[Report:] Heraldry in Medieval and Early Modern State-Rooms, Münster 16-18 March

The participants of the "Heraldry in Medieval and Early Modern State-rooms" conference

The participants of the “Heraldry in Medieval and Early Modern State-rooms” conference

On 16-18 March 2016 the workshop Heraldry in Medieval and Early Modern State-Rooms took place in Münster. The origins of this workshop lay in the challenges of understanding the function of the heraldic display in one particular state-room: the sala dos brasões of the National Palace in Sintra, Portugal, dating from the early sixteenth century. The ceiling of this hall presents the coats of arms of the Portuguese royal family, surrounded by 72 coats of arms of Portuguese nobles. These coats of arms have been studied since the nineteenth century, but these studies mainly focused on the represented persons or families and their relations to the king. What has largely been ignored is the display of this program as such. How could a particular message be communicated by this heraldic display? And what part did heraldry play within in the space of this state-room?

The workshop took these questions as a point of departure. Organizers MIGUEL METELO DE SEIXAS and TORSTEN HILTMANN argued that the working and the significance of heraldry in the sala dos brasões can only be understood by studying this topic comparatively in a European context. There are large numbers of state-rooms with heraldic displays in Europe, and some of these have been studied before, but not with the regard to the function of heraldry. That is a lacuna, as heraldry was a multivalent and omnipresent phenomenon in medieval and early modern societies. Coats of arms could refer to persons, families, territories, offices, and could convey a variety of information, ideas, and messages. They were used by everyone, from nobles to peasants, and heraldic knowledge was not only reserved to a small number of experts. Heraldry mattered in the Middle Ages and the early modern period.

Sala dos Brasões (photo: HenGomes)

Sala dos Brasões (photo: HenGomes)

Therefore, for a full understanding of state-rooms, it is vital to include the study of the heraldic displays in these spaces. For this workshop, state-rooms are defined as ‘rooms used for ceremonies and receptions, able to construct and express identities that were meant to be witnessed by members of the community and others’. The main questions for this workshop to increase our understanding of the functioning of heraldry in these state-rooms were: What is depicted and why? How does the heraldic decor communicate? And how can heraldry, as an element that added meaning to the space, improve our understanding of those state-rooms? The aim was to go beyond the mere description of the display and the identification of the coats of arms, and to analyze how heraldry was used in these state-rooms to communicate information, ideas, and messages.


One of the sub goals of the workshop was to make a beginning of formulating a typology of medieval and early modern state-rooms. The opening lecture by CHRISTIAN DE MÉRINDOL contributed to this aim by providing a typology for the monumental decors in the French kingdom in the Middle Ages, concentrating on the function of these displays. Roughly, he distinguished two groups. The first group was the expression of power, which could took place at particular events, on different locations (halls of power, houses of justice), and could concern different agents, ranging from kings to cities. The second group was the expression of the private, in which De Mérindol deals among others with alliances, property marks, and family histories.

In the next paper, LAURA CECCANTINI and DELPHINE GRENET highlighted the use of heraldry on beams on the ceilings in urban houses in Languedoc and the Provence from the thirteenth century to the end of the Middle Ages, for example in the Hôtel Arlatan in Arles. Most of these heraldic decors, which were strategically placed in different rooms in the houses, are locally oriented, promoting the owners of the house or showing alliances with local elites.

German speaking regions

The following two case studies concentrated on German speaking regions. SABINE SOMMERER discussed the fictive coats of arms in the urban houses in Zürich and Basel around 1300. Fictive coats of arms should be understood as arms attributed to persons who did not bear arms themselves (historical persons, Asian princes, etc.). Sommerer provided examples of heraldic decors on the beams on the ceiling in three houses: the Haus zum Loch in Zürich (1306), the Haus zum Langen Keller in Zürich (1305), and the Schönes Haus in Basel (1271). Sommerer argued that the fictive coats of arms representing literary persons or foreign princes, sometimes presented together with imaginary creatures, created a fantastical and privileged space for the medieval beholder.

