The use of the form of a man on an armorial bearing was met with skepticism and maybe even disagreement, because how could a man or part of such man serve as a symbol of the bearer’s personal worth or accomplishments. Notwithstanding, the imperfect form of this charge, the human form has found its rightful place in the study of heraldry, which has offered us the opportunity to observe its use as a memorial of achievements, but also as a reference to the family name. Although mostly used as supporters to the shield, full-body human figures as well was parts of the human body are used as charges on numerous coats of arms of particular Maltese families.
The Human Hand and Arm
It is the human arm, in whole and in part, that largely appears in many Maltese coats of arms. The arms may appear unclothed and bare as may be seen in the Adami family shield. However, they are mostly vested as they appear to be clothed in the majority of shields. This may be observed in the family coats of arms of Baldacchino, Bartoli,Bellia, Benaglia, Bonaci, Brincat, Calamatta, Cascun, Ciancio, Curmi, Cuschieri, D’Amico, De petri, Ferro, Fsadni, Giordimaina, Grima, Lia, Pisani, Podesta’, Romato, Saetta, Salvaloco, Spadaro, Suban, Tabone, Tagliaferro, They, Triganza and Zammit.
In the majority of family shields mentioned above, the hands are clasping an object, most commonly a sword. The D’amico coat of arms shows two hands holding each other in a handshake, which serves as a pun on the family name. Canting arms, as they’re called, with reference to the human arm, may also be observed in the Quattromani (in Italian literally meaning ‘four hands’) and Manche’ (in French literally meaning ‘sleeve’) family shields. The display of hands on a shield carries its own significance as the English lawyer Gerar Legh states that the hand “is given for surety of peace, and as an heraldic insignia is the witness of faith and trust.”
The Human Head
A common heraldic charge worldwide in both civic and personal heraldry, the human head appears in a number of Maltese family shields. It is interesting to note that there are a variety of human heads displayed in heraldry in Malta. As displayed in the Abdilla and Saraceno coat of arms, a Moor’s head is used as a charge on the shield, while in the Viani and Trionfi shields a Turk’s head is being held by the hair. The Testa family bear a blind folded man’s head while the Papagiorcupolo family bear two heads with headgear. Often displayed as couped (cut off in a straight line), the use of the human head as a charge in Maltese heraldry carries its own significance. A branch of the La Corte family for example, display a man’s head wearing a judge’s wig in chief of their shield as a reference to the family name (Corte being the Italian word for a Court of Law).
The Full Human Body
Heraldry in Malta is not lacking in the use of full human bodies as charges. Such a charge may observed in the Cauchi, Debono, Dimech, Griscti, Milanese, Scarpello and Treciant family shield. The human body employed by several Maltese families can be either male or female, or maybe even take the form of the religious and mythical angel. It could be used to make reference to family name as is done by a branch of the Nani family, whose shield displays two dwarfs holding spikes (Nani being the Italian word for Dwarfs), or a branch of the Albanese family who bear a man clad in typical Albanian clothing on their armorial bearing.
The human body or parts of it are a welcome element on any shield, drawing the viewer closer to reveal the message behind its use. Maltese heraldry has not shied away from using these devices on its shields, providing the world with a pool of history, stories, riddles and study for generations to come.