms, i.e. mantle for dukes and sovereign princes, and pavilion for the Emperor and kings. In the latter case, Petra Sancta used for model the pavilions, that could be dismantled, which were used at that time as tents by the princes. His sources were the engravings by L. Gaultier for 'Tableau des Armoiries de France' (Table of Arms of France) by Philippe Moreau (1609 and 1630) and 'Histoire de la Maison de France' (History of the House of France) by the brothers Sainte-Marthe (1628).
Ivan Sache, 11 November 2001

Neubecker in his "Heraldy - Sources, Symbols and Meaning", 1997, page 86, lists these (I ignore listing of planets, stones etc.

gold=yellow=or - small dots
sliver=white=argent - none
red=gules - vertical lines
blue=azure - horizontal lines
black = sable - combination of lines for red and blue, or solid black
green=vert - diagonal lines "in bend"
purple=purpure - diagonal lines "in bends sinister"
orange - combination of red lines and gold spots*
brown=tenné comb. of lines for red and green

* as different from what is shown above, the lines and dots here are arranged "in line", so that the hatching is in fact as with vertical dash-dot line.

Elsewhere on the page he writes that the sable was printed as cross-hatching when copper engraved, but as solid when wood blocks were used.

Parker's heraldry lists 9 basic heraldic colours, though admitting that only the first seven are generally recognized:


Though he gives tenne as orange (like Ciric, and not brown like Neubecker!). here is also a longer article on tenne there:

Tenné, Tawney, Orange, or Brusk: Orange colour. In engravings it should be represented by lines in bend sinister crossed by others barways. Heralds who blazon by the names of the heavenly bodies call it Dragon's head, and those who employ jewels, Hyacinth, or Jacynth. It is very rarely found mentioned, but was one of the colours forming the livery of the royal House of Stuart. Further, it is one of the colours which when applied to abatements is called in heraldic treatises stainand.

Obviously, apart from the 2 metals and 4 colours that are unmistakable all-over, only the purpure seems to be in general agreement to be "in bend sinister", and all other are "occasional" and "fancy".
Željko Heimer, 20 November 2003


I've done a little more research on this, too. My ancient edition of Gale Pedrick's "A manual of heraldry" (no date, but during the reign of King George V, 1910-35) shows oranges (tenné roundlets) with saltire-wise hatching. But FrancisGrant's "The Manual of Heraldry" (pub. John Grant, London, 1952) has the following:

Tenné or Tawney [...] signifies orange [and is hatched] by lines drawn diagonally from the sinister to the dexter side of the shield traversed by perpendicular lines from the bas to the chief.

Sanguine [...] dark red or blood colour. By some armorists it is called murrey." elsewhere, "...represented by diagonal lines crossing each other.

No mention of Marron or Fer. I suspect that, as Ned suggests, the term "proper" is used in (almost) all places where brown or iron-grey would be needed in (at least British) heraldry. Not that that helps us with hatching, say, the Bhutan flag!

This latter book, I've just noticed, also answers one question from the Austrian blazoning recently - the base which I thought might be described as engrailed once is actually "double arched".
James Dignan, 21 November 2003

Tilted Shields

A random question: Why are shields sometimes shown tilted, with a helmet or other crest above the top right (as you look at it) corner, instead of upright with the helmet above? I notice shields shown this way have no supporters, but is there a geographic element?
Nathan Lamm, 14 March 2005

Not really; it's basically a matter of taste and, I believe, the period in which the emblazonment was made. This style, called accouche', was very common in the Middle Ages--it's supposed to be the way a shield would look hanging from its strap--then passed out of favor and was revived in the late 19th century as part of the Gothic revival movement. It is probably more popular in Germany and the UK than in southern Europe, but I believe it's a correct way of displaying the arms anywhere. The use of the accouche' style does not preclude the use of supporters, by the way, although it is true that arms with supporters are more often displayed upright.

I believe something like this is said in Carl-Alexander von Volborth's "Heraldry: Customs, Rules, and Styles," regarding German arms, but it's a little confusing as to whether he's talking about showing them tilted or clearing away surplus quarterings and displaying them in their original simple form. I think it's the latter. Since arms granted to those created nobles by patent (as opposed to the ancient nobility were granted with the quarterings that were in style at the time, they never existed in the simplified form, so it would be pretentious to act as if they did.

The web pages of the various quasi-official German heraldic societies show many recently assumed and registered arms in the tilted position, so apparently they aren't covered by such a rule, if the rule exists.
Joe McMillan, 14-15 March 2005

In Ciric's "Heraldika" [cir88], chapter 2 describes the eight basic heraldic rules and as rules six he states:

Tilted shield in a coat of arms means that the coat of arms is ancient and that it is very old (probably before the end of 13th century).

Željko Heimer, 14 March 2005

I just received today a copy of Alexander Nisbet's "A System of Heraldry" (1722) that I had ordered, and to my surprise it does indeed say that the display of a shield in the tilted (pendant or accouche') position was limited to persons of tournament rank, i.e., noblemen. Nisbet states that arms of sovereigns are never displayed this way because they did not actually enter the lists. (I believe that is an ahistorical statement, but there it is.)