Great Hall with armorial frieze in the so-called Gozzoburg in Krems (View to the Hoher Markt)

Great Hall with armorial frieze in the so-called Gozzoburg in Krems (View to the Hoher Markt)

In his paper on heraldic programmes in Austrian medieval wall paintings, ANDREAS ZAJIC distinguished three types of topics that could be expressed through heraldic decors, each of which was illustrated by a case study. The first topic was genealogy and self-fashioning of noble families, exemplified by the a heraldic wall painting in the castle and (former) minorite monastery in Asparn an der Zaya, displaying a proof of ancestry of the counts of Breuner with 128 coats of arms. The second was ties of fealty, illustrated by a lost heraldic painting of the lord of Freidegg in this castle. The third was political programmes, illustrated by a heraldic decor in the so-called Gozzoburg in Krems, a case that also demonstrated the many challenges of dating and interpreting such displays. These three topic topics were recurrent themes in the contributions to this workshop.

Piedmont and Aosta

LUISA GENTILE discussed heraldic presentations in state-rooms in Piedmont and the Aosta valley, focusing on the development and contextual differences of these decors. Gentile provided a series of examples concerning different contexts (princely homes, castles, patrician houses) over a long period (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries). These examples showed that the use and function of heraldry (ranging from communicating loyalty to showing family networks) in state-rooms evolved over time. For example, from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards, genealogies appeared more and more frequently, and in the end of the sixteenth century heraldic decors consisted more of heraldic emblems than of coats of arms.

Religious Buildings

The next two papers focused on the two cases in Poitiers and surroundings in Western France. MATTEO FERRARI dealt with the heraldic decors on a building that was part of the complex of the Saint-Benoît-et-Sainte-Marie abbey in Nanteuil-en-Vallée. This building, the so-called Hôtellerie, built in the thirteenth century, holds two barely visible heraldic decors, which were probably made shortly after another around 1300. Little is known about how the halls with the heraldic displays were used and what the displays as a whole represented, which complicates their interpretation. To increase the understanding of the function of this heraldic decor, Ferrari attempted to place them in their specific historical context. Based on the presence of the arms of Castile-Leon in direct relation with those of the king of France, Ferrari argued that they should be seen in the context of the Guyenne succession crisis.

Première des quatre planches des relevés de l'église des Jacobins de Boudan pour Roger de Gaignières, Paris, BnF.

Detail of the lost heraldic decor in the church of the Jacobins in Poitiers. Boudan for Roger de Gaignières, Paris, BnF.

LAURENT HABLOT discussed the heraldic decor in the church of the Jacobins in Poitiers. This heraldic decor is lost today, but has been transmitted to us by an eighteenth-century copy by Louis Boudan made for Roger de Gaignières. According to urban myth, the heraldic painting commemorates the victims of the battle of Poitiers (1356). However, Hablot established that only a small percentage of the coats of arms (ca. 10%) represent persons who were known to be present at this battle. Other coats of arms represent, inexplicably, English nobles who did not die on the Poitiers battlefield, and, interestingly, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century local Poitiers families and institutions (such as the university, established in 1431). Hablot argued that presentation had evolved over time, and perhaps also the function of this heraldic decor: first it had a commemorative function for the fallen of the battle of Poitiers, and in the following centuries it was reused and the function changed, possibly forming a local who-is-who, or presenting families that were connected to the monastery.

STEVEN THIRY discussed the heraldic church interiors in Flanders and Brabant during the Dutch revolt. These churches were sacred spaces, but they were filled with profane signs, creating a complex assemblage of symbols of monarchial authority, communal markers, and expressions of dynastic bonds. Thiry examined the attitude towards the heraldic presentations in the churches in three successive periods. First he demonstrated that during the waves of iconoclasm (1566) heraldic signs of princely authority often remained untouched in the churches. Only their sacred connotations were removed. During the period of the Calvinist Republics (1578-1585) heraldic decors in the churches were affected: they were spatially amended and subversively used. After that followed a period of reconciliation (1584-1598) which witnessed a reinstallment of armorial series of the Habsburg monarchs in the sacred spaces. This found its climax in obsequies of Philip II, where the church acquired the character of a state-room with heraldic presentations that focused on the past as the source of Habsburg authority.

