Coat of Arms?

Coat of arms of Pope Francis

Coat of arms of Pope Francis

Pope Francis disappointed me! Not, I quickly add, as a whole, but just in this one, significant thing.

Choosing the name, and apparently, being inspired by the life-style of the great saint of Assisi he has still adopted a coat of arms! What does a bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, want with a coat of arms? Yet all bishops follow, seemingly without question, their predecessors’ practice.

The Apostles didn’t have coats of arms; in fact, no bishop possessed a coat of arms for the first 1,000 years of the Church’s history. They originated in the feudal society of the late 11th century, because the warrior classes had developed armour that covered the whole of a knight. Encased in metal no one knew who you were, so you had to have a distinguishing emblem on your shield and your flag. Heraldry grew from there. At the time bishops were part of the feudal system and great lords with huge tracts of land to govern; men at arms to hire and a palace and a court to maintain It was in this setting that bishops began to be addressed as ‘My Lord’, or, if of a higher rank, ‘Your Grace’. For example, the formidable Bishop Odo of Bayeux was Earl of Kent, South-East England. The famous Bayeux tapestry shows the good bishop riding alongside William the Conqueror, at the Battle of Hastings(1066), smashing the heads of the enemy with a great mace. (Canon Law didn’t allow bishops to use swords on the battlefield!) Popes occasionally led troops in battle.

Were coats of arms, painted on shields and printed on flags, merely to identify knights and the aristocracy? In his book The Visual Culture of Violence in the Middle Ages,¬†Valentin Groebner argues that the images composing a coat of arms were designed to convey a feeling of power and strength. These may have been appropriate ‘qualities’ when medieval bishops were key players in the feudal system, but that was swept away long ago. Francis, the son of the wealthy merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, literally shed, by stripping off his sumptuous clothing in public, all vestiges of power and strength. His only desire was to conform to Christ.

It is true that coats of arms also appeared on seals; the earliest of these bore a likeness of the owner of the seal. Later they just reproduced the insignia of the shield. The Church, over the centuries, has made good use of seals, the earliest ones being a pointed oval called a vesica, carrying an engraving of the figure of the bishop. But these were also, in time, replaced with a round seal carrying the Bishop’s coat of arms.

In a little known reform Pope John XXIII, apparently not happy about the role of heraldry in the Church, abolished the Heraldry Commission of the Curia, in 1960. Will Pope Francis take Good¬†Pope John’s little reform further?

It is unthinkable that a modern pope, or any bishop, would lead a military unit into action. Why then is it thinkable that the other practices and modes of address of medieval Europe should be relevant to spreading the Word of God, the Good News of the humble Jesus of Nazareth, in the 21st century?


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