Roland, Martin (Vienna): Illuminated charters, heraldry and artistic excellence

Artistic quality is not necessary in order to be considered a good heraldic painter. Too much creative transformation is not what a patron seeks when he orders a coat of arms. Such is the standard opinion, and this is true within the field of illuminated charters as well. But standard explanations are never sufficient for artefacts of the highest rank. And this also holds good for the field I want to focus on.

There are always two aspects about artistic quality: innovation and perfection of handicraft.

In the field of innovation, the oldest heraldic depiction on a charter I am aware of dates from 1295; it has to be mentioned even though it is – from an artistic point of view – a very, very modest object. A charter from 1305, showing the arms of Castile and León, points to a much older tradition. These examples make clear that, even though grants of coats of arms are the predominant reason to depict heraldic signs, there are other opportunities as well to use heraldic motives as elements to decorate charters.

The oldest grant of arms of superb quality dates from 1355: Emperor Charles IV ennobles Jacopo Santacroce, a jurist from Padua. The respective charter shows a central miniature depicting a scene with the emperor and the recipient as well as an enormous coat of arms, enabling the spectator to check all heraldic details. The executing artist is well known in Upper Italy: he is, for example, responsible for a cycle of miniatures depicting the fate of Troy, today in the Fondation Bodmer in Cologny. Here the combination of a scenic setting, recognisable arms and high technical ability created perhaps the most perfect “Wappenbrief” ever produced.

Two examples from 1414 guide us to Lombardy, where the ducal chancellery is responsible for a very specific and highly qualitative development. Within the initials we recognise the Visconti vipera, the recipient’s heraldic bearings are depicted in the right margins (from the Maestro del libro d’ore di Modena) or in the centre as usually. The second charter from 1414 is a good example to show how highly representative documents support the social advancement from lower rural classes into the aristocracy and marriage with the ducal house within one lifespan. The style mingles Lombard and French elements in different ways. Highlights such as the charter for Vitalino Borromeo appointed count (1445) show the excellent manufacturing of these documents. Another charter from the chancellery (1456), for the founding of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, focuses on the ducal signs in the margins; the Milan vipera in the initial is heavily transformed, which might astonish puristic heraldists. The late Gothic style then transforms into pure Renaissance. The most prominent piece is a 1494 charter from Lodovico Sforza for his wife in the British Library, attributed to the circle of Leonardo da Vinci. Giovanni Birago, the artist, illuminated the famous Hours of Bona of Savoy, and is also responsible for a grant of arms from 1497: Maximilian I granted a “Wappen” to the non-reigning sons of Lodovico. Although the charter was issued in Füssen in Bavaria, it was decorated in Lombardy.

Let us return to Central Europe: an example from 1422 is – at first glance – a typical grant of arms from Sigismund, king of Hungary. The heavily damaged piece shows a massive frame through which we look into a golden reality behind the parchment of the charter. In this parallel world a coat of arms (Lesztemeri) painted with stupendous naturalistic ability tantalises the spectator. This fascination must have been even greater at a time when these painterly abilities had only very recently developed in the Netherlands. Some months later an illuminator from the Bohemian Martyriologium workshop painted the well-known Kaschau-Wappenbrief in a traditional central European style. The civic patrons commissioned him to paint an angel holding the shield, obviously in order to make the document even more impressive, especially if compared to respective documents for aristocratic recipients.

During the second quarter of the 15th century it became standard to assign the most prominent book illuminators to execute grants of arms. This was the case in England, where William Abell and his circle created admirably decorated pieces for the London Companies (guilds) dominating the market. The realistic excellence of the example from 1422 is topped by the “Meister der Handregistratur”, who worked for Emperor Frederic III from 1446 onwards. The shining jewels he painted are presented so realistically, the textures of the different materials are depicted with such exactness that we would like to touch them. In the middle of the 15th century, such characteristics are known only from panel painting in the Netherlands, and our master is one of the first illuminators to apply these new features. Most astonishingly, he was working in Vienna.

Maximilian I used a Lombard Renaissance artist to please Lodovico il Moro, in 1517 engaging an artist from the famous Ghent-Bruges school of illuminators to paint the coats of arms for a parish church in Tyrol, using the typical borders with naturalistic elements. In Hungary and Bohemia the Jagiellonian kings had started to enrich their “Wappenbriefe” with additional figures (1507 for Janos Pethoe) and exuberant borders with fantastic plants (1509 for Andras Weer).

In 1515, the Jagiellonian and Habsburg dynasties agreed on an alliance, and Maximilian had prepared this with a prominently decorated charter confirming the privileges of his house (1512). The new form, a bound manuscript, allows even richer decoration, and the Austrian “Bindenschild” is the most prominent object shown to the spectator. Despite the wonderful examples of painting from the Austrian side, the most perfect charters were issued by the Hungarians. The naturalistic approach, once more, is central, flowers of highly correct display and individual features are shown on several grants (1518, 1519), the most perfect one having been issued by King Louis II for Mihal Imreffy (1523). Pure Renaissance ornaments and a Dürer-like naturalism outshine the purpose of the document: the depiction of the granted arms. The 16th century is full of very beautiful examples, but neither time nor my knowledge suffices to give you more than a vague glimpse.

To sum up: letters granting coats of arms (additionally sometimes also nobility) are legal documents and need no decoration. As the heraldic content is blazoned within the charter, even the coat of arms actually needs not to be represented. Painted decoration therefore does not focus on the legal part of the document, but is intended to impress the spectator. This is true especially when high artistic quality is on the way.

This paper will be presented at the workshop: Heraldic artists and painters in the Middle Ages / Peintres et artistes héraldistes au Moyen Age (Poitiers, 10-11 April 2014)

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Torsten Hiltmann (February 26, 2014). Roland, Martin (Vienna): Illuminated charters, heraldry and artistic excellence. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from

Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in medieval and early modern visual communication and heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities.

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