Royal heraldic displays in England, Hungary, Spain and Russia

The following papers presented case studies each dealing with royal heraldic displays in a different European regions. JAMES HILLSON discussed the heraldic decors in the Westminster abbey and palace in the period 1253 to 1363. The very architecture of these buildings, which could be seen as accessible ceremonial sites of governance, expressed kingship, and the heraldic decors connected to that. They displayed the virtues of the monarchs, but not only of contemporary kings, but also of those of the past. The central theme in the presentations of coats of arms was establishinging a relation between past and present monarchs.

RADU LUPESCU concentrated on the heraldic displays in the Hunedoara castle in modern-day Romania. The great palace of the castle, which holds carved coats of arms on the keystones of the vaults of the upper great hall, as well as in other halls and on the façade, was built by John Hunyadi (1406-1456) and completed by king Matthias Corvinus (1143-1490), his son. This enables to discern a development in the heraldic programmes used by both kings. Although both presentations should be seen as an expression of royal authority, the decor painted under Hunyadi’s rule expressed his relations with influential noblemen, while Corvinus’s display referred to members of the royal court at a given moment in his reign.

MARÍA NARBONA’s talk on the heraldry in halls of the catholic monarchs in the Aljafería palace in Saragossa touched on the subject of display of power, and demonstrated how this could differ depending on the context. The Aljafería palace was built in the eleventh century by the Muslims, but was recaptured in 1118 and was since then used by the Aragon kings until the end of the Middle Ages. In the last two decades of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century the palace was renovated, and multiple state-rooms with heraldic decors were constructed. Narbona compared these displays with those in Castilian palaces such as in Valladolid and Segovia. It appeared that use of heraldry as a representation of the monarchy’s authority in Aragon differed considerably from its use in Castile. In Aragon para-heraldic emblems dominated, whereas in Castile coats of arms were abundant.

The topic of the expression of power and political programmes also returned in ELENA KASHINA’s case study on the Palace of the Facets in Moscow, constructed in 1491 under the rule of Ivan III the Great (1440-1505). Ivan was the first to assume the title Lord of All Russia, and introduced the double-headed eagle as heraldic sign representing the Russian State. This double-headed eagle was displayed in the reception hall of the Palace of the Facets. Kashina argued that, together with other visual elements, this eagle did not only represent the Russian royal power, but also articulated an embracement of both east and west by the Russian state.


King Henry IV, Henry V, and the Emperor Constantine in the stained glass of the north window in St Mary's Guildhall, Coventry. Image: Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Medieval Stained Glass in Great Britain, inv. no. 013805.

King Henry IV, Henry V, and the Emperor Constantine in the stained glass of the north window in St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. Image: Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Medieval Stained Glass in Great
Britain, inv. no. 013805.

The next papers shifted focus to the function of heraldic displays in state-rooms in medieval cities. MARCUS MEER dealt with the qualities of heraldic signs to commemorate and create urban identities in German and English cities. Discussing various examples of heraldic displays (Nine Worthies in the town halls of Cologne and Lüneburg, nine English kings in Coventry, commemoration of burghers fallen in battle in Reutlingen in 1377), Meer distinguished two functions in commemorating urban history through heraldic displays. For the kings, nobles, and churchmen it conveyed grandeur and dignity of the city. For the burghers it communicated the ideals of urban government and represented the community in urban history. The communicative function of these heraldic displays thus differed per social group, which touches the important and complex issue of reception and perception of presentations of coats of arms, and how these might vary from viewer to viewer.

MARIO DAMEN applied approaches from the spatial turn to heraldic decors in state rooms, dealing with the case of the city hall of Brussels. The mid fifteenth-century Gorrevod armorial contains a drawing of a stained glass window with coats of arms in this city hall. These arms represent mostly Brabant bannerets; not as temporary persons, as it is usually assumed, but as timeless territories. Damen argued that these heraldic devices were not only a representation in a space, but created the space itself, namely a particular noble space.

