Report of the conference ‘Peintres et artistes heraldistes au Moyen Âge / Heraldic artists and painters in the Middle Ages’ – Poitiers 10-11 April 2014
The fourth edition of the ‘Journées d’études héraldiques’ was dedicated to the heraldic artist. Well-known artists such as Donatello, the Limbourg brothers and Barthélemy van Eyck were engaged in heraldic and emblematic depictions, but most of the heraldic presentations were produced by a large number of artists that have been living under the historical radar. In fact, the role these artists played in the heraldic depictions of the Middle Ages, as well as the role of heraldic art itself, has been neglected by scholars for a long time. This conference aimed to alter this situation and shed light on these elusive persons, their work and their specific knowledge, as well as the significance of heraldry in medieval society. Below follows a report of the lectures and discussions. For the conference’s programme, please click here.
Heraldry was ubiquitous
Initiators LAURENT HABLOT and TORSTEN HILTMANN opened the conference by introducing the subject and stressing its significance. In the Middle Ages, heraldry was everywhere: at funerals, in churches, on clothing, at taverns, etc. These heraldic symbols could be applied on many different sorts of materials, ranging from metal to wood and, although not very common, ginger bread. Heraldry, it was emphasised, was not a marginal phenomenon, but stood in the centre of medieval society. Therefore it is surprising that so little research has been conducted on the subject; and the conclusions of the studies that have been done are often unsatisfying.
For instance, it is commonly assumed that heraldry was a form of expression only performed by heralds. The relation between heralds and heraldry is seen as a mutual exclusive one. However, as were the conclusions of the workshop on heralds in Münster organised by Torsten Hiltmann two weeks earlier, heralds were definitely not the only ones engaged in heraldry. Heraldry was a widely understood and applied system of symbolic communication in medieval society, and regular artists and painters were important links in this system. It is their role that needs to be revealed, and in order to reach that goal, an interdisciplinary approach is essential. Historians, art historians and heraldists should share their knowledge and engage in discussions with each other. The main questions of this conference were: On what basis did these artists work? What was their formation? Did they enjoy any artistic liberties? And what was their contribution to the evolution of heraldry in the Middle Ages and the spreading of heraldry as a means of symbolic and political communication?
In the first contribution, MICHEL PASTOUREAU surveyed the heraldic stylisation that artists and painters had to work with. Pastoureau emphasised that coats of arms were images, but that they have not often been studied as such. Heraldic art, however, had a great influence on other artistic forms and even on images today; see, for instance, the stylisation of road signs. Heraldic images have two special characteristics: they are made to been seen from a distance and made to be presented on different kinds of material. Pastoureau listed the special aspects of heraldic rules that heraldic artists had to follow, such as the heraldic colour rule, the orientation of the figures, the arrangement of the symbols, etc. On the other hand, some aspects of heraldic images left the artist with a certain amount of freedom, since size, volume, perspective and nuances in colour were insignificant in the system of heraldic communication.
Further, Pastoureau discerned three different levels of heraldic knowledge (extensive knowledge of blazonry, rough knowledge of blazonry, knowledge in the principles of heraldic representation), and artists finding oneselves on one of these levels were able to paint heraldic pictures. Taking some coats of arms as example, he then pointed at the causes for miscommunication between heraldists and art historians, since they both focus on different aspects of the presentation (heraldic rules and artistic execution, respectively).
In the following DISCUSSION, Pastoureau stressed the importance of realising the creator’s and spectator’s different conceptions of the heraldic presentation. Thus the questions concerning the perception, knowledge and background of the spectator are significant as well. It was noted, however, that most people were able to read heraldic images, since they were ubiquitous. Further questions were raised on the influence of heraldry on other artistic forms. Pastoureau pointed at the baroque style in which theatrical expression was essential and the modern flags which often follow heraldic rules.
Heraldic painters in Italian city states and the Burgundian Netherlands
The next contribution by MATTEO FERRARI was dedicated to the identity and culture of the heraldic artists in the Italian cities in the 13th and 14th centuries. Many of their creations are now lost, but through written records such as account books, we know that there has been a considerable production of heraldic art. By means of these same sources, Ferrari uncovered the identities of these heraldic artists. Some of them were well-known, others were not. These artists were not simple painters, but often they were not exclusively specialised in heraldic images either; they produced other works and sometimes had other professions as well. This demonstrated the wide variety of artists that were hired by the city communities to produce heraldic images in order to represent their authority.
