Archive for April 2010

Saint Tropez

Today, April 29, is the veneration of Saint Torpes of Pisa, better known by the town named after him: Saint Tropez.

Saint Torpes is one of those few saints that are venerated by both the Eastern and Western Churches who lived in the first century AD having martyred in 65AD.

Torpes was a Roman whose full name was Caïus Silvius Torpetius who, according to legend, was either senior military person or a leader of emperor Nero’s guard. It is said that he was martyred when, in the presence of the emperor, he professed his faith.

He is highly venerated in his birthplace of Pisa and the locations where his body finally arrived. The legend says that his decapitated body was placed on a boat with a rooster and a dog to devour the corpse.  The boat was set adrift and floated towards north-western Italy.

A woman named Célèrine had a vision at that time saying that Torpes would visit her village. As foreseen, the boat with the corpse, rooster and dog did indeed reach that small seaside village. Upon arrival the rooster fled one way and the dog the other.

The village was renamed to Saint Tropez, in honor of the saint.

Interestingly, the village towards which the rooster fled was renamed Cogolin and the village towards which the dog went to Grimaud.

It is the arms of the town that we see at the top of this post, the blazon of which is amazingly easy: Azure the Saint Tropez (Torpes) Or holding in his right hand a sword Argent point to base, standing on a base Or charged with the text “SAINT-TROPEZ”

Personally, I find these arms to be ugly. I never liked shields with text on them, even though it is relatively common in the Iberian peninsula and France.

Duchess of Plaisance

In all the years I lived in Athens, Greece I knew of bus stops, streets, etc. named “Δουκίσσης Πλακεντίας” (Doukisis Plakentias) but, as most kids, never really thought much of it.

Honestly, I had not thought about it until I got into heraldry and inevitably learned about titles of nobility and other related items.

What piqued my interest was that we had a location named after a duchess when Greece did not have noble titles outside of the royal family. So, I did some research and found out that the duchess in question was not Greek but rather French!

The Duchess of Plaisance was born Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun in 1785 in Philadelphia in the United States to François Barbé-Marbois, Marquis of Barbé-Marbois (ennobled by Napoleon I) during his tenure as Consul-General of France to the United States.

The arms to the left are those of Barbé-Marbois, blazoned: Gules a Horse rampant Or, overall on a fess Argent 3 Mullets Gules, on a canton Azure 3 bendlets Or. As a Comte-Sénateur (Count-Senator) of the Empire, his arms of office had the canton of his position (a mirror with a snake curled around its handle gazing at itself) that hid the canton of his arms.

Sophie married to Charles-François Lebrun, Duke of Plaisance who was originally ennobled by Napoleon I during the First Empire and, interestingly enough, managed to retain his peerage after the Bourbon restoration, even though he supported Napoleon through the Hundred Days.

The arms of the Duke are those displayed at the top of this post in the heraldic style of Napoleonic Empire. The blazon of the arms is: Sable a Wold statant guardant Or, supported Or, surmounted by two billets Argent, a chief Azure semy of mullets Or.

It is said that the marriage was unhappy and that she lived in Italy while her husband was Governor of the Netherlands. However, the marriage did produce a single child, a daughter Eliza.

When the Greek War of Independence began in 1821, both the Duchess and her daughter Eliza were ardent supporters of the cause and contributed vast sums of money. She was living in Paris at this time, having returned from Italy, and as chance would have it, she met in 1826 the former Imperial Russian Minister John Capodistria (Ιωάννης Καποδίστριας) who had retired to Switzerland.

A few years later in 1830, when Capodistria was now the first Governor of the new Hellenic Republic, the Duchess moved with her daughter to the Greek capital in Nafplion (Ναύπλιον).

The Duchess of Plaisance continued her immense financial support towards Greece even after the country’s independence and was a major supporter and financial backer of public education. However, after a while, she grew to become an ardent critic of the Governor and his policies. Their differences were so great that she chose to leave her adopted country for Italy. When the Governor was assassinated in 1831 she appears to have been pleased that Capodistrias was finally out of office and publicly supported the assassins. She went so far as to personally distribute pamphlets in Paris, after the assassination, condemning the immoral and unjust way Capodistria ran the country.

As a side note, Nafplion was the capital of Greece until 1834 when the new King of Greece (and not “of the Greeks” as the next King was), King Otto I of Greece, of the House of Wittelsbach, moved the capital to Athens.

Later the same year (1834), Sophie returns to Greece but to the new capital of Athens where she purchased a large swath of land around Mt. Penteli (approx. 200 hectares). It is where her land used to be where all the landmarks named after her stand today.

An interesting note here is that her initial attempts to acquire the land was met with hostility by the monastery of Mt. Penteli that had placed the entire mount under it’s control. Though the monks couldn’t legally stop her, the asking price for the land was so high, nobody could afford it. Sophie had to appeal to her friend, Prime Minister Ioannis Kolletis to intervene on her behalf.

Her contributions to the young state were many and her status in the Athenian society was unique. In her later years, after the death of her beloved daughter, she became very eccentric. Some examples:

  • She had her daughter embalmed and placed in the basement of her house.
  • She would grant titles of nobility to various who would visit with her and attend her meetings
  • She dabbled in mysticism
  • It is said she maintained contacts with the various bandits that terrorized Athens

At one point, Sophie decides to convert from Catholicism, the Church she grew up in to a different one. However, what is surprising is that she did not convert to the religion of the vast majority of the populace (Greek Orthodoxy) – as one would expect – but rather, to Judaism.

