Heraldry, or Saints and Wheels

One of the coolest things about being in a place with so much history is, well, that it has so much history – and that much of that history is still very present, relevant, and alive in local iconography.  These images are everywhere.

The Bingen Arms

The central figure on horseback is St. Martin of Tours.  St. Martin was, for a time, a soldier in the Roman army stationed in Gaul.  This depiction recalls a story in which St. Martin sees a beggar outside a city wall during an intense snowstorm and cuts his cloak in half to share it with him.  St. Martin was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, and his supposed miracles include curing paralysis, raising the dead, casting out various devils, healing with shreds of his garments, and deflecting the path of a felled sacred pine.  His feast day, Martinmas or Martinstag on the 11th of November, continues to be a prominent holiday involving baked goods and children parading around at night with paper lanterns.  Fun fact: his feast day also lines up with Armistice Day, which is particularly noteworthy because St. Martin is the patron saint of soldiers.

In the upper left corner, you’ll see a smaller red shield with a six-spoked white wheel in it.  This is the arms of the former bishopric of Mainz, which Bingen fell under.  There a few stories as to the origins of this wheel:

  • According to the Brothers Grimm, it first belonged to the 10th century Archbishop of Mainz, a fellow named Willigis whose ancestors had been wheelwrights.  Some of his fellow clergymen sneered at these humble origins and took to drawing wheels all over his walls and doors.  Willigis, instead of being disheartened, then took the wheel as his heraldry with the motto “Willigis, remember where you came from”.
  • It could spring from imagery of St. Martin of Tours, who is the patron saint of Mainz and Mainz Cathedral.  Archbishops of Mainz were often referred to as “currum dei aurigantes” – drivers of God’s chariot – or currum ecclesiae Mogutinae aurigantes – “charioteers of the Church of Mainz”.
  • ….. or is it a pagan solar symbol from Roman times?  That would be somewhat ironic given St. Martin’s reputation for fervorously destroying local pagan things, but isn’t entirely out of the question.
I suspect the wheel is really a combination of these bits of lore, a symbol which has been reinterpreted constantly to fit the climate of the time.

St. Martin’s connection to the Rhein region probably comes from his association with wine-making.  He is attributed with spreading grape vines across much of France and his feast day falls conveniently after the end of the harvest and when the first newly-made wine is ready to be drunk.

This is, after all, Germany’s wine capital.

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