Bearded and pompous, but where is he standing?

Did you ever have trouble understanding your great-grandmother (aside from her heavy Austro-Hungarian accent), when she was at it again, explaining your glorious family history?

Yes, I would have thought so. Because, pointing in the direction of a sepia-coloured photograph, she would say something like: "The pompous-looking man with the full beard to the right of Aunt Euphemia’s cousin is Dagobert Shortfellow-Cake, who was later to mortally insult the brother of Uncle Leo’s morganatic wife. He in turn is the third man to the left of General Smithering-Long, or so I think."

Truly telling left from right

The man with the full beard? Who? In an old photograph, where all the men are wearing full beards and looking pompous in various degrees? And what does "to the right of" mean –- is it on the right side of a certain point in this particular framed picture (as we see it), or was it on the right side of some person pictured in the picture (as that person would have understood "to the right" to mean when the photograph was taken)?

Verbally defining chirality (= handedness, i.e. telling left from right) in a picture can hence be quite confusing. Art historians have to grapple with this difficulty all the time ("to the right of Jesus the artist has surprisingly painted … no, no, I don’t mean the goat, I mean the Archangel!"), so some of them have come up with the terms "heraldic right" and "heraldic left" to take care of the problem.

The knight standing behind his shield

Heraldry is the science of coat-of-arms, which were initially symbols for distinguishing medieval noble families. These symbols were derived from the decorated shields that medieval knights carried in battle.

So in heraldry the positions of all items adorning a shield or coat-of-arms are referred to as they are seen from the point of view of the knight who carries the shield in front of him. If in a picture of an escutcheon you can see a lion on the right side and a sword on the left side, then in heraldic parlance the sides are reversed -- the lion is on the "heraldic left" and the sword on the "heraldic right". Certain heraldry specialists reserve the Latin words "dexter" (= right) and "sinister" (= left) to cover chirality as seen from the point of view of the knight, but to ordinary people with some knowledge of Latin, this will hardly solve the problem.

Heraldic right makes right

If you adhere to the heraldic convention, then no stupid mistakes can happen: "The smug individual on Secretary C. Rice’s heraldic right is the person whom the President has appointed to the new post of Torturer General, subject to approval by the Senate. Correct, it’s not the Vice President, standing on the other side." Simple and unequivocal, isn’t it?

Personal communication from art historian A. C. Bonnier, Ph.D., Swedish National Heritage Board

Note: a Node Heaven rescue.

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