John Adams, 41, sits at a workbench inside his studio in Arnold, Md. (pop. 23,422), bent over a 34-inch-by-45-inch medieval-style shield. Paintbrush in hand, he carefully adds detail to a white lion set on a red background, surrounded by a double row of blue and white rectangles that form the shield’s border.
Adams is immersed in an art that dates back to the 12th century. As a full-time herald, possibly the only one in the nation, Adams creates works of art on shields and framed displays for Americans who want a visual connection to their family’s heritage.
“Heraldry is where art and history meet,” Adams says. “I’m painting a coat of arms that was carried by a knight 900 years ago for a 21st-century descendant of that family line. I find something very comforting in that.”
It was in the 12th century, the age of chivalry, that formalized coats of arms came into widespread usage, beginning in France and quickly spreading to all European monarchies. A coat of arms was patriarchic personal property, handed down from generation to generation within a family. Heralds were the creators and keepers of those designs. They kept the records of lineage and created coding and a lexicon to describe their art, which continued throughout the Middle Ages.
In the heraldic profession, each image—known as a charge—has meaning: A heart symbolizes good-heartedness, a castle represents strength and a lion signifies ferocity. The name of Adams’ company, Rampant Lions Designs, is taken from a lion rampant—a lion standing on its hind legs with its tail elevated—and is the most common symbol in heraldry.
Adams, a longtime medieval history buff, became acquainted with heraldry in 1995. While working as a freelance graphic artist, he met an armorer at the Maryland Renaissance Faire who asked him to paint a coat of arms on a shield. He agreed and acquired a book that contained black-and-white coded designs created by heralds centuries earlier. Interpreting the code, he created his first shield and his new career began. “It was something that no one else in this country was doing,” he says of his vocation.
Today, Adams has collected dozens of volumes listing family names and their coats of arms—many from countries and principalities that no longer exist. “I have a half-million names from more than 50 countries,” he says.
Tom Mac Intyre, 54, of Arlington, Va., has been researching his Scottish lineage for the last 25 years. He met Adams at a Celtic festival and commissioned him to paint his Clan Mac Intyre badge, or insignia, on a 15-inch shield, which is proudly displayed in his home and at clan gatherings. “His artistry is better than some I’ve seen done by the British professionals,” Mac Intyre says. “He is one of the few people who has studied the field and makes a serious effort to make sure what he is doing is correct.”
Depending on the intricacies of the design, a painted shield can take weeks or even months to complete. At any given time, Adams has 20 to 30 shields in various stages of completion. The metal shields come in three sizes—measuring from 18-by-22-inches to 34-by-44 inches—and range in price from $250 to more than $1,500, depending on an insignia’s complexity.
Adams’ wife, Karen, is the other half of Rampant Lions Designs. Using a computer, she scans in her husband’s hand-drawn graphics and creates a digital print of each customer’s coat of arms. Printed on parchment stock, the prints are framed and, depending on size, sell for $44 to $189.
For Adams, heraldry is more than just a job, it’s a way to bring customers closer to their heritage.
“Most Americans whose family line dates back to Europe would like to dream that their ancestors were something other than horse thieves,” Adams says, laughing. “We try as hard as we can to make those dreams real.” Warren D. Jorgensen is a writer in Tarrytown, N.Y. Visit www.rampantliondesigns.com to learn more.