MARC GIL examined the role of the heraldic paintings in the activities of the painters in the Burgundian Netherlands and Picardy from 1300 to 1500. In these regions, painters in the cities organised themselves in corporations. In these associations, all artists and craftsmen involved in the production process of images on different kinds of material were incorporated. For instance, a 1308 statute in Saint-Omer showed that painters, saddle makers and sculptors were joined in a corporation. The resemblance of the Dutch words for shield (schild) and painter (schilder) shows the connection between the production of shields and the profession of the painter. The term mirolier (speghelmaker), the maker of mirrors, was also often mentioned in the statutes, and these artists were sometimes allowed to paint coats of arms as well.
Gil studied the corporation statutes (in which the tasks of the members were thoroughly described) of five different cities; the percentage of the painters that were involved in the painting of coats of arms ranged from 15% (Douai) to 75% (Lille) and about 33% for the other cities. Hence, a considerable part of the artists in the corporations were involved in the production of heraldic art. Concluding, Gil emphasised the polyvalence of the painters in the 15th century in the Burgundian Netherlands and Picardy.
Both presentations complemented each other as they both thoroughly studied the relations between painters and heraldry. In the DISCUSSION, first the role of notaries was treated. In the absence of heralds, were they the keepers of heraldic knowledge in the Italian city states? They certainly had heraldic knowledge, but they were not the only ones who possessed it. And it is important to note that these notaries were often members of the wealthy and noble families themselves. The important question is: Who needed heraldic knowledge? Further, the formation of the different artists in the corporations was discussed, since many of them apparently had some knowledge of heraldry.
Heraldic artists and heralds
LUISA GENTILE’s presentation dealt with the challenging topic of the relation between artists, heralds and heraldry in Savoy and Piedmont. Heralds occurred late in this region, only from the 16th century onwards, so who were the people possessing heraldic knowledge before that time? They were clerks, specialists in law, judges and notaries. Gentile noted that it is not a coincidence that Bartollo de Sassoferrato was a jurist. But what were the sources of the artists of heraldic images? Where did they get their heraldic knowledge from?
Some professional painters showed interest in armorials and heraldry; different forms of artistic expressions in the region (heraldry on castles, seals, medals) indicate that heraldic knowledge was present. At the joyous entries and other ceremonies, the painters produced heraldic images. One example showed that they were well aware of the political significance of their role, as one painter was ordered to destroy the coats of arms of the king of France and replace them by those of Savoy, but he refused since he did not want to offend the French king. From the 16th century onwards, the herald appeared in this region. He had different ceremonial tasks and produced some heraldic works, but his significance only grew slowly during the next centuries. Painters possessed heraldic knowledge, mastered the language of blasonry, and some even worked for the princely chancellery.
In the late 15th and early 16th century, so stated by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BLANCHARD in his presentation in heralds and heraldry in the duchy of Lorraine, heraldic images were produced by painters, not heralds. This changed in the 16th century, when the tasks of heralds started to shift from messengers to painters in the service of the count.
Georges Gresset marked this transition: A son of a glass maker, he became the painter of the ducal palace in 1524 and obtained the office of arms in 1539. He had two properties in Nancy, which indicated he had a considerable social standing. No works of him are known, but Blanchard cautiously tried to attribute some paintings to him. Another officer of arms, Emond du Boullay, produced an armorial and the Heures de Didier Pariset, but Du Boullay was not a gifted painter. Pointing out some characteristics, Blanchard suggested that Gresset possibly did some of the paintings in these manuscripts. Based on a note in an account of the retable of Philippe of Guelders and some similarities between this retable and the pictures in the manuscripts of Du Boullay, Blanchard proposed, although stressing the hypothetical character of his claim, that Gresset might have produced a panel on this retable as well.
In the DISCUSSION it was stressed that the difference in artistic quality between the armorial of Du Boullay, the Heures de Didier Pariset and the retable of Philippe of Guelders make it hard to attribute these works to the same person. Besides that, the common developments in the two very different regions of the presentations were noted and emphasised. In both Lorraine as well as in Piedmont/Savoy, heralds only started to produce heraldic images from the 16th century onwards. Further, the role and the use of badges in Italy was discussed.
The ceilings of Beaucaire
CHRISTIAN de MÉRINDOL thoroughly treated the paintings on the ceiling of the castle of Beaucaire, which were created between 1454 and 1461. Heraldic painters were hired to produce these paintings, and the result showed a high quality. These paintings were a fine example of the symbolic and political application of heraldry by a family that, due to the fact that they were foreign, needed such display of their princely authority in order to secure their position. Mérindol drew attention on the quality of these paintings and described the organisation of the scenes, linked to the most important places of the room. He tried to estimate the knowledge of the painter about heraldic matters and supposed that indeed this painter was precisely informed about heraldic and emblematic matters, as demonstrated by the figuration of an unusual badge of King Charles VII.