PIERRE COUHAULT focused on town halls and castellany in Flanders during Charles V’s reign. Couhault discussed three cities: Courtrai, Oudenaarde, and Bruges. The hall of the bailiffs in the castellany of Courtrai holds a locally oriented heraldic decor, representing the power of the bailiffs and the city of the county. The coats of arms in the oppervoogdenkamer in the town hall of Oudenaarde are different, presenting the duchies and counties of Charles V. In the hall of the bailiffs the monarch’s minor kingdoms are displayed, and in the hall of the people his major kingdoms. Wood engraved presentations of coats of arms in the large hall (the hall of council and justice) in the town hall of Bruges are also imperially oriented, since the coats of arms of Charles V’s possessions and ancestors eclipse the local heraldic presentation. Couhault discerned a tension between local and imperial heraldic decors in these town halls and castellanies in Flanders, which differed according to the context.

ANNE-LAURE CONNESSON concentrated on the presentations of coats of arms on the facades of Tuscan public palaces in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These are displayed in a peculiar manner, as there is no apparent hierarchy or structure; the coats of arms are scattered over the façade as a sort of mosaic. The decors conveyed the identity of the city commune, but political and intellectual developments resulted in a different use of heraldic presentations: for individual promotion of magistrates, and the expression of alliances.

Self-promotion in urban spaces was also a major theme in GIAMPAOLO ERMINI’s paper on the coats of arms on the walls of the major hall in the communal palace of Orvieto. Most of these are barely visible, but some are, and the remains in the hall indicate that these should be situated in the time of the Orsini family’s dominant presence in the town. By placing this heraldic decor in the context of other displays of Orsini’s coats of arms in the city, Ermini revealed its self-representative purpose.

Aristocratic residences in the Early modern period

With the next papers the Middle Ages were left behind and focus shifted to cases in the early modern period. AUDREY THORSTAD’s paper dealt with the use of heraldry by the so-called new men in sixteenth-century England and Wales, in which displaying ties of fealty played an important part. Thorstad presented two case studies of new men who rose in ranks under the rule of Henry VIII : Sir Rhys ap Thomas and Sir William Fitzwilliam. Both bought medieval castles, renovated these, and had heraldic presentations painted among others on the ceiling of the porch entrance, a place to be seen by visitors. Traditionally, new men are thought to have celebrated their own family and lineage through heraldry, but in these cases the halls are filled with Tudor heraldry, displaying a Tudor origin story. Thorstad argued that with these heraldic decors these new men emphasized their connection with the Tudor kings, proclaimed their loyalty to them, and it shows that they wanted to be represented through a royal narrative.

ANDREAS REHBERG’s paper treated the heraldic self-representation in aristocratic residences in Rome and Lazio between 1500 and 1630. Rehberg discussed three different social groups (the Curia Romana, barons of Rome, and the urban aristocrats) and showed how they used heraldry (in different spaces, such as palaces, villas, courtyards, loggias) to promote their own families and celebrate alliances.

HELENA SERAŽIN presented a case study concerning the heraldic decor in the Lanthieri Villa in Vipava (in modern-day Slovenia). On the ceiling of the ground floor hall the coat of arms of Maximilian, but probably referring to Leopold I, is presented. In 1660 emperor Leopold I visited the Lanthieri Villa, which was a major event for the region, and to honour his imperial guest, count Antonio Lanthieri had this large coat of arms with the double-headed eagle painted, expressing his loyalty to Leopold I. The full function of such presentations of coats of arms in state-rooms can therefore only be understood in their very specific historical context.

