The Ratio Between the Lion Gules and the Lion Or in the Work ‘The Arms of Macedonia’ by Academician Aleksandar Matkovski

This article was published in ‘Macedonian Herald’ No 9
Author: Ivan Nacevski

Human nature is conducted and expressed through symbols. From the simplest and intimate expression of love to the identification of groups and individuals, the whole human community is flooded by symbols and meanings. Given this, it is not surprising that heraldry, from its occurrence to this day causes a particular curiosity in people. That curiosity is directed towards such insignia as the Arms of certain historical figures and Arms of whole empires, countries, territories and others.

Here in Macedonia, heraldry, although interesting, is still insufficiently known and widespread in our everyday lives. The main merit of the beginnings of the Macedonian heraldry belongs to Academician Aleksandar Matkovski1 and his work ‘Arms of Macedonia’2. In this work Matkovski catalogs reviews of those sources that were available to him at the time of creation of the work. Collected sources can be divided into several groups: the Illyrian Rolls of Arms, Stemmatographies and other sources. The total number is dominated by the Illyrian Rolls of Arms. Of course, no research is never complete. Thus, we now know of at least one Illyrian Roll of Arms which was not available to Matkovski. It is the London Roll of Arms3. His book did not pay serious attention to the heraldry as a separate science4 with specific strict rules and regulations but rather resorted to gathering basic information about the Macedonian Arms without detailed analysis. On the other hand, despite the fact that Matkovski states several European Rolls of Arms which provided Arms of other Balkan countries, and because of the absence of any Macedonian Arms in them, he hastily concluded that our Arms have first appeared in the Illyrian Rolls of Arms, and only after in the European ones5. Today we know that this is not true.

At the beginning it should be stressed that the Illyrian Rolls of Arms are handwritten works in which personal/family Coats of Arms dominate, and the Arms of the territories are given as an appendix. The Stemmatographies of Vitezovic and Zhefarovic, on the other hand, should not be included in the Illyrian Rolls of Arms because they include only the Arms of territories6 i.e. without family Coats of Arms. What stands out for both groups is that there are no other representation of Macedonian Arms except the ones containing a lion. Why the lion had become the most common symbol of Macedonia we can’t say with an arithmetic precision, but clearly it can be concluded that it is not a random choice but a result of the diffusion of the myth and history of ancient Macedonia7 in early European renaissance.

In order to be defined precisely, the heraldic lion should be described in terms of some basic features. It is primarily the color, posture, the direction of the head and additional attributes like a crown, any armament, the number and type of the tail(s), and others. In terms of colors used, the lion in the Macedonian Arms covered in ‘Arms of Macedonia’ is found Or lion Gules or Gules lion Or.

Academician Matkovski chronologically processes thirty-one (31) source. The last refers to the Arms of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia and as such does not fit in heraldic norms. In the chapter which deals with the Arms and seals of the Karlovac Bishopric, Matkovski incorrectly identifies the Arms of Dardania as Macedonian. In addition, three chapters talk about the lion as a Macedonian symbol, but lack specific heraldic examples8. This reduces the total number of Coats of Arms of Macedonia processed by academician Matkovski to twenty-six (26). In eighteen9 (18) sources the Macedonian Arms is presented separately, and in eight10 (8) it is part of a Greater Arms or in series with other Arms. Common to all these Arms is that the lion in them is always rampant. Of the attributes that the lion may have, in ten11 (10) we encounter a crown. In five (5) of them the lion is crowned12, and in the other five (5) the crown is a separate element in the chief13. The double tail as an attribute of the lion is found only in four (4) Arms14. According to Matkovski, the double tail is a Hungarian influence in the representation of the lion as a heraldic beast15. In terms of colors used, only for one (1) Arms we have no information. It is the Bosnian Roll of Arms of Palinić. For twenty-five (25) Arms we have knowledge of the colors. It should immediately be said that twenty-four (24) Arms are divided into two groups, one group of Arms containing a Gules lion Or, and Or lion Gules. Only one (1) Arms deviate from these combinations, having Gules lion Argent. It is the Belgrade Roll of Arms of 1640.

