The Reversed Image

The Royal Armoury, Sweden

A short story of the imagery of royal seals

Seal imprint, unknown, 17th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
What do you seal?
A seal imprint still gives a letter or a document a certain panache. It used to be a guarantee that the document was authenticated by the seal's owner and/or that the letter was untampered with. The imprint could also be a collector's item. But what do you see in a seal?
King Karl's Seal, unknown, 17th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
First we have to remember that an engraved seal is a reversed image of the image. If not, it is un-usable. Text and symbols must therefore be read as a mirror image, you might think. But there is an additional aspect to the seal.
King Karl's Seal, unknown, 17th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

In heraldry the left side is the right.

King Karl's Seal, unknown, 17th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

And the right side is the left. It is all from the bearer's point of view. Imagine that you are carrying the shield (often called an eschutcheon). It will set things right.

King Karl's Seal, unknown, 17th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

To simplify things left is called "sinister" and right is called "dexter". But, of course, there is yet another thing. As the seal is engraved as a mirror image and the heraldic image is shown from the bearer's point of view it makes left left and right right. Right?

Queen Lovisa's Seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
Taking sides
And, to make it even more interesting, the sinister side is deemed of lesser value than the dexter side. In this seal, belonging to Queen Lovisa, her ancestral escutcheon is on the left side and her new, higher ranking affiliation  to the right.
King Fredrik's Seal, unknown, 18th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
And on top of that
Furthermore, the escutcheons could be on top of each other. Then they could be called inescutcheons or heart shields. Here we have a good example with a base consisting of the major royal escutcheon of Sweden ontop of which the inescutcheon for the House of Hesse-Kassel and the inescutcheon of the Duke of Hesse-Kassel is laid.  
King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

The various symbols surrounding the escutcheon is also enlightening when reading a seal. This is a Swedish royal crown, indicating that the owner is a Queen or a King.

King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

And in this case there are two additional crowns, because the seal belonged to a regent of a dual kingdom, Sweden-Norway.

King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

The Norwegian axe wielding lion on the escutcheon is on the sinister side (and we all know what that means by now). The Swedish three crowns and crowned lion is on the dexter side.

King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

The inescutcheon shows the impaled image of Pontecorvo (sinister) and the House of Vasa (dexter). Bearing in mind that the seals owner, King Oscar I, once was Prince heir of Pontecorvo it is a token of respect and continuity to display the forebearers' shield to the right.

King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

Below the escutcheon we find all five Swedish Royal Orders, displayed by rank with the highest below. From the bottom: The Royal Order of the Seraphim, the Order of the Sword, the Order of the Polar Star, The Order of Vasa and the Order of Charles XIII.

King Oscar's seal, unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden

The creatures holding the escutcheon are called supporters and could be fashioned in many ways. Lions are quite usual.

Princess Sofia Albertina's Seal, unknown, 18th Century, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
All in all
Seals are interesting in many ways. They are personal, yet official. They mark changes in life, yet stresses continuity. They tell a story of the owner's claim to a position in society. They are imprints of important people. They are intaglio cut selfies.
Credits: Story

National Historical Museums
Text: G. Sandell
Photo: H. Bonnevier

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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