Category Archives: Bad Heraldry

Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena

On Wednesday, November 20, the Most Rev. Austin Vetter (52), a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, was ordained a bishop and installed as the 12th Bishop of Helena, Montana. He was formerly a Spiritual Director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the seminary which he himself attended. Like so many other American bishops coming from that source he decided to have his coat of arms designed and emblazoned by an amateur heraldist, a man with another profession, who has begun to work extensively in the field of ecclesiastical heraldry due to his many contacts in Rome. The results are usually somewhat disappointing – not bad; not incorrect; not poorly rendered – but just drab, unimaginative and a ceaseless repetition of the same things over and over again plugged into a basic template making all of them appear, essentially, the same.

From the program prepared for the Ordination we read the following description prepared by the person who designed the coat of arms: “Bishop Vetter’s personal coat of arms blends images representing his origins: the crescent moon is for the Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, the Diocese of Bismarck, and the Pontifical North American College (Bishop Vetter’s alma mater where he also later served on faculty); the sheaves of wheat which combine the concept of the Eucharistic symbol and the principle product of the farm where Bishop Vetter grew up; a “wavy barrulet,” the water representing “the spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) and the Missouri River which begins in Montana and flows through Bismarck, North Dakota; and a “gemel in chevronwise,” one of them recalling the rafter holding the roof of the church which is set upon the foundation of the apostles with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (meaning protection) and the second representing the Rocky Mountains of Montana.

The color blue (Azure) symbolizes the separation from the worldly values and the ascent of the soul toward God, therefore the run of the Celestial Virtues which raise themselves from the things of the earth toward the sk y. It als o represents the Blessed Mother and the “Big Sky” of Montana. The silver (Argent) of the crescent symbolizes the transparency and the purity of the Virgin Mary. The garb, sheaves of wheat, is in gold (Or), the first among the noble metals, then the symbol of the first of the Virtues , the Faith which enables us to believe in the Eucharistic Host, fruit of wheat, real body of Christ.”

Yeah…blah.

The second paragraph which goes on and on about the symbolism of the colors betrays an error that many amateur heraldist make. Namely, assuming that there are definite meanings assigned to different colors in heraldry. There aren’t. Perhaps, the armiger has chosen to assign meanings to certain colors for himself personally but if that is the case the explanation should stipulate that, as in, “The bishop feels that the color blue means XYZ to him because…” Otherwise, it’s simply made up out of whole cloth.

Another interesting thing in the explanation which goes to my point about the repetition in this person’s designs is the explanation of the use of the “gemel”. In heraldry the word gemel means “twin”. It is a term taken from Scottish heraldry primarily and does not describe a particular charge or object. Rather, it is an adjective that describes certain ordinaries or subordinaries as being depicted twinned, or in a pair. So, it’s not an object, a gemel “chevron wise” (i.e. arranged in the shape of a chevron). Instead, it should be blazoned “Two chevronels gemel”, that is, two thinner chevrons paired.

What is also interesting is this explanation of the coat of arms of a bishop this same artist did several years ago, “The chevron is an heraldic device, best described as an inverted “V”; it signifies the rafter, which holds the roof of the church, and symbolizes the concept of protection.” Does that sound familiar? Perhaps it is supposed that every bishop must have a chevron of some kind in his coat of arms as a symbol of a church? Are there no other symbols of a church, or of the Church, or of protection?

This bishop’s last name – Vetter – comes from the German for “cousin” and yet there was no attempt to try and symbolize that. His first name, Austin, is derived from the name Augustine and yet none of the symbols associated with that saint were used. Why do I point this out? Because a coat of arms is first and foremost a mark of personal identification. As I have written here numerous times, it is not a CV in pictures! It’s not supposed to be about where you are from, where you lived, where you went to school, etc. It is, instead, supposed to identify you, personally. So, using charges that in some way alluded to his name or family name, while far from a necessity in any coat of arms, might have proven a better starting point and certainly would have made for a mark of identity that was more personal.

Instead, there is another cookie-cutter coat of arms. And yet the question persists of “Why are so many bishops’ coats of arms so poorly done?” It is, I believe, because too many bishops are content to copy what they have seen before for the sake of “getting it done” instead of consulting with someone who is well versed in heraldic science as well as someone who can provide real heraldic art instead of something using a computer generated template. This coat of arms, like others is not, as I wrote above, bad, incorrect or poorly rendered. But, it is rather disappointing.

Most Rev. Robert F. Christian, O.P. – RIP

The Most Rev. Robert Christian, a Dominican friar, who has been the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco passed away on July 11, 2019 at age 70.

His coat of arms was assumed by him at the time of his episcopal ordination.