The group of Arms with Gules lion Or have as its earliest representative the one found in the Korenich – Neorich Roll of Arms. The group of Arms with Or lion Gules have their earliest representative among the earliest Illyrian Roll of Arms,the work ‘The Kingdom of the Slavs’ by Mauro Orbini16. This book is in black and white, i.e. the Arms have got no tags for colors. In Orbini’s book, the Macedonian Arms are located on the Greater Arms of the Nemanjić dynasty on the fourth heraldic field. Matkovski accepts the dating of Korenich – Neorich Rolls to 1595, and believes that Orbini used it, but did an omission while numbering the Macedonian and Bulgarian Arms i.e. he changed their places17. Since all known colored versions of the Greater Arms of the Nemanjić family, the fourth heraldic field is represented by a Or lion Gules, Matkovski was trying to prove that it is a false position, and thus this was an accidental or sudden inversion of the colors of the two Arms. This same attitude he has for the colors of the Macedonian Arms and Stemmatographies of Vitezović and Zhefarović. Here, he goes even one step further to say that Vitezović allegedly swapped by mistake the images of the two Arms. This interpretation of the data can not be considered totally objective. Namely, both Vitezović and Orbini were very knowledgeable about the issues that they dealt with. Vitezović’s description of the Arms of Macedonia not only states his confidence in this position, but also provides descriptions of two more Arms that allegedly Macedonia had before and after Alexander the Great. With the same decision Vitezović describes the Bulgarian Arms indicating that somewhere you can encounter it as a Or a lion Gules, but that is actually the Arms of Macedonia18. The same text is also found in Žefarović’s work.

If you make a cross-section19 of all these Arms, you will see that thirteen (13) Arms have a Or lion Gules, eleven (11) have a Gules lion Or, and as already mentioned, one (1) Gules a lion Argent. One should note that the Arms of Macedonia found in the Olovo Roll of Arms are not in color, but black and white, with no hatching, and is numbered in the arms with golden lions because of Matkovski’s point of view that in the larger Arms it is presented in the first field. Since we are unable to confirm or deny this statement, we are guided by Matkovski’s position. In any case, even if to these figures we add and the Arms found in the London Roll of Arms, which is absent in Matkovski’s work, the ratio between the red and golden lion would be 13:12 in favor of the red.

What is clear from these figures is that the Arms with red or golden lions attributed to Macedonia are almost identically found across sources. But, one can also note that starting from the second half of the XVIII century, and until the early twentieth century, eight (8) to of the ten (10) sources which are mentioned by Matkovski are represended with a red lion on a golden field. This development is probably due to the enormous influence of the printed Stemmatographies, which were much more accessible.

If we know that the impact of the Stemmatographies is not strong and meaningful only for the shaping of the idea of Macedonian Arms, but also for the Arms of other Balkan countries, then it is unavoidable to conclude that the claim that the Or a lion Gules is alien to the Macedonian heraldic tradition and awareness is historically and factually incorrect. It seems, the time when we should responsibly and consciously accept that there is no clear winner between the two main versions of the Macedonian Arms with a lion. The proclamation of one as more Macedonian than the other is, from a scientific point of view, impossible. As for the choice of the Coat of Arms of either variant, we should be aware that such a step requires pragmatism and compliance not only with the basic rules but also the heraldic rules of cadency, the relationship of our potential Arms with other state Arms. Heraldry as a universal system dictates this, whether we like it or not.


1. Aleksandar Matkovski (1922 – 1992), Macedonian Historian and member of the Macedonian Science and Art Academy.

2. The first edition of this book is from 1970. Particularly important and influential is its reprint of 1990. This book practically models the Macedonian understanding what a Coat of Arms is, and what the Coat of Arms should be for Macedonia. This article will try to give numerical data of the sources used in it.

3. The London Armorial is a handwritten collection of Coats of Arms of which is thought that was created in the period from 1595 to 1637, and was discovered in London.

4. The first chapter of Matkovski’s book provides a brief introduction to heraldic science while providing deep knowledge.

5. Aleksandar Matkovski, The Arms of Macedonia – addition to the Macedonian heraldry, Misla, Skopje, 1990, 43.

6. It should be noted that in these stemetographies are displayed the Arms of much of the Central and East European countries and the Balkan countries.

7. The reason for the use of the lion should be sought after for in the ancient Macedonian customs, legends and customs. Probably the propaganda of Alexander I Philhellene’s idea of Heracles as a mythical ancestor of the Macedonians, the myth of Heracles’ victory over Nemean lion played a role. The preserved sources show that lion hunting was a favorite sport of the Macedonian nobility.

8. These are the chapters on the Arms of the Macedonian stamps of military personnel in Vojvodina, for the Macedonian arms on charter of the monastery Gornjak Mlava, and the lion and the Ilinden uprising flags.

9. See table.

10. See table.

11. See table.

12. It is crowned in: Palinic, Althan, Belgrade 1620, Skorojevic and Olovo.

13. It is a separate element in: Korenic – Neoric, Fojnica, Berlin, Festetic and Gaj.

14. See table.

15. Matkovski, 169.

16. Mauro Orbini (mid XVI century – 1614) was a medieval historian from Dubrovnik. In 1601 Orbini with ‘Il Regno de gli Slavi’ practically lays foundations of panslavism and panilyrism.

17. Matkovski, 112.

18. BULGARIA, sulvo coronatoque Leone in campo rubeo armatur. In quodam manufcripto reperi, Leonem rubrum fuper aureo campo : qui Macedoniaе cenfetur…. (Paulo Ritter Vitezovic, Stemmatographia sive armorum Illyricum, 1701, 63.).

19. See table.