Coats of arms, also referred to as armorial bearings, armorial achievements, or simply arms, serve as a unique visual symbol representing a person, family, state, organization or corporation. While most coats of arms consist of a shield, helmet, crest and motto, one of the most striking components is the use of multiple colors. So how many colors are typically used in a coat of arms? The answer depends on several factors.
History of Coats of Arms
The use of coats of arms emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages. Knights painted symbols and figures on their shields to identify themselves in battles and tournaments. The use of coats of arms eventually expanded beyond battlefield identification to representing families and institutions. The earliest coats of arms were passed down from the knights to their descendants and became associated with noble families.
By the 14th and 15th centuries, coats of arms had become more standardized. Rules and guidelines were established regarding the proper composition and regulation of coats of arms, called heraldry. This formalization allowed coats of arms to be systematically adopted not just by noble families but by towns, cities, churches and other organizations.
Rules for Tinctures and Colors
In heraldry, the colors used in a coat of arms are referred to as tinctures. While there are exceptions, there are generally considered to be five standard heraldic tinctures:
|Gules (red)||Azure (blue)|
|Sable (black)||Vert (green)|
In addition to these main tinctures, coats of arms may also use more elaborate variations and combinations, such as sanguine (murrey) and tenné. Metals such as gold and silver are referred to as Or and Argent respectively. While not strictly colors, they can also be used alongside tinctures to add contrast.
Limitations on Colors
Heraldic tradition places certain limitations on how many colors can be used in a single coat of arms:
– No more than two metals should be used. Typically, Or (gold/yellow) and Argent (silver/white).
– No more than two colors should be used, with red, blue, green, black and purple being the prime options.
– Color should not be placed on color, nor metal on metal. The colors should contrast with one another.
Therefore, while heraldic tradition includes a wide palette of possible tinctures and colors, a coat of arms will typically only feature two to three colors maximum. This helps create a striking visual symbol.
Exceptions to Color Limits
As with any tradition, there can be exceptions and variations. Some coats of arms may incorporate up to six tinctures and colors. Here are some examples where more than two or three colors have been used:
– National coats of arms, such as those of Spain, Slovakia, Romania, and South Africa use up to six colors. As symbols of the nation, they may require more complex designs.
– To denote a connection, some coats of arms may marshall two family coats of arms together, temporarily breaking the color rules.
– In Eastern European heraldry, different traditions may allow more flexibility with tinctures. Ukrainian and Serbian coats of arms will sometimes feature four or more colors.
– Augmentations granted to coats of arms, such as chivalric insignia, may introduce additional colors. British knights may receive red augmentation marks on top of their original coat of arms.
– In ecclesiastical heraldry, the arms of bishops may show their personal arms impaled with those of their diocese, increasing the number of colors.
So while there are guidelines limiting coats of arms to two or three colors, there are certainly exceptions where complex designs demand more.
Typical Number of Colors
Looking at traditional coats of arms designs, the majority will incorporate only one or two main colors. Here are some examples:
|Spanish coat of arms||4 colors (Gules, Or, Argent, Azure)|
|French coat of arms||3 colors (Azure, Gules, Or)|
|German coat of arms||2 colors (Or, Gules)|
|Italian coat of arms||2 colors (Gules, Argent)|
|British royal coat of arms||2 colors (Gules, Azure)|
While national coats of arms may use more complex designs, family and institutional arms tend to follow the limitations of heraldic tradition more closely. Two or three colors are most common.
Use of Multiple Colors in Sections
Another way multiple colors may be integrated into a coat of arms is through dividing it into specific sections featuring different colors:
– Quartering: Dividing the shield into quadrants of alternating colors, such as the British royal arms.
– Tincture pattern: Dividing the shield into halves, thirds or quarters using lines, chevrons or other patterns.
– Charges: Incorporating symbolic figures and designs into specific sections that use different colors.
By separating the shield into multiple sections, more colors can be included while retaining contrast and clear symbolic designs. However, the majority of the coat of arms will still typically display one or two dominant colors.
Meaning and Symbolism of Colors
In heraldry, the colors chosen for a coat of arms carry meaning and symbolism. The most common tinctures represent:
|Gules (Red)||Warrior’s courage and valor|
|Azure (Blue)||Loyalty, truth and nobility|
|Sable (Black)||Constancy and grief|
|Vert (Green)||Hope, joy and loyalty in love|
|Purpure (Purple)||Royal majesty, sovereignty and justice|
This symbolism guides the choice of colors in a coat of arms. The colors represent the virtues and attributes an individual or institution wish to embody. Restricting the coat of arms to two or three main colors helps reinforce this symbolic meaning.
Complex Coats of Arms
We’ve looked at traditional examples of coats of arms featuring one or two colors. However, more complex coats of arms have been designed over the centuries as well:
– The Holy See’s coat of arms features a red and gold shield, topped by a silver/gold tiara and gold/silver keys. The red galero and tassels add another color.
– The coat of arms of the King of Spain includes a quartered shield with a purple lion and yellow castle towers, surrounded by four pendants incorporating red, blue, purple, white and green.
– Pope Benedict XVI’s personal coat of arms as Pope was highly elaborate, featuring a moor’s head, a brown bear, a red-white-gold shield, bees and a seashell.
– The greater coat of arms of Switzerland incorporates red, blue, silver and gold elements across the central shield, wings, halo, lions and tower.
– Some corporate coats of arms like those of BMW and Audi use multiple colors across quarters, crests, rings and other sections.
So while complexity is limited for most coats of arms, unique or prestigious arms can deviate from the norm and incorporate four or more colors in their composition.
While heraldic tradition limits coats of arms to around two or three colors, there are always exceptions based on the status and symbolism of the arms in question. National coats of arms require colors representing the state while personal arms of leaders and organizations may require more complexity. Unique designs and quartering the shield can allow more colors while retaining contrast.
In summary, while two or three colors are the accepted norm, coats of arms can sometimes incorporate four, five or even six colors in specific situations where the design calls for complexity. Regardless of the number, the choice of each color carries symbolism and meaning for the bearer. Their distinctive combination creates a bold visual emblem representing attributes, history and ambition.