While most of the Umbrella Academy fandom reacted to the release of the Sparrow Academy’s actors by simping wildly over Christopher the cube (I definitely saw some sexy cube fan art within 24 hours), I found myself studying the coat of arms, something I didn’t get a good look at when Season 2 ended. Featured on the jackets of the Sparrow Academy and in the background of a few scenes, its symbology had eluded me, and I was eager to dissect it.
Now is a good time to explain that I was deeply into medieval heraldry when I was in high school. (Needless to say I was immensely popular.) My own family has a coat of arms, and these armorial bearings are laden with meaning, not just in the symbols and colors but even the design.
The coat of arms of the Umbrella Academy was designed by Gerard Way, who likely doesn’t know a thing about heraldry, but it’s still fun to pick apart all of the unintentional meanings behind the symbols that the Umbrella Academy kids wear on their breast pockets.
Let’s dive in!
When considering a coat of arms, the first thing one looks at is the blazon of the escutcheon. The escutcheon is the “shield” part of the coat of arms, and the blazon is what’s on it. The blazon would then be a description of the design, color(s), and symbol(s). In heraldry language, colors and symbols all have specific words, and “blazoning” is the act of formally describing a design so that it can be reproduced. The ordinary refers to the design of the shield; for example, a design may be halved, squared, or split by stripes (all of which have their own names; e.g., a “chief” is a horizontal stripe at the top, and a “fess” is a horizontal stripe across the middle).
So, for example, the blazon of my own family coat of arms would be: “sable, two pales argent, or chief.” This is the fancy way (blazoning) of saying it’s black with a horizontal yellow stripe on top and two vertical white stripes. The stripes are the ordinary (design) and the colors, along with the ordinary, constitute the blazon.
A quick note: a lot of people use the words “crest” and “coat of arms” interchangeably. However, on a coat of arms, the “crest” refers to the uppermost symbol, which usually sits above and outside of the shield, or escutcheon. A coat-of-arms includes a shield surrounded by other symbols, such as two supporting animals on either side (supporters sinister and supporter dexter), a helmet on top, a mantle and/or wreath, and the crest at the very apex. Crests, wreaths, and mantles sitting atop the shield usually denote personal achievement and/or pedigree. (For example, a wreath of roses at the top might denote the seventh son, while a wreath of lilies might denote the sixth son.) (Symbols of lineage could be added to coats of arms either atop the escutcheon or along the chief horizontal; these pedigree symbols are called labels. A coat of arms without the label is called the “plain coat,” and when the patriarch of a family died, the first son would inherit it, stripping the mantle of the first son from his own personal armory. Most people just use the plain coat for their family coat of arms!)
Back to the Umbrella Academy.
The Umbrella Academy and Sparrow Academy shields both feature a “quartered” ordinary. Quartering is a way for families to show more than one heraldry on a single shield, as would be the case if two families joined or a person can claim multiple honorable lineages. Funnily enough, there are some who believe that “quartered” shields are less noble than “plain” shields. Single, “plain” shields indicate a single, unbroken paternal line, whereas more complicated shields might mean mixed pedigree. (It’s also worth noting that, since each family name gets only one blazon, more complex blazons are usually assumed to have been designed or granted at a later date; simpler designs indicate older and more well-established families.)
So right off of the bat, we have a complicated (with multiple symbols) and quartered blazon that indicates a recently established or mixed lineage. This makes sense, of course, since Reginald only established the Academy in 1989, and they are very mixed, having been adopted from entirely different families. But it also signals a newer and less “noble” family, something Reginald probably wouldn’t have done intentionally.
The outline of the shield of the arms is yellow, as well as the background of the motto below it. Yellow or gold (called “or” in heraldry terms; remember, all colors and designs have special names for the blazon) is usually meant to signify generosity. The yellow is most prominent on the motto below the escutcheon, and it makes sense, because the motto, “When It Rains,” along with the color, indicates that this superhero team will be present when threats emerge. They are giving their powers to the protection of the public.
A few words about the Umbrella Academy’s logo. “Ut Malum Pluvia” is meant to be read as “When Evil Rains,” but it is painfully grammatically incorrect. I suspect Gerard Way doesn’t speak Latin at all, because “pluvia” is a noun (“the rain”), not a verb, and he didn’t conjugate the sentence correctly. The “correct” Latin would be something like “quando pluviis mala” or “cum malum pluit.” But we can forgive Gerard for looking up the three Latin words independently and getting them wrong; the meaning is clear enough.
The quarters on the escutcheon are white and red, or in heraldry terms, “argent and gules.” These colors are pretty easy to decode: white indicates peace, sincerity, or purity, while red indicates military prowess and strength. (It can also indicate martyrdom… sorry, Ben!) The red makes sense since this superhero team jumps into battle all the time, but the white is a little less clear. It’s probable that Reginald would have gone with the “purity” meaning instead of the “peace” meaning, and in the context of keeping the kids rigidly trained and painfully sheltered, it maybe makes sense.
Sitting atop the Umbrella Academy coat of arms is a mantle with five crosses, and the mantle is in dark blue. (The “mantling” of a coat of arms is the part that goes above and around the shield; more on this in a second!)
Blue (“azure”) stands for loyalty, and we love the idea that loyalty to the Academy (and to Reginald) is built into the design of the heraldry. Crosses on a coat of arms usually indicate either dedication to the Christian faith or having partaken in the Crusades. (We know Reginald is old, but perhaps not THAT old!) What’s more, this little stripe at the top of the escutcheon may sometimes indicate cadency, which is how multiple sons in a lineage would indicate their place in line. Reginald probably didn’t realize that crosses are the symbol of the eighth son. (Specifically, a “flared” cross, called a cross moline.) Even funnier, the five crosses take on a special meaning in heraldry, which is that a five-cross cluster is usually understood to represent the Passion of the Christ. Thus, we conclude that this line has nothing that would actually relate to the Academy, and was presumably just a bit of fancy flair not meant to be taken at face value.
You might be wondering why I’m so sure that the blue line at the top is a mantle (which is outside of the ordinary) and not a chief (which is part of the ordinary), which you might recall as being a stripe at the top of an escutcheon. The reason for this is that it’s simply too small. Chiefs carry a lot of weight; they are a symbol of authority and leadership, and often indicate successful command over a military victory. This would totally fit Reginald Hargreeves’s whole aesthetic, but the thin line at the top of his shield is far too small to be considered a proper chief; it looks, for all intents and purposes, like a decorative mantle. (Note that it “bends” to fit the shield’s shape; a typical chief is a straight line.) The “mantle” of a coat of arms refers to the fabric used to display the shield but can refer, colloquially, to any flair-y bits outside of the shield part. Most typically, you see fabric-like or branch-like designs.
Above is one of the black-and-white coats of arms you see, with the “mantle” being those leaves on the side. Here, the stripe at the top can be interpreted either as a chief or as a decorative addition to a quartered shield. If it’s a chief then it really looks like Reginald is either bragging about being the eighth son (unlikely) or about being in the Crusades (also unlikely, unless he got his hands on of one of the Commission’s briefcases). So, for the purposes of this article, we’re going with the “it’s part of the mantle” interpretation and leaving it at that.
On the main part of the shield, the symbols in the quarters are an umbrella (white square), lightning bolt (red square), skull (red square), and domino mask (white square). In the context of the show, of course, the meaning of these symbols is self-evident. With regards to heraldry, the skull and lightning bolt do have meanings, though. The lightning bolt means strength, swiftness, and decisive action; it’s a symbol of military power, so it makes perfect sense for it to be in a red square. The skull symbolizes mortality. This memento mori being in a red square takes on a more ominous meaning when you recall that red can also stand for martyrdom.
