By now so many people have seen the redesign of the archdiocesan coat of arms undertaken by the Archdiocese of Detroit and unveiled last Saturday (below, right).
Where does one even begin? Perhaps a good place to start is by saying that this was done in conjunction with the release of Archbishop Vigneron’s post-synodal pastoral letter entitled, “Unleash the Gospel”. This letter addresses issues that arose during the archdiocesan synod and outlines the pastoral approaches to be implemented by the archdiocese as it faces the future. As a part of this entire effort someone had the idea that redesigning the coat of arms to reflect the current “realities” of the archdiocese and certain aspects of the archdiocese’s identity would be a good idea. I suppose the thinking was that with a new approach should come a new symbol. The archdiocese’s Moderator of the Curia, Msgr. Robert McClory, who was in charge of the redesign, said, “Initially, we thought about, ‘What is the identity of the archdiocese?’ When people think of the Archdiocese of Detroit, what do they think of, and what visuals are connected to that?”
So, it seems clear that this jettisoning of the former coat of arms and redesigning an entirely new one was done with all the very best of intentions. That seems abundantly clear and, I think, it’s worth pointing out and keeping in mind. There was no malicious iconoclasm motivating a desire to discard outmoded symbolism. Rather, there seems to have been a sincere effort to look to the future in a positive manner with a symbol for the local church that would be more evocative to both members of that local community and those outside of it as well. They were trying to do something good, and new, and fresh.
More is the pity. It is precisely all these good intentions that underscores the appalling ignorance with which this process, in the works for more than a year, proceeded. An article in the archdiocese’s publication, “The Michigan Catholic” indicates the following:
“Archbishop Vigneron consulted with a wide range of people, including laity and the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council, before deciding to go ahead with the changes, Msgr. McClory said. While the archdiocese enlisted the help of a Cleveland-based design firm for the project, the process also benefited from Archbishop Vigneron’s experience redesigning the coat of arms of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., where he served as bishop from 2003-09.”
Apparently, the Archbishop’s previous experience left him feeling confident in doing a wide and varied consultation with just about everyone, except someone well versed in the customs, rules and traditions of good heraldic design. That really baffles me. In these days even a simple Google search will easily yield at least some possibilities of contacting a group or individual who has some knowledge or expertise in designing a coat of arms. Consulting such a person or group really wouldn’t be so difficult. I have to ask why it was deemed important to solicit the opinions of laity and the Presbyteral Council? What experience or learning do they possess that would enable them to determine a good heraldic design? I can appreciate the Archbishop’s desire to avoid making such a change by episcopal fiat and to seek the input of various people in his archdiocese. Nevertheless, the way to design or redesign a coat of arms is not by committee. I think the end result is clear evidence of that.
What they have come up with is, simply put, bad. The artwork is cartoonish and dated. The overall composition bears little to no resemblance to anything remotely like a coat of arms. The mitre on top has the appearance more of a royal crown than an episcopal mitre. The confusing miss-mash of charges float all over the place on the field. You cannot simply take a bunch of logo-like symbols, slap them onto a shield and call it “heraldry”!
Most of all, however, I think the epic fail has its origins in a basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of a coat of arms in the first place. Monsignor McClory goes on to say:
“A major difference between the old coat of arms and the new, Msgr. McClory said, is one’s ability to tell the story of faith using its symbols: Starting with the Old Testament in St. Anne and continuing through the revelation of the New Testament through her daughter, Mary, one comes to Christ through the waters of baptism and is invited through the open doors of the Church to bring others with them to their ultimate fulfillment with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in heaven. I think you can really tell a story with this. You can’t do it with the old coat of arms.”
And there you have it. Once again, because something is connected to the Church it becomes about “telling a story”, or “tracing a history”. Not everything connected to the Church has to be a catechetical tool; not everything is a means of evangelization. Just as a personal coat of arms is not supposed to be one’s pictorial C.V. so, too, a corporate coat of arms is not supposed to be a visual mission statement or pictorial history.
Heraldry was developed as a means of creating a unique identifying mark. Full stop.
