People have been using shields to defend themselves against their aggressors since the beginning of history.
But from being just a quilted linen or leather, a shield started to be a support for images painted on them, transforming its practical role to include expressions of the one who bears it. Then the shield took the role of acting as a sign when facilitating recognition of friends and enemies. Thus, the images allowed warrior clans to visualize their social and political organization.
The shield, as an object, still can be seen as a defensive personal weapon and as an object that achieves a symbolic communion with those who hold it or take it as their own. As Melanie Klein points out, these kinds of “internalized objects” (Klein,1957: 155) by their bearers, or objects of the self, become indivisible from the ones that possess them. In this way, the social life of the object interacts with the very same identity of those who feel it as their own; not as if by magic, as it may seem, but rather as a consequence of the inaudible dialogue established between all people and communities and the objects and contexts surrounding them. In this sense, and under Levi-Strauss’ logic, the existence and historic continuity of the nature of that dialogue are preserved in part by means of the attributes shown by the shield, but mainly by means of the “remains to be established” or “the rituals established by those communities” (Levi-Strauss, 1964: 167). Accordingly, the role of the shield can be thought of as material support for identity messages that support the discourses that are socially annexed to the shield.
These are discourses that anchor the collective memory of the social group, a group that belongs to and fixes their identity when representing themselves structurally and substituting their individualities. Consequently, that the image of the shield is multiplied in each of its bearers, embodies the discourse of the group, allowing for a connection with past generation and with the meaning of the origin of the group. In this sense, the presence of the shield authorizes certain social classification according to what the state considers pertinent, politically producing exclusion or inclusion inside the boundaries of the nation.
Since the Crusades, heraldry was legitimized as a visual identity language. Through this language of images, the newly born national states found a way to symbolically call and differentiate themselves in the international and local contexts.
Currently, National Shields are present in all kinds of national issues and exercise authority by being the presence of the state and nation in different situations. First, in public spaces, shields offer a public testimony of an active ownership of the state. In that way, the social life of a symbolic object speaks about the life of the society that produced and gave meaning to it. As Susan Pierce points out, objects are “emissary of the culture out of which they comes” (Pierce, 1992: 15) and, such as it happens with all cultural objects, the spectator of the object could imagine the existence of its supposed constructor or owner. In these cases, what the spectator could imagine is the existence of the state and from that standpoint it affects the way the national identity is interpreted by the citizen. Moreover, as Greenberg explained, “in their collective name to a political covenant, individuals must have already had some meaningful corporate identity as a people” (Greenberg, 1993: 9) and the shields become some kind of formal signature and name of the state acting as part of the corporate identity of the state.
Besides, the shield might be acting as a treatise on popular imagination about the nature or form of power exercised by this state. In this way, the national shield, by virtue of its antiquity and custom of use, would be an essential referent in such a process, and whether they are in marble or in bronze, placed at the bottom of monuments or at the entrance of national buildings, shields are making common grounds a memoir to the property of the state. In this sense, shields entitle religious sentiments associated with the nation because it holds the person to the stony materiality of the nation as an eternal place, certifying the link of the person to the place and with his or her descendants and ancestors.
©Sebastian Guerrini, 2009