Famous Families

SIGILLUM SECRETUM
Part II Divine Darkness

In the middle of the 14th century, one of the most profound examples of the symbol of the blackamoor can be seen in the use of this image to represent Christ. It is clear from the documentation we have for the city of Lauingen in Germany, for example, that at about this time, the city's seal with the head of Christ wearing a crown of thorns is transformed to the head of a blackamoor wearing a golden crown. That the latter insignia is meant to represent the former is quite obvious from the accompanying inscriptions. One of the earlier ones read: "Sigillum civium de Lougingin" (seal of the city of Lauingen), while a later version clearly explains itself as the "Sigillum secretum civitatis palatinae Lavgingen (secret seal of the palatinate city of Lauingen)."

A German heraldic scholar writing before World War II offered two other reasons for a similar coats of arms. He pointed out that Ethiop (sun burnt) the black was a sun sign and therefore a symbol of divinity that could alternately be used for the Son of God or the Son of Man. He also pointed out that from what we know of the cult of the Black Madonna, the blazon of the blackamoor queen was a reference to Mary, the Queen of Heaven or her prefiguration as the Queen of Sheba and that the male versions of these insignia were therefore references to her Son.

The discovery of this particular seal was especially surprising to me since I had taken for granted that it was either another reference to Prester John or, even more likely, to Balthazar, the black Wise man of the Epiphany who has, iconographically, almost always been treated as a king. Because his gift of myrrh prophesied not only Our Lord's death but, most importantly, His Resurrection and the proof, therefore, of His divinity, the awe Balthazar's blackness inspired must have had a powerful impression on the science of heraldry. A coat of Arms that is apparently derived from the same theological source as that of the city of Lavingen belongs to the Cruse or Cross family of France. Since cockle shells are so liturgically associated with the sacrement of baptism, their number here probably signifies the three nails of the Crucifixion while the women, in all likelyhood, are representations of Mary and the Queen of Sheba.

The Arms of King Balthazar

No more graphic a demonstration of the African figure as a symbol of the sun is to be found than in the arms ascribed to King Balthazar. Initially this had posed a problem for me since the ethnic background of this Wise Man, to my mind, was simply not enough of a reason for this heraldic device. It was not until coming upon an early text describing his coat of arms as that of the sun that I at last realized what the blackamoor on Balthazar's livery signified. Since King Melchior bore a field of stars and King Kaspar, the moon, it is fairly obvious that as an allusion, no doubt, to the celestial phenomenon which had guided them to Bethlehem, the original arms of the Magi had been the sun, the moon and the stars. I do not think it would be unreasonable to suppose that for whatever theological line of reasoning, the heraldic insignia of both Balthazar and the city of Lauingen had been changed at the same point in history.

Blackness as an Allusion to God

Perhaps even more remarkable, especially from our perspective today, is evidence which would suggest that in the language of heraldry, the blackamoor could be an allusion to God Himself. The most obvious of these examples are to be found in the arms of the city of Coburg, the Kob family of Nuremberg and the Pucci of Florence. Since these three names are derived from that of Jacob (Coburg=Jacoburg, Kob=Jakob, Pucci=Jacopucci), the clue is to be found in the Book of Genesis. Very much along the lines of the old Hebrew injunction against uttering the Holy Name, it was the second century theologian, Dionysius the Aereopagite, who first alluded to God as, "The Divine Darkness".

In the passage relating the changing of his name to that of Israel, Jacob discovers that the dark spirit he has wrestled with all night long is none other than God in the impenetrable image of His infinite Self. The fact that the name, James, is nothing other than a variant of Jacob, might well provide us with the significance for the arms of Sardinia I described earlier since it is to the Aragonese king, James 1, that their use can first be traced.

Blackness as Wisdom

One of the most dramatic and, certainly, most graphic uses of blackness as wisdom can be seen in the portrayal of the Good Thief from a number of 15th century Flemish masterpieces depicting the Crucifixion. For the ability to recognize his Saviour's spiritual supremacy beneath the harsh reality of the Cross, St. Dismas is not only painted as an African, he is painted blindfolded as well. The blindfold on certain blackamoor coat of arms, therefore, is not a mistakenly placed headband or torse, the standard headpiece of this specific symbol when a crown is not called for. This blazon is, instead, an exhortation or, more precisely, a divine demand that we not only respond to the weakest and most helpless of our neighbours as we would Our Lord but, like St. Dismas, that we do so even while in the death throes of our own personal crucifixions. Interestingly enough, a number of early theologians writing on this subject, have attributed to the Black Wise Man's colour the same kind of reasoning from which St. Dismas would derive his doubly dark imagery; his ability to recognize the Messiah in a lowly manger.

