Although beer has always been a part of Catholic life in Europe since the Middle Ages, it is not associated directly with Jesus in nearly the same way as wine. This is because (1) Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana involved wine; (2) Jesus changed wine into his Most Precious Blood at the Last Supper; and as a result (3) only bread and wine are the necessary types of matter used at mass.
Because of this, ecclesiastical heraldry occasionally contains symbols relating to wine or grapes, most commonly with reference to a chalice or the Eucharist.
As noted above, while the Gospels clearly show that Jesus and his disciples consumed wine, there are no explicit references to beer anywhere in the New Testament. Beer is mentioned in various translations of the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 28:7, 56:12), but in our New American Bible, it appears as “strong drink”. Since beer was commonly consumed during biblical times, it is not unlikely that the disciples, or even Jesus Himself, quaffed the beverage on occasion.
With this in mind, consider the following somewhat unusual coat of arms belonging to John Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1420-1500):
In 1486, Morton was made Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VII. The King appointed Morton the Lord Chancellor of England in 1487. In 1493, he was named Cardinal-priest of the Church of St. Anastasia by Pope Alexander VI (one of the “Borgia popes”, Alexander was reputed as one of the very worst popes in the history of Catholicism).
Morton was also a mentor to the young Sir Thomas More, who worked for Morton as a page and mentioned him in his later work, Utopia. Morton may have had a hand in the authorship of More’s history on Richard III, but that remains a subject of some debate.
A German rebus, c. 1620
The barrel/cask of beer at the bottom of Morton’s arms is referred to as a rebus (i.e., “an allusional device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames.”). While we in the modern age associate heraldry with a more serious form of expression, in fact the rebus illustrates the sense of humor and play on words present in family crests and other heraldic imagery.
In the case of Morton’s own coat of arms, another word for “cask” or “barrel” is “tun“, which is a term still recognized by brewers today. A “tun” emblazoned with an “M – o – r” comes out as sort of a pun on the Cardinal’s surname.
The rebus for Morton is repeated at Canterbury Cathedral, where he was buried before the altar of the Our Lady Undercroft. The tomb was badly damaged in the 17th Century, and Morton’s remains were removed and transferred to a more safe location, but there is still an eagle atop a barrel with “M – o – r” in the chapel.
It would be great if we could prove that Morton used the beer barrel reference to signify his own fondness for beer, but alas, while he may have been inspired to employ such a rebus in his heraldic arms upon drawing drafts of ale one evening, he may have simply liked the pun enough to use it.
While the “Mor-tun” pun is the most likely explanation, there is another possibility (or at least, an added meaning behind the rebus): according to The British Gazetteer, Political, Commercial, Ecclesiastical, and Historical, 142 miles from London, in Dorset, was a town called Beer-Heath, the “most distinguished” native of which was Archbishop John Morton. It could be that the Archbishop saw in the rebus a further reference to the place he was born.
In any case, if you know of more heraldic “beer references”, let me know and I will share them here.