RADU LUPESCU observed that in the study of sculptures and architecture, coats of arms were perceived as secondary elements and have therefore been little researched. In his presentation, Lupescu focused on these kinds of armorial bearings in the region of Cluj (Transylvania) and tried to locate the workshops that made them. Some examples of heraldic sculpture and architecture were presented: amongst others, a sarcophagus and a memorial plaque on a small church.
Although the quality of the works varies, they have many stylistic characteristics in common. Moreover, both the memorial plaque and the sarcophagus contain the same sign, a letter I or L. Lupescu suggested that these heraldic presentations came from the same workshop. In the case of three coats of arms on the western portal of a rural church, a link was made to a workshop in Cluj as well. Lupescu compared some heraldic tablets created around 1500 on which the drill technique had been applied, mostly to create the hair of lions or persons. Although there are some differences in execution, mainly attributed to the use of different kinds of stone, the similarities are striking. It appeared that workshops had their own styles, and beneficiaries were able to choose between them according to their needs.
The DISCUSSION was opened with a solution for the issue of the letter I/L: the way in which the top of the letter was curved indicated that this was an I. Next, the attention was drawn to the colour of the heraldic plaques. As a matter of fact, they were not painted. No traces of pigments have been found on them. Finally, many participants in the audience were surprised by a curious plaque on a Romanian church in which the coats of arms of the Holy Roman Emperor were cut in half. Only the bottom half was presented. The reason for this proved hard to determine, but the upper half eventually was just cut out to fit in a statue, which apparently was considered more important than the coat of arms of the Emperor.
The production of heraldic funeral decors
ANNE-SOPHIE BESSERO’s presentation on the artists behind the heraldic decors at funerals in 16th and 17th centuries France followed next. Coats of arms were ubiquitous at royal funerals, ranging from depictions on coffins to fitted sheets and church walls. Studying the financial records of these funerals, Bessero revealed which artists created these heraldic artworks. A survey of different artists followed. Since many funerals could not be foreseen, a large amount of heraldic artwork had to be produced in a short amount of time, so often a lot of artists were contracted for a funeral. Some artists were involved in the painting of coats of arms for different funerals; some of them had been working together more often, as in a sort of partnership, with all their own specialisations, ranging from glass to metal, complementing each other. Although some artists only seem to have been painting heraldic presentations occasionally, others appear to have specialised in it and were able to work with different kinds of materials. Bessero highlighted the existence of such workshops and the links between families of painters that often were active for several generations.
In the DISCUSSION, the similarities with the English situation in the 16th century were pointed out, where contracts with twelve or so artists for one funeral are known of. The discussion focused then on the formation of these artists. Contrary to the 15th century situation as examined by Marc Gil, where the painting of coats of arms seemed to be a way of learning the profession, the 16th century heraldic artists appeared to be professionals. Did they paint other things as well? Were these painters just very interested in heraldry? The question was raised whether there was a stable relation between these painters and the court, but it turned out that there was none. The mentioned painters were not promoted to an office at court. On the organisation of these funerals, it was noted that a lot had to be taken care of in a short amount of time. Who coordinated this? This seemed to be unclear, but in Paris the artists lived in clusters in two different neighbourhoods, so it was suggested that maybe the organisation was structured in that way.
Heraldic illuminations in grants of arms
MARTIN ROLAND’s presentation focused on the artistic excellence of heraldic presentations in grants of arms in the Middle Ages. Artistic excellence includes two aspects: innovation and perfection of handicraft. Concerning the first aspect, as a kind of universal rule, the first innovative works are often of mediocre execution. This can be said for the illuminated charters containing heraldic symbols as well, which appeared at the beginning of the 14th century. The first of this kind showing superb quality, determined by its scenic setting, recognisable arms and technical ability, only dated from 1355.
Roland followed with a survey of illuminated charters containing coats of arms in different regions in Europe. The illuminated charters of the Milanese Visconti family, with their well-known vipera, showed how heraldry and the granting of coats of arms were successfully used as a political instrument for the prince himself as well as for his followers. Another example demonstrated that in England, in the second half of the 15th century, it became common practice for prominent book illuminators, such as William Abell, to paint the heraldic symbols in the charters that were – in this period – often granted to guilds. In that way, Roland was able to identify several painters of grants of arms.
