Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
It must be evident to every one who has given any thought to the subject that a definite idea is meant to be conveyed to the mind by the attitude in which an animal is depicted; and such figures are not mere arbitrary signs, like the letters of the alphabet, which of themselves convey no meaning whatever. "A lion rampant" is, as the term suggests, a lion in the act of fighting, rearing on his hind legs to meet his antagonist. He is therefore depicted with wildly tossed mane, staring eyes, and guly mouth; his muscular limbs and distended claws braced up for the combat betoken the energy and power of the noble brute. How different is the idea conveyed by the lion statant in the firm majesty of his pose, calmly looking before him; or couchant, fit emblem of restful vigilance and conscious power, prepared on the instant alike to attack or defend.
Should any reasons be needed to enforce the necessity of adhering strictly to the heraldic law in which attitude plays such an important part, it may be needful only to refer to one or two examples, and cite as an instance in point the noblest of all created beings, and ask whether, of the many acts in which imperious man himself may be heraldically portrayed, the action or position in which he is to be depicted should not indicate distinctly the idea that
is to be associated with the representation? whether vauntingly, like the old kings,—
[paragraph continues] —attributes of his power,—or as a bishop or saint in the act of benediction,—kneeling in prayer as on mediæval seals,—the three savage men ambulant on the shield of Viscount Halifax,—or the dead men strewn over the field on the seal of the city of Lichfield—in each the primary idea is man, but how different the signification! It will therefore be understood that the particular action or posture, or any of the various forms in which real or imaginary creatures may be blazoned in heraldry, gives the keynote to its interpretation, which, in this respect, is nothing if not symbolic.
It will be seen that to interpret the meaning implied in any particular charge, the tinctures, as well as the attitude, must be considered. These, taken in combination with the qualities or attributes we associate with the creature represented, indicate in a threefold manner the complete idea or phase of meaning intended to be conveyed by the composition, and may be thus formulated:
(1) The Creature.—The primary idea in the symbol is in the particular being represented, whether real or fictitious, as a man, a lion, an eagle, a dragon, &c., of the form and accepted character for some particular quality or attribute
of mind or body, as fierceness, valour, fleetness, &c.
(2) Attitude.—The various attitudes or positions in which it may be depicted in heraldry, each denoting some special meaning, as rampant, sejant, dormant, &c.
(3) Tincture.—Whether blazoned proper (that is, according to nature) or of some of the heraldic tinctures, as or (gold), gules (red), azure, vert, &c., each tincture, according to the old heralds, bearing a particular and special signification.
Tinctures in armorial devices were, however, not always introduced on these scientific principles or adopted from any symbolic meaning, but as arbitrary variations of colour for distinction merely, and as being in themselves equally honourable; colour alone in many instances serving to distinguish the arms of many families that would otherwise be the same. Hence the necessity for accuracy in blazoning.
Guillam lays down some general rules regarding the symbolic meaning by which all sorts of creatures borne in arms or ensigns are to be interpreted, and by which alone a consistent system can be regulated. "They must," he says, be interpreted in the best sense, that is, according to their most generous and noble qualities, and so to the greatest honour of their bearers. . . . The fox is full of wit, and withal given wholly to filching for his prey. If, then, this be the charge of an escutcheon, we must conceive
the quality represented to be his wit and cunning, but not his pilfering and stealing;" and so of other beasts. Even in wild and ruthless animals and fictitious creatures, symbolic heraldry delights in setting forth their most commendable qualities, as fierceness and courage in overcoming enemies, though they may also possess most detestable qualities.
In like manner all sorts of peaceable or gentle-natured creatures must be set forth in their most noble and kindly action, each in its disposition and that which is most agreeable to nature, rather than of an opposite character. Heraldic art thus stamps a peculiar note of dignity for some particular respect in the emblematic figures it accepts, as for some special use, quality or action in the thing depicted; and this dignity or nobility may have a twofold relation, one betwixt creatures of divers kinds, as a lion or a stag, a wolf and a lamb; the other between beings of one and the same kind, according to their various attitudes or positions in which they may be represented, as a stag courant or at speed, and a stag lodged or at bay; a lion rampant and a lion coward—one will keep the field, the other seek safety in flight, just as one attitude conveys a different signification from another.