Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mermaid

The ancient blazon of the Skeffington family is composed of three bull's heads, displayed here in two quarters of the arms of Clotworthy Skeffington [1743-1805], 2nd Earl of Massereene.


The other quarters are occupied by the Clotworthy blazon. The dull motto Per angusta ad augusta might be translated as "Through hard times to prosperity". The supporter on each side is a Stag rampant. I've always been intrigued by the crest: a mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a hair-comb in the other. This crest has appeared on the arms of Skeffington individuals ever since the Tudor lord Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535]. Here's another example of the Skeffington mermaid, which dates from the 16th century:


This memorial for the linguist Sir John Skeffington [1584-1651] of Fisherwick (Staffordshire) and his wife Ursula [1593-1658] is located on the wall of the ancestral church in Skeffington (Leicestershire).

A few days ago, the Gallica service (attached to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) offered us spontaneously a series of views of a fabulous little treatise on heraldic blazons that dates apparently from the period 1401 to 1450. Click here to see this document.


Inside this French medieval document, I was surprised to find an illustration of the famous mermaid.


I immediately called upon Google and Wikipedia to discover the meaning of the mermaid in a heraldic context. The key concept symbolized by the narcissistic mermaid is vanity, in the sense of the line from Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." I evoked this theme in a blog post on 22 May 2012 entitled Is the Bible good English literature? [display]. If I understand correctly, placing the mermaid at the crest of a coat of arms is a way of stating that the owner of the arms is of a philosophical nature, inclined to look upon the human adventure in an existentialist spirit. Personally, as a descendant of the Skeffingtons, I like this symbol.

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