However, these high quality miniatures were surpassed by the so called Meister der Handregistratur, working for Holy Roman Emperor Frederik III at the same period, who applied techniques derived from panel painters from the Netherlands. Concluding, Roland stated that grants of arms were legal documents that did not require decoration. The heraldic illuminations therefore had no legal function but served only to impress the spectator.
The next contributor, ANDREAS ZAJIC, concentrated on the medieval charters concerning coats of arms as well, but from a different perspective, focusing on the grants of arms issued by the chancellery of the Holy Roman Empire. His main question was: Who was responsible for the execution of these charters? Or more specific: Who composed the charters and who determined the artistic completing? The answer proved to depend on the context in which the charters were produced. In the 14th century, the model for grants of arms was developed, and a new type appeared in the course of the century, containing autonomous coats of arms. In the traditional literature, one often reads that the execution of these letters was determined by the chancellery, but according to Zajic, the situation was a bit more complicated. Often people outside the chancellery, the beneficiaries, determined the artistic execution. The artists were often hired professionals and followed the indications of the beneficiaries. However, to get a clear view on the artistic responsibility in the creative process of depicting coats of arms in grants, Zajic urged that more comparative research is needed.
The title of STEEN CELMMENSEN’s presentation was ‘Armorials as commercial ventures?’ and his firm answer to this question was ‘yes’. First, Clemmensen posed some seemingly simple but often overlooked questions: Who made the armorials? Heralds, illuminators, painters? Who commissioned the armorials? Anyone with money? Why were people making armorials? For profit, compiling or personal promotion? Next, he emphasised that many late medieval armorials were related to each other. This is particularly striking in the case of imaginary arms, which, although they did not reflect real coats of arms, were similarly depicted in many armorials. Concerning these imaginary arms, Richental’s armorial appears to have been the source for many 15th century armorials.
Clemmensen then turned to the commercial aspect of armorials. Some items, for instance a list of Greek nobles and a chronicle of the duke of Bavaria in the Innsbruck armorial, were inserted just to please the customer. The reuse of woodblocks to draw the outlines of the shields also pointed to a commercial production. Sometimes (parts of) different armorials seem to have been made by the same artist, as is the case with the armorials Paix d’Arras and Toison d’Or. However, it is hard to determine whether a similar style meant that the same artist had worked on it. Concluding, Clemmensen stated that these armorials were deskwork, and that although the commercial aspect was universal, regional differences occurred.
The first question in the DISCUSSION concerned the italic handwritings in the grants of arms. It was supposed that this was a less official handwriting, but apparently this was not the case. At the Hungarian chancellery, for example, this handwriting was en vogue and was not less official than other writings. This was followed by a discussion of the judicial character of heraldic depictions in charters. Roland maintained that these had a purely decorative character, and that the examples showing a difference between the descriptions of the coats of arms in the document and the way the coats of arms were depicted supported his claim. However, others pointed out that if the coats of arms were surrounded by text, this image had a judicial function due to the fact that it could never be altered. It was noted that in Lorraine, the coats of arms were placed in the right bottom of the letter and were concealed by the fold. Clearly, there were regional differences. Next, the significance of the use of clear definitions concerning medieval armorials was emphasised. However, definitions might also be tricky. For example, was Richtental’s work a chronicle or an armorial? It proved difficult to provide a clear answer.
The great artists: Pisanello and the Della Robbia family
In the next presentation, TANJA JONES talked about Pisanello’s portrait medals and in particular his relation to the heraldic emblematics. Pisanello is well-known for his medals, but most studies on this subject are rather limited and place these medals in the tradition of ancient coins and medieval seals. Jones, however, argued in the same line as Pastoureau that these medals followed a different tradition, as emblematic systems used to represent the prince’s authority. In her paper, she approached Pisanello’s medals from this point of view.
The meaning of the heraldic iconography used by Pisanello is uncertain. Jones suggested that the medals containing the coats of arms or heraldic symbols were used as gifts from the princes. This has consequences for the way these medals should be interpreted as representations of the prince’s identity. For example, Pisanello made a medal for the Gonzagas of Mantua on which Constatin’s cross was depicted as a reference to the famous battle of the Milvian bridge. This said a great deal about how the Gonzagas wished to present themselves to the outside world. Since these coins were meant to be circulated and discussed, the heraldic emblems came alive and turned into vivified heraldry; dynamic courtly signs of authority and identity. With her paper, Tanja Jones demonstrated with this specific subject how different emblematic systems could work together.