In addition, because even modern heraldry still hearkens back to the medieval period in which heraldry has its origins there is supposed to be both a timelessness and a sense of permanence to heraldry. It’s quite wrong to change a coat of arms simply because it was designed and adopted in a different time and because the thinking has changed about what should be on it. A coat of arms doesn’t have to “tell a story”; it doesn’t have to “reflect present realities”; it is supposed to be immutable. Since it becomes the identifying mark of the individual or corporate body that uses it the permanent character of it must be respected.
That is not to say that there are no instances of changes being made to a coat of arms. Even within the science of heraldry itself techniques such as marshaling (combining two or more coats of arms on the same shield), augmentation (adding a new element to an existing coat of arms to reflect an honor, event or accomplishment) and differencing (slightly changing an initial design to indicate its use by a relative, descendant, or protégé) exist to make changes within the accepted framework of heraldic custom and practice. But, simply throwing out the former coat of arms and redesigning the thing from scratch is foreign to the nature of heraldry. Let me be clear: it is sometimes done and whenever it is, it is always wrong.
Rather, the archdiocese has fallen victim to a not uncommon phenomenon present today. That is, equating heraldry with a logo. Corporate logos frequently change. Whether it’s to mark the takeover of the corporate body by another, or simply to refresh and renew the artwork, or to indicate the corporate body embarking on a new phase or vision the transitory nature of corporate logos almost necessitates their periodic updating or full-scale redesign. I note that the archdiocese consulted with a Cleveland based design firm. But, what does this firm know of heraldry? How much experience do they have designing a heraldic achievement? I would hazard a guess that its very little compared with their experience of coming up with a first time logo or doing a redesign for a group interested in “re-branding”. But, a coat of arms is neither a logo nor a brand.
The simplest solution to their present situation would have been to leave their diocesan coat of arms alone and design a logo which would be used not only for the roll out of this most recent pastoral letter and the ensuing archdiocesan efforts at implementing it but could have also become the favored symbol used by the archdiocese in place of the coat of arms. Things like letterhead, signage, etc. could easily have borne this newer logo and simply ignored the coat of arms. Its not the solution that those of us who prefer heraldry might like but it certainly is far from unprecedented. Numerous ecclesiastical institutions have desired a symbol that was considered more in keeping with the times. They have chosen to respect the existence of a previously adopted coat of arms and merely make minimal use of it in favor of the newer logo they have adopted as more fitting to their situation.
The Archdiocese of Detroit could have done the same. They could have tried, with the help of a competent heraldic designer, to truly re-design the present coat of arms. They could have, for example retained the gold field, the black cross and three gold stars on the cross and removed the antlers and martlets. Then in those now empty quadrants they could have placed charges symbolic of what they desired. They could have augmented the current coat of arms by means of placing a smaller shield at the center of the design bearing whatever symbols they wanted. They could have adopted a kind of heraldic badge (a symbol composed of heraldic charges but separate from a shield) and used that in conjunction with the archdiocesan coat of arms as well as had new artwork prepared for both. They could have decided to adopt an archdiocesan logo to be used instead of the coat of arms while leaving the former alone.
Instead, they chose the ill-advised path of completely throwing out the coat of arms first adopted 80 years ago and used regularly throughout the archdiocese in many ways and in many places, and coming up with an entirely new design, poorly executed, which bears little to no resemblance to the original and destroys any visual continuity with what had been used.
It has been announced that over time the former coat of arms will slowly but systematically be expunged and the Archbishop plans to have a new rendering of his own coat of arms impaled with this mess. I think that’s a very bad idea. Rather, if he wishes no longer to use the older archdiocesan arms the Archbishop should simply use his personal arms on the shield alone. That way, if his successor wishes to correct this error and revert to the former coat of arms he can do so easily.
I suppose that it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that this kind of thing happened considering what the archdiocese did to redesign what had been its beautiful cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Much of that renovation is quite nice (I’m thinking in particular of the floor of the sanctuary) but most of it doesn’t fit at all with the style of a neo-gothic structure. Once again in the interest of “updating” the archdiocese has an epic fail on its hands. What I find particularly sad is the failure isn’t because of a difference of opinion regarding taste. Rather, the fail occurred because of inexcusable ignorance of the subject at hand. They simply don’t get what a coat of arms is supposed to be. What they’ve ended up with is unheraldic and ugly.