Umm…no. Sorry, but “beige” isn’t a heraldic color and, no, you may not just simply make up new rules and use whatever color you wish in heraldry. The science of heraldry limits the tinctures to be used and beige isn’t one of them. The Dominican cross and the usual Franciscan conformities (the arms of Christ and St. Francis crossed with each other) made for a nice combination of symbols for his Religious Community and the Archdiocese.

May he rest in peace.

Detroit Coat of Arms Redesign: EPIC FAIL

By now so many people have seen the redesign of the archdiocesan coat of arms undertaken by the Archdiocese of Detroit and unveiled last Saturday (below, right).

Detroit

Where does one even begin? Perhaps a good place to start is by saying that this was done in conjunction with the release of Archbishop Vigneron’s post-synodal pastoral letter entitled, “Unleash the Gospel”. This letter addresses issues that arose during the archdiocesan synod and outlines the pastoral approaches to be implemented by the archdiocese as it faces the future. As a part of this entire effort someone had the idea that redesigning the coat of arms to reflect the current “realities” of the archdiocese and certain aspects of the archdiocese’s identity would be a good idea. I suppose the thinking was that with a new approach should come a new symbol. The archdiocese’s Moderator of the Curia, Msgr. Robert McClory, who was in charge of the redesign, said, “Initially, we thought about, ‘What is the identity of the archdiocese?’ When people think of the Archdiocese of Detroit, what do they think of, and what visuals are connected to that?”

So, it seems clear that this jettisoning of the former coat of arms and redesigning an entirely new one was done with all the very best of intentions. That seems abundantly clear and, I think, it’s worth pointing out and keeping in mind. There was no malicious iconoclasm motivating a desire to discard outmoded symbolism. Rather, there seems to have been a sincere effort to look to the future in a positive manner with a symbol for the local church that would be more evocative to both members of that local community and those outside of it as well. They were trying to do something good, and new, and fresh.

More is the pity. It is precisely all these good intentions that underscores the appalling ignorance with which this process, in the works for more than a year, proceeded. An article in the archdiocese’s publication, “The Michigan Catholic” indicates the following:

“Archbishop Vigneron consulted with a wide range of people, including laity and the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council, before deciding to go ahead with the changes, Msgr. McClory said. While the archdiocese enlisted the help of a Cleveland-based design firm for the project, the process also benefited from Archbishop Vigneron’s experience redesigning the coat of arms of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., where he served as bishop from 2003-09.”

Apparently, the Archbishop’s previous experience left him feeling confident in doing a wide and varied consultation with just about everyone, except someone well versed in the customs, rules and traditions of good heraldic design. That really baffles me. In these days even a simple Google search will easily yield at least some possibilities of contacting a group or individual who has some knowledge or expertise in designing a coat of arms. Consulting such a person or group really wouldn’t be so difficult. I have to ask why it was deemed important to solicit the opinions of laity and the Presbyteral Council? What experience or learning do they possess that would enable them to determine a good heraldic design? I can appreciate the Archbishop’s desire to avoid making such a change by episcopal fiat and to seek the input of various people in his archdiocese. Nevertheless, the way to design or redesign a coat of arms is not by committee. I think the end result is clear evidence of that.

What they have come up with is, simply put, bad. The artwork is cartoonish and dated. The overall composition bears little to no resemblance to anything remotely like a coat of arms. The mitre on top has the appearance more of a royal crown than an episcopal mitre. The confusing miss-mash of charges float all over the place on the field. You cannot simply take a bunch of logo-like symbols, slap them onto a shield and call it “heraldry”!

Most of all, however, I think the epic fail has its origins in a basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of a coat of arms in the first place. Monsignor McClory goes on to say:

“A major difference between the old coat of arms and the new, Msgr. McClory said, is one’s ability to tell the story of faith using its symbols: Starting with the Old Testament in St. Anne and continuing through the revelation of the New Testament through her daughter, Mary, one comes to Christ through the waters of baptism and is invited through the open doors of the Church to bring others with them to their ultimate fulfillment with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in heaven. I think you can really tell a story with this. You can’t do it with the old coat of arms.”

And there you have it. Once again, because something is connected to the Church it becomes about “telling a story”, or “tracing a history”. Not everything connected to the Church has to be a catechetical tool; not everything is a means of evangelization. Just as a personal coat of arms is not supposed to be one’s pictorial C.V.  so, too, a corporate coat of arms is not supposed to be a visual mission statement or pictorial history.

Heraldry was developed as a means of creating a unique identifying mark. Full stop.

In addition, because even modern heraldry still hearkens back to the medieval period in which heraldry has its origins there is supposed to be both a timelessness and a sense of permanence to heraldry. It’s quite wrong to change a coat of arms simply because it was designed and adopted in a different time and because the thinking has changed about what should be on it. A coat of arms doesn’t have to “tell a story”; it doesn’t have to “reflect present realities”; it is supposed to be immutable. Since it becomes the identifying mark of the individual or corporate body that uses it the permanent character of it must be respected.

