There are many misconceptions and even falsehoods out there about heraldry, such as the notion that heraldry is restricted to nobility or that a coat of arms can only be acquired via a grant from a sovereign or only used by snobs.
One other such misconception is that heraldry is restricted to Christians to the exclusion of all other religions.
It is true that heraldry as we know it today emerged in Europe and was primarily a Christian phenomenon but, it was not exclusive to Christians nor restricted to Europe. There is evidence of Jews using coats of arms throughout the history of heraldry, even as far back as the 1300’s (per fess a lion issuant and barry of six or and azure, belonging to a Daniele di Samuele of Forlì, Italy found on a manuscript from 1383 kept in the British Museum). There has also been significant scholarly research done that (inconclusively) demonstrates that heraldry was adopted by the Crusaders from the Muslims it fought in the East!
Regardless of where heraldry originated from, the fact remains that heraldry was not and is not restricted to any particular religion just like it was not and is not restricted to any particular social class.
Let’s not forget that the three major religions have been living next to each other, if not in enclaves within each other’s territories, for as long as the three religions have existed. As a result, the communities interacted and adapted to the norms needed. There are ample examples of, say, heraldic achievements belonging to prominent Jews being depicted on seals on official documents throughout Europe.
Even outside of Europe there is a long history of heraldic usage as has been documented by islamic scholars, the most famous of which is the treatise “Contribution à l’étude du blason en Orient” by Yacoub Artin Pacha. In this monumental work, Yacoub Artin Pacha compiles an impressive armorial of ancient Islamic shields and demonstrates the long history of heraldry in the Islamic world. As a side note, in this same text a case is made for the Islamic origins of heraldry but, that’s a topic for another post (maybe).
Thankfully, the tradition of heraldry continues to our own times where families and individuals continue to use coats of arms that have either been inherited, newly granted or freely assumed.
The arms above are those of Hassan Kamel-Kelisli-Morali who bears the arms that have been in use by his family for at least two centuries: Vert two bendlets between as many mullets Argent.
The arms above are those of David E. Cohen who freely assumed his arms in 2008: Bleu Celeste a Bar nebuly Argent a Base enarched Vert overall a Key palewise double wards to base Or within the bow a Sapphire Cabochon proper. As an indication of how the misconception persists, he once shared that he has a hard time getting artists to emblazon the key on his shield without a cross!
Both gentlemen above not only gave me permission to post their arms but they also were very helpful in providing some of the information in this post.
Below is a short list of online resources I recommend for anyone that wants to read more about this:
- For a very thorough overview of Jewish heraldry, François Velde’s article on his excellent site Heraldica.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia in its (not so great) entry on Sephardic coats of arms one finds a (really) great armorial listing the blazons of Jewish families with citating the geographic origin and bibliographic source.
- Snippets (unfortunately without images) from the book “Anglo-Jewish Coats of Arms” by Lucien Wolf on the site of The Jewish Historical Society of England.
- The treatise “Contribution à l’étude du blason en Orient” can be read for free online, courtesy of the Gallica Digital Library of the the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
- Some fascinating samples of Saracenic heraldry can be found in the January, 1908 Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is available for free on Google Books.
- An article on Islamic heraldry by Dr. Murray Eiland providing many examples of historical heraldic use in present day Syria.
- An excellent (pdf) article on Mamluk heraldry by David Appleton, heraldic researcher and owner/maintainer of the highly recommended heraldry blog “Heraldry: Musings on an esoteric topic“.
- Finally, a fascinating read on Persian heraldry by Arian K. Zarrinkafsch-Bahman.
And I just covered Islamic and Jewish heraldry. There are numerous examples of heraldry, both historic and modern, for all other groups from around the world!