The social gospel so strikingly symbolized by this example of the blackamoor blazon is also, interestingly enough, quite implicit in even its most negative use-- that of the vanquished infidel. From what is known regarding the popularity of the Charlemagnian epics during the latter middle ages, we can assume that this image was, in all probability, associated with Marsile, the black heathen king who, as the enemy of all Christendom, was Charlemagne's paramount opponent. Offered baptism at his defeat, Marsile had instead chosen death rather than accept a faith whose adherents he scornfully mocked and condemned for their immoral and reprehensible treatment of the poor. An image that was so scathing a reminder of a community's responsibility to its less fortunate could, therefore, have only been perceived as a positive one.

The relationship of the black image to the concept of justice was nowhere more politically utilized than with the Holy Roman emperors of the Hohenstauffern dynasty. Indeed, it would appear that the sable blazon of the imperial eagle and that of the moor's head were meant to be perceived as synonymous. The simple headbands worn by both are, as a matter of fact, identical and, interestingly enough, nothing less, despite the simplicity of the design, than the imperial diadem' of ancient Rome. Also interesting is the fantastic coat of arms attributed to Ethiopia by the heralds of the middle ages. For like the bicephalic bird of the Holy Roman Empire, Ethiopia bore a 'v' shaped emblem with a blackamoor's head 'torsed' at the end of each arm.

This parallelism between both sets of heads can, of course, be explained by the "rex / sacerdos" argument which occupied the very centre of the political stage during this particular period of history. To both the Pope who preached the imperial nature of his sanctified position and the emperor, Frederick II, who believed in the priestliness of his own power, the figure of the African priest king, Prester John, became an almost magical icon politically. If we can interpret the double-headed eagle represented the claims of both the church and the state, it would be quite logical to surmise that the reason why Ethiopia's arms were conceived as double-headed is due to the belief already mentioned that the Negus (emperor) exercised the prerogatives of both priest and king.

As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, it was to this African figure that European literature first attributed the very concept of popular justice. Indeed, while the Church showed off his famous letter of introduction and circulated copies of it to the Christian world, rumors in Frederick's own lifetime made him an intimate friend of this semi-mythical king. According to popular belief, for instance, Prester John had presented him with armor made of asbestos, the elixir of youth, a ring of invisibility and, most precious of all, the philosopher's stone.

Because they are described in the 'Tristam und Isult' cycles, the arms of Sir Pallamedes, the Moorish prince who becomes a knight of the Round Table, have received a certain amount of scholarly attention. Chequered in black and white, this highly contrasting design would appear to be nothing more than perhaps the most abstract icon of those dualities already pointed to, such as God and Jacob (Jacquelado is the word for checkered in Spanish), or Church and State. Instead of his coat armour, it is the body of Sir Fierfitz Angevin, the black knight from Eschenbach's 'Parzival' that is patterned in a piebald motif. The fact that the poet likens Fierfitz's skin to a parchment with writing is what expands this symbol to its most encompassing parameters.

To the Greeks, Pallamedes, the mythological figure from whom Sir Tristam's Moorish companion derives his name, was commemorated as the inventor of writing, counting, weighing and measuring and the games of the chessboard. Since his name translates as 'Ancient Wisdom', it has been suggested that all dualistic tensions were intended to be nuanced; from the most simple 'yes or no', 'O or I' to the most sophisticated of Parmenedes' models regarding 'The I and the Thou' or 'The One and the Many'. Obviously playing with the same kind of bifurcated symbolism as the Hohenstauffern eagle or the two headed branch of Ethiopia, the writer of the prose Tristam recounts that of all the knights of the Round Table, Sir Pallamedes was the only one who wore two swords. Whether as a reference to Pallamedes' name or the political wisdom Prester John stood for, or, perhaps, as a conflation of both, it is interesting that the blackamoor's head was one of the earliest watermarks in the history of paper making. Examples collected date from about 1380 to 1460.

Another possible reason for the imagery of Sir Pallamedes could well have been a rather ironic geo-political one. During the dark ages the culture of the Roman empire had, for the most part, been fairly obliterated. During the Crusades, western intellectuals became all too aware that it was their adversaries they would have to turn to for any advance in their educational systems since the moslem world had become the reservoir of classical Greco Roman learning. Due to the Saracen sages with which Frederick II surrounded himself, for example, Sicily developed into one of the most important intellectual centers of Europe, spreading the scholarship that had been derived from Arab translations. His court was so Islamic in its splendor that not only in the Midde East but throughout Europe he was referred to as 'Sultan.'

Since the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt during the 11th and 12th centuries had been of Sudanese extraction, and because their armed forces during this period had been augmented by a compliment of fifty thousand black troops a year, it should not be too difficult to understand how the image of the African had come to be associated, like Sir Pallamedes, with "ancient wisdom."

Part III Sable


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