Once the art of the heralds, whose job it was to check the coats of arms of the knights at jousting tournaments. If the composition of a coat of arms was seen as an art form, then its actual realisation was even more so.
The art of heraldry dictates the standards and principles governing the
With regard to the primary colours: interestingly, in the Middle Ages, the enamels — the term most probably relates to the physical quality of their surface — were understood to be not only the actual colours of red, blue, green and black (the latter being worn by knights as a sign of mourning) but also metals (gold or yellow, and silver or white) and furs (ermine, reversed ermine, sable and reversed sable, squirrel). Purple or violet were regarded both as colours and metals (referred to in the following as colour-metals). The rules of composition for the basic form of coats of arms and banners were that tinctures and metals must alternate, so that one tincture is never placed next to another, nor a metal next to a metal.
The secondary colours, at that time used for jousting tournaments and in the design of livery, include: orange, pink, flesh, blood red, carmine red, chestnut, olive green, green-brown, dappled, green-yellow, cinnamon-brown, grey, nature, pearl and peach blossom.
If the traditional order of colours around the colour-circle is adopted, the primary enamels (colours, colour-metals and metals) can be arranged around three outer circles, and the secondary colours around an inner circle. The centre of the circle is occupied by the dappled colour resulting from the combination of various primary and secondary colours, including the iridescent colours. Black and white or silver are arranged adjacently, even though they come to lie on different orbits; grey lies on the intersection of the continuation of the vertical line connecting black and white with the circle of secondary colours. Blue also lies on the outer orbit, but opposite black, and green and red can be found on the horizontal. Gold or yellow are placed opposite purple, which in heraldry is granted a wider arc on the scale — namely from lilac to red. The secondary colours are arranged on the inner circle in the following way: assuming the sequence of the outer shell, the green hues of olive-green, green-brown, green-yellow, etc. lie within the segment between green and yellow or gold, while in the red segment a wide pallet of colour-hues extend from cinnamon through flesh to peach blossom.
This mediaeval tradition unites two aspects of a knight’s nature: the Nordic or Germanic warrior, the heathen and protagonist of legends and heroic feats — the vagabond, in other words, constantly striving in jousting tournaments or other acts of bravery to attain honour both for his name and for his coat of arms; nevertheless, a Christian ethic is also evident, with the knight as Defender of the Faith and crusader to the Holy Land under the symbol of the Cross. This double nature requires a precise definition of the relationship between Christian and secular virtues, and the association of colours with these virtues forms the core of the heraldic colour-system.
The seven elementary virtues include the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the four cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude: black represents prudence, blue justice, green fortitude, purple or violet temperance, with gold or yellow representing faith, silver or white hope, and red charity. These seven virtues (three plus four) take the form of a crescendo, commencing with prudence and culminating in charity, the greatest virtue of the Christian faith.
In the small illustration, the
The two smaller illustrations depict a
If this interpretation is taken a step further, the combination of square and triangle can also be conceived as a body: a pyramid with the stable base of a square to represent the earthly; and then the four triangular sides reaching upwards to create the firmament above the earth, culminating in unifying hope. This static interpretation, with its basis in form, is placed opposite the dynamic. The colours of the Christian and secular virtues are arranged on a circular line; they are all incorporated within the same form here, but the Christian virtues move in the opposite direction. So once again we encounter two independent principles which, although they have no actual point of contact, have a direct association all the same. This was experienced by Parcival, who devoted his life to the search for the principal truism of the age of chivalry in which he lived, which alone could reveal to him the Holy Grail: the great dilemma of compassion, shown in the diagram as the link between red and purple, and between charity and temperance.
Date: Middle Ages
Bibliography: D. L. Galbreath und L. Jéquier, «Lehrbuch der Heraldik», Lausanne 1978; John Gage, «Colour and Culture, Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction», Thames and Hudson, 1993, pp. 79-92.