Archabbot Martin Bartel, OSB of St. Vincent Archabbey

On June 23 the Rt. Rev. Martin de Porres Bartel, OSB (65) was elected by the monks of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA as their 12th Archabbot. On July 10th at Mass he received the abbatial blessing from the Most Rev. Edward Malesic, the Bishop of Greensburg, PA which is the diocese in which the Archabbey, America’s oldest Benedictine Monastery and currently the largest Benedictine Abbey in the world, is located. I studied for my Master of Divinity at St. Vincent Seminary and I used to be a monk in the Community there.

The new Archabbot has assumed a coat of arms:

I’m a bit conflicted in my assessment of this coat of arms. I know the Archabbot and I also know the monk who designed it and executed the artwork. I have a great deal of respect for Archabbot Martin as a priest and a monk and I don’t wish to be too harsh in my critique. I think the best I can say is that it isn’t “horrible”. Another way to say it would be, “It could have been worse” but that is, admittedly, damning with faint praise.

I will not say a word about the artwork because that is not usually the subject of any of my criticism on this blog. Different artist’s draw differently. The style is strongly reminiscent of that of the late Wilfred Bayne, OSB a monk of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island who was an eminent heraldist in his day.

My first, and principal, criticism is that, as has happened in many instances before, the veiled crozier that is the primary heraldic symbol of the coat of arms belonging to an abbot is missing. When St. Paul VI (pope from 1963-1978) decided to remove both the mitre and crozier from the coats of arms of bishops and leave only the episcopal cross in their heraldic achievements many took this to affect the arms of abbots as well. In former times abbatial achievements contained the mitre and the crozier. However, Paul VI’s directive was truly addressing the arms of bishops and cardinals only. The coat of arms of an abbot is still supposed to have a crozier placed behind the shield with a veil (sudarium) attached. It’s origin comes from a time when abbots made use of the crozier (in fact abbots have used the crozier longer than bishops have done) but did not enjoy the privilege of pontifical gloves. The veil served the function of protecting the crozier from dirt and oil that can be present on the hand. It is not usually used practically anymore but it has remained as a heraldic symbol and – I repeat – the heraldic symbol of the coat of arms of an abbot. Other clergy are entitled to the black galero with twelve tassels. Such a galero may be used in the armorial bearings of Vicars General, Vicars Episcopal, Provosts, Major Religious Superiors and, on occasion, some others holding a particular office. Alone, it does not indicate the coat of arms of an abbot.

The arms adopted by the Archabbey in the early 20th Century are very nicely designed and combine well when impaled with the personal arms of the Archabbot.

As for Archabbot Martin’s personal arms: the cross quartered Sable and Argent is a reference to both the Dominican Sisters who educated him as a boy and the order to which his patron, St. Martin de Porres, belonged. Over these is a basket containing bread and a broom. These are, apparently, symbols associated with St. Martin de Porres and the bread is also an allusion to the Holy Eucharist.

There is no problem with the black in the cross up against the red of the field. The so-called “rule” of tincture (i.e. that a color should not be placed on a color nor a metal on a metal) does not come into play with complex fields or charges. Because the cross is both black (Sable) and white (Argent) it may be placed on a field of a single tincture. (For example: the complex field Azure & Argent of the arms of the Archabbey may have an entirely Sable inverted chevron on it without violating this “rule” because of the complex appearance of the field). However, I think it would have looked better if a lighter shade of red had been used giving the arms a brighter appearance.

I find that the basket of bread is ill-placed as is the broom. In addition, there seems to be no good justification for the basket to be blue. Introducing multiple tinctures into a coat of arms without good reason is unsupportable, heraldically. The broom I suppose to be considered gold (Or). I have not seen an actual blazon of these arms, if one exists. If it is not intended to be gold but brown, of any shade, then it should be noted that brown is not used in heraldry. If it were blazoned as “Proper“, a term which means a particular charge is shown as it appears in nature, I don’t see this as being justifiable either since there is no naturally occurring broom and, therefore, no color which would be considered its “proper” color. Some more attention should have been paid to both the placement and the tinctures of the basket and broom.

So, I return to where I started. This design isn’t “bad” per se. But, having said that, it could have been considerably better. With some further consultation on the design the armiger might have been better served. Of the twelve Archabbots of St. Vincent nine of them have borne unique coats of arms. (The first four used the same coat of arms). Of those nine coats of arms, with 1 being the best and 9 being the worst, I would say that Archabbot Martin’s ranks 8th. The final word I can say is that I have seen abbatial coats of arms that are absolutely horrible and ugly. This is most definitely NOT one of those. But, it is merely…OK.

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