That is not to say that there are no instances of changes being made to a coat of arms. Even within the science of heraldry itself techniques such as marshaling (combining two or more coats of arms on the same shield), augmentation (adding a new element to an existing coat of arms to reflect an honor, event or accomplishment) and differencing (slightly changing an initial design to indicate its use by a relative, descendant, or protégé) exist to make changes within the accepted framework of heraldic custom and practice. But, simply throwing out the former coat of arms and redesigning the thing from scratch is foreign to the nature of heraldry. Let me be clear: it is sometimes done and whenever it is, it is always wrong.

Rather, the archdiocese has fallen victim to a not uncommon phenomenon present today. That is, equating heraldry with a logo. Corporate logos frequently change. Whether it’s to mark the takeover of the corporate body by another, or simply to refresh and renew the artwork, or to indicate the corporate body embarking on a new phase or vision the transitory nature of corporate logos almost necessitates their periodic updating or full-scale redesign. I note that the archdiocese consulted with a Cleveland based design firm. But, what does this firm know of heraldry? How much experience do they have designing a heraldic achievement? I would hazard a guess that its very little compared with their experience of coming up with a first time logo or doing a redesign for a group interested in “re-branding”. But, a coat of arms is neither a logo nor a brand.

The simplest solution to their present situation would have been to leave their diocesan coat of arms alone and design a logo which would be used not only for the roll out of this most recent pastoral letter and the ensuing archdiocesan efforts at implementing it but could have also become the favored symbol used by the archdiocese in place of the coat of arms. Things like letterhead, signage, etc. could easily have borne this newer logo and simply ignored the coat of arms. Its not the solution that those of us who prefer heraldry might like but it certainly is far from unprecedented. Numerous ecclesiastical institutions have desired a symbol that was considered more in keeping with the times. They have chosen to respect the existence of a previously adopted coat of arms and merely make minimal use of it in favor of the newer logo they have adopted as more fitting to their situation.

The Archdiocese of Detroit could have done the same. They could have tried, with the help of a competent heraldic designer, to truly re-design the present coat of arms. They could have, for example retained the gold field, the black cross and three gold stars on the cross and removed the antlers and martlets. Then in those now empty quadrants they could have placed charges symbolic of what they desired. They could have augmented the current coat of arms by means of placing a smaller shield at the center of the design bearing whatever symbols they wanted. They could have adopted a kind of heraldic badge (a symbol composed of heraldic charges but separate from a shield) and used that in conjunction with the archdiocesan coat of arms as well as had new artwork prepared for both. They could have decided to adopt an archdiocesan logo to be used instead of the coat of arms while leaving the former alone.

Instead, they chose the ill-advised path of completely throwing out the coat of arms first adopted 80 years ago and used regularly throughout the archdiocese in many ways and in many places, and coming up with an entirely new design, poorly executed, which bears little to no resemblance to the original and destroys any visual continuity with what had been used.

It has been announced that over time the former coat of arms will slowly but systematically be expunged and the Archbishop plans to have a new rendering of his own coat of arms impaled with this mess. I think that’s a very bad idea. Rather, if he wishes no longer to use the older archdiocesan arms the Archbishop should simply use his personal arms on the shield alone. That way, if his successor wishes to correct this error and revert to the former coat of arms he can do so easily.

I suppose that it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that this kind of thing happened considering what the archdiocese did to redesign what had been its beautiful cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Much of that renovation is quite nice (I’m thinking in particular of the floor of the sanctuary) but most of it doesn’t fit at all with the style of a neo-gothic structure. Once again in the interest of “updating” the archdiocese has an epic fail on its hands. What I find particularly sad is the failure isn’t because of a difference of opinion regarding taste. Rather, the fail occurred because of inexcusable ignorance of the subject at hand. They simply don’t get what a coat of arms is supposed to be. What they’ve ended up with is unheraldic and ugly.

A Gallery of Banality

In January several new Auxiliary Bishops have been ordained in the USA. Their choices regarding armorial bearings have been, shall we say, underwhelming. I am not commenting on the quality of the artwork, at least not for the moment. This post is concerned with the content and composition of these coats of arms from a heraldically correct viewpoint. Let’s have a look.

Most Rev. Timothy Freyer, Auxiliary of Orange, CA (ordained January 17)

freyer

Meh.

Most Rev. Mark Brennan, Auxiliary of Baltimore, MD (ordained January 19)

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Busy.

Most Rev. Adam Parker, Auxiliary of Baltimore, MD (ordained January 19)

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Gag. (and not entitled to the quarter of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher)

Most Rev. Gerard Battersby, Auxiliary of Detroit, MI (ordained January 25)

battersby_coat_of_arms_thumbnail

Yuck.

Most Rev. Robert Fisher, Auxiliary of Detroit, MI (ordained January 25)

fisher_coat_of_arms_thumbnail

Blech.