Nineteenth century

Gothic Drawing Room of Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

Gothic Drawing Room of Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

JUDITH BERGER dealt with the reception of medieval architecture in the nineteenth century, and the significance of heraldry in this context. Berger’s case study concerned the Eastnor castle in Herefordshire. This castle, designed by Augustus Pugin, is considered a prime example of the gothic revival in England. This reception also included the use heraldic presentations in the building. The Somers-Cocks family, the Eastnor earls, resided in this castle and their coats of arms feature in several rooms, most notably in the drawing room. Here, heraldic decors traced the family’s lineage back to the illustrious ancestors, and on the chimney the marriages of the family’s members were remembered through coats of arms. These heraldic decors were meant to be seen and were seen by others, since castles such as these were frequently visited by friends of the family as well as tourists who marvelled at the building’s visual splendour.

Conclusion and Future Research

The papers of this workshop presented a large number of examples of heraldic decors in state-rooms. These demonstrated that such heraldic presentations could be found in a great variety of regions in Europe and in different contexts, ranging from private houses to royal palaces and from noble castles to town halls. In these state-rooms, the heraldic decor could have different functions. They could communicate power of royals and social status of families, they could display alliances between families or loyalty towards royals, they could commemorate the past and construct identities, or they could create a certain space, for example fictional, privileged or noble. These functions developed over time and differed from region to region. Placing these decors in their specific historical context is therefore crucial for understanding them. All the contributions showed that heraldic decors were a constitutive part of the state-rooms. They were not mere decorations, but had a strong power to express a variety of information, ideas, and messages.

The workshop also revealed a number of challenges and promising paths for the future. First, it appears that an apt and internationally applicable term for state-rooms has yet to be found. One of the difficulties is that near-equivalent terms in other languages (Repräsentationsraum, salle d’apparat) evoke different connotations. Further, as some papers showed, there is much to gain by studying the heraldic decors in relation with the other visual elements in the room, as they could be intended to be seen together, or were seen in relation to each other by spectators. Coats of arms also had their limits as a means of communication, for example, since they were passed on over multiple generations, they could not always present a particular person, and other signs were necessary to convey the desired ideas or views. It is also became evident that the physical location of the heraldic decors in the room, and of the room in the building, are also clues for a better understanding of the intended function and reception of the decors. Furthermore, the function and the use of the state-rooms should be taken into account: Who was meant to see the decor? How accessible was the room? This touches the challenging topic of the reception of the decors, which was less dealt with in the papers, but is of major importance for a better understanding of the working of these decors. For gaining more insights into the perceptions of the spectators, it appears to be fruitful to not only focus on the physical presentations themselves, but also on texts on these presentations. The perception could differ from viewer to viewer, and to interpret these differences elements such as heraldic knowledge should also be taken into account.

The discussions showed that there is much work to do to improve the understanding of the functions and functioning of heraldic decors in state-rooms in medieval and early modern Europe, but the papers presented at this workshop have taken an important first step and have given directions to fruitful future research.

For the programme of the conference and the abstracts of the differnt papers please see: here.


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Cite this blog post
Elmar Hofman (2016, May 11). [Report:] Heraldry in Medieval and Early Modern State-Rooms, Münster 16-18 March. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/phz0

6 Responses

  1. Interessant, Mir fehlte Prag und Lauf, aber vielleicht bewusst nicht gewollt. Material zu Prag und den Erzbischöfen mir den Adlerwappen würde ich gern als Präsentation zur Verfügung stellen. Leider fügt es sich hier nicht ein.

  2. Joris de Sutter says:

    Can some of the presentations of this conference be viewed online somewhere? I’m very interested in the lecture by Christian De Mérindol. Did he talk about the Salle des Ecus of the chateau de Ravel? How can I contact mister De Mérindol to get a look at his presentation?

    • Elmar Hofman says:

      Dear Joris. Thank you for your interest in this workshop. Unfortunately, the powerpoint presentations of the contributions are not published online, among others due to image rights issues. You could contact Christian de Mérindol himself. His contact information can be found in the membership list of the Academie internationale d’héraldique: http://aih-1949.com/membres.php

  1. 07/11/2016

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  2. 05/12/2016

    […] décrits, interprétés, commentés ? Finalement, pour reprendre les questions soulevées lors d’un colloque précédant tenu à Münster, comment l’héraldique s’articulait-elle dans ces décors et dans l’ensemble de toutes les […]

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