Monday, August 13, 2012

Heraldry and grave diggers

click photo to enlarge
Heraldic coats of arms as we know them today became common in Europe around the middle of the twelfth century. They identified a family, especially the men when they were in armour, but were also used in sculpture, interior decoration and stained glass. Coats of arms were passed down through families by inheritance, often with modifications following marriage.

A typical coat of arms has a shield (escutcheon). Its surface (field) employs various colours (tinctures) in shapes (ordinaries) with motifs such as animals, leaves, shells etc (charges). A written phrase (motto) on a scroll or banner is often found below the shield. To left and right are figures, usually people or animals (supporters). The shield is topped by a helmet, its style dependent on rank, which may have a crest and is usually flanked by ragged cloth (mantling).

Recently I stood in the south aisle of the medieval church of St Mary at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, and looked up at a memorial that included a coat of arms (of sorts). It wasn't the kind that you often see, carefully sculpted and carved in marble or fine stone, a tribute to a man (or woman) of wealth and importance. Rather, it was crudely fashioned and made fast and loose with the heraldic vocabulary. In fact, I was in two minds as to whether it was a naive attempt to emulate the style of the deceased's "betters", or a mischievous parody that poked fun at the style. The convex disc at the bottom of the memorial, in the place where a motto might be on a coat of arms, was difficult to read, the carving being barely better than scratch marks. However, from what I could read it appeared to be words in memory of someone who died in the early 1700s, perhaps 1725. One look at the carving above the disc make it very obvious that the person must have been a grave digger.

The shield is divided into four (quartered) by two large bones. In the top left corner is the bell that would toll for the deceased. The top right corner has keys on a chain, perhaps symbolising St Peter and the hope of entry into heaven. At the bottom left is a coffin and what appear to be two rib bones, whilst at the bottom right are tools of the trade of a gravedigger - a pick axe and spade. The supporters are a man, full of life, and a skeleton. Quite what is in place of the helmet above the centre of the shield I'm not sure. However, it may be a clumsy depiction of the simple helm found on the coat of arms of an untitled person. If so, the crest that surmounts it looks for all the world like an hour glass in a wooden frame, the sands of time marking the passage of life. The mantling resembles the sort of palm-like leaves that the eighteenth century often used to represent the Tree of Life. Further leaves provide the "ground" on which the supporters stand.

So, is it crude emulation or knowing parody? It's hard to say, and it may be a bit of both. What is certain is that the coat of arms documents its time in an interesting and entertaining way, and seemed like a good subject for a photograph.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 105mm
F No: f4.5
Shutter Speed: 1/50
ISO: 3200
Exposure Compensation:  -0.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On