As new convert, she spent a lot of time and money in helping the Greek Jewish community and in 1854 she financed the rebuilding of the Jewish synagogue in Chalkida.

Some of her other notable achievements are:

  • The financing of the publication of the Annals of Messolonghi
  • The building of her mansion in downtown Athens, that today is the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens. This structure is considered one of the most important architectural gems of the Othonian years.

After her death in 1854, at the age of 69, her property was inherited by her nephew who in turn sold most of it the Greek government. The remainder was purchased by her erstwhile banker, George Skouzes. Skouzes had incidentally been married to the personal secretary of the Duchess.

Pope Benedict XII

Yes, the number is right. I am talking about Pope Benedict XII who was elected into the Papacy in December of 1334, enthroned in January of 1335 and died on this day (April 25) in 1342.

The arms at the top of this post are those of Benedict XII and are not (entirely) blank.

The blazon is simple: Argent a bordure Gules.

However, the anniversary of his death is just an excuse to write about his most intriguing Coat of Arms. Why indeed would he have arms that look like a blank?

To be honest, when I first saw them, I thought that they were just a placeholder denoting that this particular Pope did not have arms. But, when I probed a bit more, I discovered that he did and these are indeed his arms!

Though I didn’t find a definitive reason why he had these arms, I can only speculate.

Born Jacques Fournier sometime around 1285, he came from a humble family and was the son of a baker or mill worker. His uncle was a Cistercian monk and Abbot (who incidentally became a Cardinal later) and took charge of young Jacques’ education.

It was his exposure to the life in the monastery that attracted Jacques to the cloth. As he rose in prominence, he took on more and more responsibilities.

He was one of the key players in the persecution of the Albigensians (aka Cathars) and was known for his zeal in this pursuit.

For his work in the purge of the heretics, he was rewarded by Pope John XXII with a cardinalate of Prisca on December 18, 1327. Since he maintained the white robes of the Cistercian Order he was known from then on as the “White Cardinal”.

This is the reason, I believe, he chose those very simple arms. The Argent (white) field as a pun on his nickname and the Gules (red) bordure (border) to denote his rank as Cardinal (from the red galero Cardinals use).

If true, it was a stroke of heraldic genius!

St. George

Today, April 23rd, is the day Christian churches around the world commemorate the memory of St. George who was martyred on this date in 303 AD, in Nicomedia (the then Imperial capital).

I won’t relate the entire story of his life, martyrdom and the legend with the slaying of the dragon. You can read all that on such places as Wikipedia:

However, I will go over the heraldic influence of the Saint – it has been enormous!

Below is a short sampling of arms with the with either St. George’s cross or the Saint himelf:

You can view a lot more on Wikimedia Commons at these locations:

Heraldic Database of Greece

As I’ve mentioned in the past, heraldry isn’t one of the things that pops in one’s head when thinking about Greece. However, Greece a long a rich heraldic history.

Unfortunately, many people in Greece, even academics and members of the government are completely ignorant of heraldry. So, you might imagine how surprised I was to discover a database of images of herldry in the real world in Greece owned and maintained by the Greek Government!

The site is for a project called “Pandektis” and is “a digital thesaurus of primary sources for Greek History and Culture”, developed by the National Hellenic Research Foundation under the framework of a project mostly financed by the European Union called “Digital Greece“. The digitalization was carried out by the Hellenic National Documentation Center. It has a huge database of over 400 images of families and organizations that existed over the centuries in the lands that are now Greece.

It’s a wonderful site that can either be browsed or searched in both English and Greek. It even has a very informative map that shows where each image was taken from and also, a handy timeline of the age of each heraldic artefact.

The database covers everything heraldic in Greece from the 13th century all the way to 20th; the entire period of heraldry, from its inception to modern times!

Taken from the “general information” of the site:

While the first signs of the heraldic phenomenon are found in Western and Central Europe during the second quarter of the 12th century, in the region of Greece it makes it’s appearance rather late and on a lesser scale. In Greece the first heraldic remains, as detected through historical research, date from the 14th century, reach their peak in the next two centuries (15th and 16th) and continue up to the end of the 19th century, at a lower, but still significant level.

The Institute of Neohellenic Research, recognizing the importance of study of this phenomenon in Greek history, as well as the need to go beyond dilettantish approaches, has included in its research activities the systematic locating, inventorying, photographing and classifying of items, with the aim of creating a database of heraldic monuments of Greece. Our research has located more than 1,200 coats-of-arms and heraldic emblems so far. There are three main contributors to this total:

• The Latin-occupied Kyklades islands,

• the Dodecanese islands under the Knights Hospitallers and

• the Venetian-ruled areas (mainly Crete, the Ionian islands and the Peloponnese)

Lesser contributions derive from the Genovese presence (mainly in the NE Aegean Sea), the Catholic Church (which cuts across all the above) and, finally, the small group of Fanariotes.

At this stage, the database includes 443 records, 147 of which date from the 13th-15th centuries, 170 from the 16th-17th centuries, 105 from the 18th-19th centuries, and 21 from the 20th century. Geographically, the bulk of the records comes from the Aegean islands (258 records), but also represented are Crete (85 records), the Ionian Islands (44 records), Sterea Hellas (38 records) and the Peloponnese (18 records).

For each database record, the location of the monument, its identity, its date, a brief historical note, bibliographic references and a recent image are provided in separate fields.

Leonidas Kallivretakis has the scientific oversight of the project. In addition to him, Nikos Benos-Palmer, Evi Olympitou and, primarily, Kostis Kallivretakis did the field photography.

The URL to this most fascinating site is: