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We have all faced flags, visual symbols of a state, a city or an organisation. For some people it is more than that. They assign to a flag an almost religious veneration. On the other end of the scale are people who consider it as merely a piece of coloured cloth. A symbol, but not in any way confused with what it symbolises.
What's unknown to many, however, is that there is a science about flags, a science with its own name, vexillology. The word was coined in 1958 by Whitney Smith, and is composed by two stems: Latin vexillum, meaning flag or banner; and the common end -ology, derived from Greek “logos”. Vexillology comprises everything about flags, including history, usage and symbolism. The International Federation of Vexillological Associations defines it as:
"the creation and development of a body of knowledge about flags of all types, their forms and functions, and of scientific theories and principles based on that knowledge”.
Here I will not approach the subject in such an all-encompassing form, but rather discuss it in view of a few symbols and flags in a series of articles.
A flag is indeed a piece of coloured cloth, but colours and patterns are not put there randomly; they are carefully chosen to convey a certain symbolic meaning.
"The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentleman knew one: in the twentieth century every gentleman knows the other. The first gentleman was just precisely as ignorant for not knowing that c-a-t spells "cat," as the second gentleman is for not knowing that a St. Andrew's Cross is called a cross saltire, or that vert on gules is bad heraldry."
Heraldry is the study and creation of armorial bearings, coats of arms. These bearings began as an attribute of knights. They had a shield with colours or a pattern, and a helmet with a crest, which made it possible for others to recognise them in a battlefield or a tournament. These symbols gradually became more and more regulated, so their design became almost a science. Nobles and Royalty still use hereditary armorial bearings as symbols of themselves or their families, states and cities often have their own, even private organisations and non-noble individuals have shield-symbols in some instances. Today regulation is varying between countries, being strict in some, none at all in others.
Even if the use of "emblems" is known from ancient Egypt, heraldry, as we understand it, is a genuinely European Medieval art and science, which has spread around the world, but still has its most active life in Europe. The regulations for orthodox heraldry stipulate rules for the colours.
Colours are called "tinctures" and they are divided into "enamels" and "non-enamels". From the beginning there were six enamels: red (gules), blue (azure), green (vert), black (sable), gold/yellow (or), and silver/white (argent). Later purple (purpure) was added to make it seven colours. Seven was a number of deep symbolic meaning in number magic.
Some countries, however, never adopted purple, which is earliest known from the coat of arms of the kingdom of Leon 1245.
Other tinctures (non-enamels) and also furs have been added during the times. Here are examples of furs: Ermine, Ermines, Erminois, and Pean.
But let us examine the symbolic meaning of the seven enamels. Before that, just note that there is a rule of tincture, stating that metal may never be placed upon or next to metal, colour never upon or next to colour. In practice this is very hard to apply strictly.
The seven tinctures are divided into two groups:
Metals: gold/yellow, silver/white.
Non-metals: red, blue, green, black.
Purple is sometimes counted as metal, sometimes as non-metal. A peculiar detail is that until about the 15th century, this tincture, purpure, was not purple in any form we can understand it today. It was something in between grey and brown. As a matter of fact, purpure was not purple at all until the 16th century! The word denoted a fabric [French: pourpre] which could have different colours, and the heraldic "purpure" was a mixture of equal parts of the remaining four non-metallic enamels: blue, green, black, red. Since the word purpure resembles purple, the meaning of the former gradually shifted during the 16th century.
The symbolism combines the heathen knight and the Christian. Remember that heraldry developed along with Middle Age Christianity; it was important then to be able to bridge these two expressions of knighthood, to merge the ideals. So we got seven virtues.
W. Cecil Wade, in "The Symbolisms of Heraldry or A Treatise on the Meanings and Derivations of Armorial Bearings" (London 1898), states another symbolism of the colours:
Gold - generosity.
Silver - peace and sincerity.
Red - military fortitude and magnanimity.
Black - constancy, sometimes grief.
Blue - loyalty and truth.
Green - hope, joy and sometimes loyalty in love.
Purple - royal majesty, sovereignty and justice.
Muslim heraldry, in the sense of the word of European terminology, developed during Ayyubid and Mamluk times in Egypt and Syria, 1171-1517 AD. It might have been inspired and influenced by the French style coat of arms the Middle East was exposed to from the beginning of the Crusades. The symbols were mostly different, however, rooted in local culture - with one puzzling exception: the fleur-de-lis, a so-called French lily. But this symbol existed long before France and was used among many peoples (see Fleur-de-lis & The Lily of Florence).
The tinctures of this heraldry consisted of seven colours: Or (gold or yellow), argent (silver or white), gules, vert, azure, sable, and brown. In addition to that, they used "background colour" or "self-colour", which was the natural colour of the material on which the blazon was made. It could be stone, brass, etc.
(This article is partly based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo.)