In the last contribution, ALESSANDRO SAVORELLI discussed the influence of the Della Robbias on the development of heraldic art in 15th century Florence and Tuscany. The Della Robbias (Luca, 1399-1482 / Andrea, 1435-1525 / Giovanni, 1469-1529) were well-known Renaissance sculptors and ceramists that have produced a large amount of coats of arms on sculptures, panels and buildings.
The gothic heraldic style dominated in Florence at least until the middle of the 15th century, but Savorelli showed that the Della Robbias’ work marked the transition to a new classical naturalist style. The characteristics of this new style were particularly visible in heraldic depictions of animals. Lions, for instance, were presented in a more aggressive, wild and energetic manner. Savorelli stressed that this was a gradual transition from gothic to renaissance in heraldic art, but not a rupture. Signs of gothic stylisation were still present in heraldic art until the middle of the 16th century, but the Della Robbias had clearly paved the path to a new style a century earlier. Concerning the heraldic knowledge of the Della Robbia workshop, he pointed out that there were some mistakes but very detailed information as well.
In the following DISCUSSION, it was stressed to not lose sight of the decorative functions of heraldic art, since many presentations mainly concentrated on the heraldic functions. Both aspects of heraldic presentations should be considered. Further, the question of the circulation of Pisanello’s medals was discussed. It is very probable that they were meant to circulate, but it is quite uncertain how. Some medals were produced in a very small number of copies, especially when they were personal gifts, but others were produced in a larger amount. They were probably meant for princes, magistrates and nobles, but if and how they went from person to person remains unknown. It was noted that Pisanello rarely depicted an entire coats of arms; more often, he used only heraldic symbols. The reason for this has still to be determined. Attention was also drawn to the epigraphic aspect of the medals. Different types of epigraphy showed that the inscriptions on the medals were made by different persons. Finally, concerning the transition of the heraldic styles in Tuscany, it was once more emphasised that this development should not be seen too typological; it was definitely not a rigid change.
Interdisciplinary research and regional case studies
This conference brought together scholars from different disciplines, and the various approaches complemented each other, as became clear during the vivid and enriching discussions. The presentations revealed the wide range of artists that were involved in the production of heraldic art. Sometimes it was the work of professionals, sometimes not; but it is certain that there were not only heralds behind the heraldic expressions. The omnipresence of heraldic artists indicated once more, as Hiltmann stated in his conclusions, that heraldic communication was central to the medieval society. There is still a lot of work to do in order get a better understanding of the creators of heraldic art. Case studies should shed light on the regional diversities and development in time. Conclusions should be differentiated and contextualised. The presented papers were a promising take-off for further studies. This conference demonstrated that if a multidisciplinary approach is applied, the subject of heraldic artists and painters will prove to be a fruitful field of study that sharpens our view on the interconnection between medieval heraldry, art and society.
For a short summary of / introduction to the lecture provided by the contributor himself, please click on his or her name.
Anne-Sophie Bessero (Paris) : Les fournisseurs d’armoiries funéraires au XVIe siècle
Jean-Christophe Blanchard (Nancy) : Georges Gresset, peintre et héraut d’armes des ducs de Lorraine (1523-1559)
Steen Clemmensen (Farum) : Armorials as commercial ventures?
Matteo Ferrari (Poitiers) : Au service de la Commune. Identité et culture des « artistes héraldistes » dans les villes italiennes aux XIIIème-XIVème siècles
Luisa Gentile (Turin) : Artistes, hérauts et héraldique de part et d’autre des Alpes Occidentales
Marc Gil (Lille) : Peinture d’armoiries, une activité parmi d’autres du peintre médiéval?
Laurent Hablot (Poitiers) : Initiator
Torsten Hiltmann : Initiator
Radu Lupescu (Cluj) : Heraldic commissions in architectural context. The architectural workshop of Cluj in the fifteenth century
Tanja Jones (Tuscaloosa, AL) : Vivified Heraldry : On Pisanello’s Medallic Imagery
Christian de Mérindol (Paris): Le peintre du plafond de Beaucaire (1454-1461)
Michel Pastoureau (Paris) : La stylisation héraldique. Essai de définition à partir des armoiries médiévales
Martin Roland (Vienna) : Illuminated charters, heraldry and artistic excellence
Alessandro Savorelli (Pisa) : L’héraldique “naturaliste” des Della Robbia à Florence et en Toscane
Andreas Zajic (Vienna) : La procédure d’expédition des concessions d’armoiries impériales
With the participation of :
Anne-Laure Connesson (Lille-Florence) and Nigel Ramsay (University of Exeter)