Anyway, Željko is vindicated, although the Heraldry Society of Scotland members arms pages (linked from shows many arms in tilted position. Perhaps this reflects the theory that Scottish arms convey a kind of nobility to the grantee, a flaky but officially accepted theory.
Joe McMillan, 15 March 2005

Saltires and X crosses

A "X" cross on a flag is, strictly speaking, a saltire and not a cross. Although I think it's referred to as a cross, especially in relation to St. Patrick, because he was purportedly crucified on a cross this shape.
Robert Czernkowski

In effect "St. Andrew cross" is an X. St. Andrew was crucified on a X cross. He is represented with this kind of cross in a lot of shields and pictures (also in the church of my town, dedicated to him).
Giuseppe Bottasini

I believe the St. Patrick thing was invented, and never actually used in Irish heraldry to mean Ireland. I've also heard the red saltire on white called the Geraldine cross, presumably after a group of people involved in Irish politics at the time. I guess it fitted in much better with the pre-Union flag of Great Britain (to make the United Kingdom) than the Irish harp would have.
Christopher Vance

St. Patrick was not crucified in any way, shape or form, he lived to a ripe old age. (When Giraldus Cambrensis sneered at the Irish for not having any martyrs, the Archbishop of Cashel retorted "Our people never raised their hands against God's saints... but now that men have come here who know how to make them, we shall have martyrs in plenty!")

The so-called "St Patrick's cross" is really taken from the arms of the FitzGerald Earls of Kildare, and plopped in the Union flag to represent Ireland for no good reason anyone can figure out.
Will Linden


Here's an example of "Blazonry":

Argent, on a Fess dancettee Vert, between in cief a Castle triple-towered Sable, upon a rock proper issuant from the fess, masoned Argent, windows, vanes and portcullis Gules, and in base a three-masted Lymphad of the third sails furled Azure, flagged of Scotland (viz. Azure a saltire Argent), a Ram's head affrontee proper, horned Or, between two Garbs of the last.

To describe flags I don't know of any formal language other than the "blazonry" above, with special terms not found in standard heraldic blazonry like fly, mast and canton (the last is occasionally seen in standard heraldry). There are several varieties of blazonry, although they are all fairly similar. The above is an example of English blazonry, which is accepted in pretty near all the English speaking world. There is also a Continental (European) standard blazonry, I believe.

Grammar is fairly strict, and can be unearthed in many books on heraldry. Basically, you go from the background colour of the flag (the "field"), to the major "divisions" (eg, the Italian flag is "tierced per pale", i.e., divided vertically in three), to the "added bits", which are called "ordinaries" if they are sections of a design (like, say, the cross on the Danish flag) or "charges" if they are emblems like a lion or fleur de lys placed on part of the flag. To go through the one above:

Argent [A white background] on a Fess [horizontal division in the middle of the flag] dancettee [zigzag] Vert [green], between in chief [above it] a Castle triple-towered Sable [black], upon a rock proper [rock-coloured] issuant from the fess [coming out of the horizontal division], masoned Argent [white mortar on the castle], windows, vanes and portcullis Gules [red windows, doors and flagpoles], and in base [below the fess] a three-masted Lymphad [heraldic round bottomed ship] of the third [third colour mentioned - black] sails furled Azure [blue], flagged of Scotland (viz. Azure a saltire Argent [white X on blue]), a Ram's head affrontee  [facing forward towards the viewer] proper [ram-coloured], horned Or [with gold horns], between two Garbs [sheafs of grain] of the last [colour, i.e., gold].

Note particularly that it starts with the field, goes to the ordinary (the fess), then describes the charges on the field, then finally describes the charges on the fess (even though the second word of the description, "on" indicates they will eventually be described).
Look for a simple text on heraldry by someone like A C Fox-Davies or J P Brooke-Little if you want to go into blazonry further.
James Dignan

Basic Rules

From Ciric's "Heraldika" [cir88]

1. A coat of arms should not look like any other coat of arms. It should differ be it even in some details.

He mentions over 12000 civic coats of arms registered in France, among which many are quite similar, but always differing in some details.

2. One family, city or state should not in any given time use more then one coat of arms in use.

He gives example of use of different coat of arms in different periods (e.g. by a city).

3. In heraldry is correct only what is heraldically correct no mater how the artistic shaping is made.

4. Each coat of arms has a right and left (i.e. dexter and sinister) heraldic side, a observed by the person carrying the shield.

He explains how dexter is positive side and that the figures are always turned that way when representing some positive qualities. The figures of, e.g. slain enemies (e.g. dragons, boars) face to sinister. The orientation depends on the story the figure represents. Dexter is also named "masculine" side and sinister "feminine". Also notes that this does not have to be so in Christian coats of arms of modern times.

5. The yellow colour stands for gold and the white for silver, both being metals, they should not cover each other. The tinctures should also not cover each other, but a metal and a tincture should combine next to each other.

6. A tilted shield means that the coat of arms is very old and ancient (probably before end of 13th century).

It is mentioned that the coat of arms should be tilted toward masculine side.

7. A slanted beams, bendlets and saches going from top sinister to bottom dexter represent coats of arms of bastard children.

He mentions that "normal" bends are on the other hand quite normal. [This is IMHO among the most senseless heraldic myths...]

8. When marshalling the arms of two states or families, the coat of arms of the winner is in the middle while the loosing countries are arranged around it. The coat of arms of a wife gets in the sinister or lower half of the shield.

[this again is very simplified rule about marshalling and combining arms.]
Željko Heimer, 15 March 2005