On my way to grand jury duty, I was approaching Judiciary Square and passed a clump of fallen oak leaves, with an attached acorn. I immediately thought first of my parents’ home, and the huge oak tree in the front yard. But then (being a ginormous nerd) I then thought of the Della Rovere family – as you do.
The Della Roveres were a powerful force in Renaissance Italy, having a substantial influence not only on politics (particularly in Urbino) but also on the very fabric of the Vatican itself. One of the Della Rovere Popes built the Sistine Chapel, and another had Michelangelo decorate its ceiling. Strangely enough, a number of the Della Rovere family were apparently killed in their villa by Mussolini (something to do with the resistance movement, I expect.) Regardless, whenever I see oak leaves and an acorn, I think of the Della Rovere clan, and this cannot help but cause my mind to make the connection between them and the Fouquets.
Nicholas Fouquet, the too-high-climbing finance minister of Louis XIV, built himself a magnificent chateau at Vaux–le–Vicomte, south of Paris. Like Cardinal Woolsey in England more than a century earlier, Fouquet did not get to enjoy his country pile for very long – basically as a result of similar excessive display by a courtier, not to mention the royal jealousy of a despotic monarch. Below is a gorgeous representation of the arms of Madame Fouquet in her rooms at the Chateau Vaux–le–Vicomte, and you will note the squirrel scrambling high up onto the virtual entabulature.
One could go on writing of the different beasties and symbols that represent prominent families in European history – the orbs of the Medici; the bees of the Barberini; the double-headed eagles of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs. Regardless, there is something to be said here for the power of symbol itself. It condenses, clarifies, and can, when well-chosen, represent a legitimate truth.
I was reading today in Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” about the comparative weakness of the circle, as a symbol of eternity for the non-Christian movements of his day, to the far superior symbolic strength of the Christian cross. Chesterton notes that it is only appropriate that a symbol of a snake eating its own tail would be appropriate to a godless society. The cross on the other hand, is infinite in a way the circle is not:
the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox at its center, it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.
Heraldry can certainly create confusion however, if it is not kept relevant and constantly refreshed in the minds of the viewer through regular use. Georgetown University, for example, went through a period when it abandoned its old crest for various modern interpretations of it. The authentic, old crest only returned when Georgetown reached its bicentennial.
Recently our young adults group at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr was meeting in a conference room at the parish center, when someone pointed out the parish coat of arms on the wall. To the untrained eye, there was a combination of a cross, crescent moon, and star of David, making it seem like the symbol of some sort of an interfaith conference. This of course ignores the traditional use of the crescent moon in Catholic heraldry as a reference to the Immaculate Conception.
I have been told through reliable sources that a reworking of the parish crest is in the works, simply because the original meaning of the old crest has been lost or transmuted. Such is the danger when our symbolism – be they heraldic or otherwise – no longer hold any meaning for us. The objects used become mere decoration, to be appropriated or discarded as desired in a sort of consumerist attitude toward the non-representational embodiment of an idea, belief, or other representation.
Fortunately, however, I still know my acorns from my squirrels.