The remaining two symbols, the umbrella and domino mask, occupy white squares. These two symbols stand exclusively for the Academy itself and so their position in “purity” colors is interesting. The domino mask, in some renderings, has touches of red and blue in it (remember, military strength and loyalty!) and of course, in addition to being part of the Academy uniform, could be easily interpreted as standing for anonymity. With the white background, one begins to wonder if this quarter of the shield might represent the isolation of the Academy; it is “pure” and “unsullied” by the outside world.
The Sparrow Academy also has a quartered shield with even more baffling images. The motto, at least, is correct this time: “Canticum in Tenebris” means “Song in the dark,” which is more or less the same sentiment as the Umbrella Academy logo: when evil emerges, the Academy will be there.
The Sparrow Academy’s four quarters feature a sparrow (naturally) (occupying a blue square), a pair of crossed, downward-facing swords (yellow square), a red eye with a teardrop (yellow square), and a keyhole (blue square). Note that the mantle above the shield is now black (sable), which stands for mourning, loss, death, and/or constancy. Very ominous, indeed!
Speaking of ominous, sparrows have a VERY long history of superstition attached to them, probably simply because they are so common. In Celtic lore, sparrows carry secret or ancestral knowledge. In medieval Europe, they represented the lower class when used as a metaphor (for they are a “common” bird), but were also often mythologized as carriers of dead souls. This harkens back to ancient Egypt. In the Middle Ages of England, when heraldry was all the rage, sparrows were thought to be an omen of death, and having one fly into your house meant someone would die. In this sense, then, the sparrow is a very portentous symbol, akin to the skull on the Umbrella Academy shield, and represents far more than just the Academy itself.
A sword, naturally, demonstrates military prowess, but crossed swords specifically would indicate defensiveness. In the yellow square, the downward-facing crossed swords could be interpreted to mean that the Sparrow Academy stands ready to donate their defense to those under attack… which makes plenty of sense considering that that’s exactly what Reginald has trained them to do!
The eye is probably the most complex symbol on the shield. It’s a red eye with a cross in the pupil, and any medieval heraldry expert would immediately assume that the cross and the red together indicate that someone was “martyred” during the Crusades. The crying eye underscores this; there’s a single teardrop with a single red dot in it, perhaps indicating only one death. But to our knowledge, no one in the Sparrow Academy has died (yet!), so instead, we’re forced to conclude that the eye stands for knowledge and insight (being red, it would be “military insight”) and the teardrop (blue teardrop patterns on blazons are known as “gutté de larmes”) would indicate steadfastness and loyalty in the face of adversity.
Finally, we have the keyhole on a blue background. In heraldry, keys are indications of knowledge, in particular with regards to the church. (In fact, the Pope’s insignia includes a pair of crossed keys, referring to St. Peter’s guardianship over heaven.) The keyhole or lock would then be understood to be guardianship of knowledge or protection of knowledge. This keyhole occupies the same square as the domino mask and we can’t help but feel these two symbols are one and the same; a tip of the hat to the terrible isolation of the Academy and the price that its members pay by remaining a part of it.
A final note on the Sparrow Academy coat-of-arms; each square features two tiny diamond shapes (“lozenges”). As these seem a little stretched out, they would more properly be called “fusils.” The fusil is usually not more than a decorative shape, and considering the little crosses at the top of the shield design, we think these diamonds bear no particular meaning other than to jazz up the design a little. In heraldry, fusil-shaped shields often denote femininity, but our suspicion is that Reginald was going with a more literal interpretation of the “diamond” shape and was trying to indicate that his new team shines brightly.
In a show full of symbols, it’s exciting to search for clues, especially since Season 3 doesn’t start filming until next month. But we don’t think heraldry actually means much in the context of this show; Reginald is, after all, not a proper English gentleman but an alien, so he probably chose the design and colors of his coats-of-arms randomly. Still, it’s fun to think about.
If you want to research heraldry and are just beginning I highly recommend these pages:
If you’re a heraldry buff who sees an error in this article, or another interpretation of the meanings of the blazons, feel free to leave us a comment! The author is only an armchair enthusiast of heraldry and, as such, any mistakes are his own; he welcomes correction or expansion on the subject.