With spear, shield, robe, and wreath

… Helvetia stands guard over the Matterhorn, and by extension, all of her Swiss domain, in this excellent poster (source still untraced):

(#1) Not only the Matterhorn in the background, but also the shields of the 22 cantons of the time when the poster was published (I point to the Zwicky-Canton, Glarus, with its figure of Fridolin, the patron saint of the canton)

From Wikipedia:

Helvetia is the female national personification of Switzerland, officially Confoederatio Helvetica, the Swiss Confederation.

The allegory is typically pictured in a flowing gown, with a spear and a shield emblazoned with the Swiss flag, and commonly with braided hair, commonly with a wreath as a symbol of confederation. The name is a derivation of the ethnonym Helvetii, the name of the Gaulish tribe inhabiting the Swiss Plateau prior to the Roman conquest.

… Helvetia appears in patriotic and political artwork in the context of the construction of a national history and identity in the early 19th century, after the disintegration of the Napoleonic Helvetic Republic, and she appears on official federal coins and stamps from the foundation of Switzerland as a federal state in 1848.

… The Swiss Confederation continues to use the name in its Latin form [Confœderatio Helvetica] when it is inappropriate or inconvenient to use any or all of its four official languages. Thus, the name appears on postage stamps, coins and other uses

As here:

(#2) Helvetia on a 25 centime Swiss postage stamp, 1881 (Wikipedia image)

National history. A national history is a complex story woven from snippets of historical fact and origin myths, turned into a gripping and memorable yarn. (And bear in mind that most nation-states were not consolidated into anything like their modern form until the 19th century, a fair number in the 20th, and many are still in spasms.)

The briefest notes on the Swiss case, from Wikipedia:

[Switzerland] is a federal republic composed of 26 cantons, with federal authorities seated in Bern.

… The Federal Charter of 1291 agreed between the rural communes of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden is considered the confederacy’s founding document, even though similar alliances are likely to have existed decades earlier. [AZ: This is the origin myth, complete with specific dates. But there clearly are historical events here.]

By 1353, the three original cantons had joined with the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the Lucerne, Zürich and Bern city states to form the “Old Confederacy” of eight states that existed until the end of the 15th century.

And then the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic times, and more. And Switzerland’s pugnacious defense of its independence and neutrality, embodied in the figure of Helvetia, whose sword and shield are not merely decorative elements, but are powerfully symbolic.

A note on the poster. It’s unusually vibrant and detailed, but I haven’t found its source. A small clue: there are 22 cantons on the poster, which puts it between 1815 and 1979 (when Jura seceded from Bern), and then 1999 (when three cantons — Unterwalden, Appenzell, and Basel — were divided in two, giving the current total of 26). But that’s a big space. Hard to tell from the artistic style, since posters often echo earlier styistic forms. But I’d guess late 19th/early 20th century. Certainly not Deco / Moderne, styles you see in later advertising posters in Switzerland, which became a kind of cradle for such artists.

Personal note. I realized I hadn’t posted about Helvetia until I was tracking down some stuff on the Big Three cheeses of Switzerland (Gruyere, Emmental, Appenzeller) and Pinterest supplied me with (many) images of Helvetia. Admittedly käsefrei. But deeply, significantly Swiss.

Still working on the cheese stuff. Life us hard these days.




2 Responses to “With spear, shield, robe, and wreath”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    With regard to the number of cantons, not that many people (outside Switzerland) realize that the secession of the Jura from Canton Berne was quite violent event. There were some actual bombs etc. associated with the “Jura libre!” movement, and a sense that that part of the country was not really quite safe in the late 70s.
    But the idea that OW and NW, AI and AR, BS and BL, were only separated in 1999 is weird: these divisions go back to the 13th (OW vs. NW) and 16th (AI vs. AR, BS vs. BL) centuries. What do you have in mind here?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    SRA: “these divisions go back to the 13th (OW vs. NW) and 16th (AI vs. AR, BS vs. BL) centuries. What do you have in mind here?”

    As I understand it, these divisions weren’t made official until 1999. But maybe I’m looking at the wrong sources.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: