Papal Heraldry

Arms of the Papacy

A number of distinctions need to be made:

  • the Pope, as an individual invested with a certain function.
  • The Papacy, or the Holy See, that is, the institution which stands at the head of the Catholic Church.
  • The Church, as a body.
  • The Papal States, as a political entity, now consisting of the City State of the Vatican.

As an individual, the Pope usually has his own arms, either family arms or arms assumed at some point in his career. Since the Church uses heraldry abundantly, it is certain that anyone reaching the rank of bishop has arms already. Popes have had arms since the 14th c. at least. Boniface VIII (1294-1303) is the first pope for which we have contemporary evidence of his bearing arms; most 13th century popes had arms, but as they did not use tiaras or keys, it is difficult to attribute shields to them. Until 2005, a pope's arms were surmounted by the keys of St. Peter in saltire and above them a tiara with three crowns. This form dates back the the mid-14th century. See for example Benedetto Buglioni (1461-1521) : Wreath, with coat of arms of Pope Innocent VIII (1484-92) (48K) from the Musei Vaticani exhibit of the Christus Rex et Redemptor Mundi site. Notice the conical shape of the tiara, which is typical of medieval papal arms.

Elected in 2005, Benedict XVI has made important changes to the external ornaments of the pope's arms.  The tiara has been replaced with a mitre decorated with three horizontal stripes and one vertical stripe.  Moreover, the arms are now surrounded by the pallium, a white band of woollen cloth decorated with crosses patty gules, which is the distinguishing marks of archbishops.

Arms of Benedict XVI

arms of Benedict XVI

The arms  are a little awkward to blazon in English.  In French, I would say "de gueules à la coquille d'or, chapé ployé d'or, chargé à dextre d'une tête de Maure au naturel couronnée et colletée de gueules, et à senestre d'un ours au naturel lampassé de gueules et portant un fardeau de gueules lié de sable".

Here is a picture of the arms seen from space (in the Vatican gardens).

The elements already appeared in his arms as archbishop of that see (1977-82) and then as cardinal in Rome (except the escallop was counterchanged on a field per fess wavy).  The crowned Moor's head is known in the arms of the bishops of Freising since 1316, and was used after the secularization of Freising in 1803 by the archbishops of Munich.

The backpacking bear, the so-called bear of Corbinian, recalls a legend associated with this bishop who preached in Bavaria in the 8th c.  On a trip to Rome, the saint stopped somewhere in Tirol, and while no one was guarding the animals a bear killed his mule; so the bishop told one of his servants to take a whip, scold the bear and put the mule's burden on the bear's back, which he did.  Once arrived in Rome, the bishop let the bear go free.  In the legend, the bear symbolizes the domestication of the heathens by Christianity.

The escallop is associated with the medieval pilgrims who walked to the tomb of the Apostle James in Spain, and also appears in the arms of the Schottenkloster (convent of the Scots) in Regensburg which is now the diocesan seminary; Joseph Ratzinger taught in Regensburg from 1969 to 1977. 

In an autobiographical work published in 1977, the present pope explained the meaning of these charges for him.  The Moor's head represents the universality of the Church, accepting all without distinction of race or class.  The escallop denotes the pilgrim, but also recalls a story about St. Augustine pondering the mystery of the Trinity as he walked along a beach, and coming upon a child who was playing with a shell and trying to fill a hole with the ocean's water.   And when he told the child that what he was doing was pointless, the child told him: no more than you trying to understand the Trinity.  The pope has a particular attachment to St. Augustine, on whom he wrote his dissertation in 1953.  The earlier version of the arms appealed more explicitly to the Augustinian seaside encounter.  As for the bear, the pope identifies with the Bavarian animal who became a beast of burden against himself, and still labors in Rome under the burden, not knowing when he will be free to go home.

Here is the story of the bear, from the Acta Sanctorum (s.v. 8 Sep, Corbinianus):

 In ipso autem itinere Romano pergendo, cum in Breones pervenit, juxta silvam quandam in castris manebat. Sed dum custodes equorum incaute obdormierunt, ita ut nullus vigilaret, ursus e silva egrediens sagmarium m Viri Dei excerpens comedit. Mane autem facto, dum expergiscebant custodes, invenerunt eundem ursum super ipsum sagmarium jacentem, & comedentem illum. Quod dum Ansericus prædictus Viri Dei minister agnovit, beato Corbiniano dixit. Hoc autem Vir Dei patienter serens, dixit eidem Anserico: Tolle flagellum istum, & vade ad eum, & viriliter illum verbera, & castiga pro delicto suo, quo nobis nocuit. Quod dum ille agere formidavit, dixit ei Vir Dei: Vade & noli timere, sed ut dixi tibi fac, ac postea mitte super eum sellam sagmarionam, & sterne illum, & illam sagmam super illum impone, & mina cum aliis cavallis in viam nostram. Ipse vero Ansericus fecit, sicut præceperat ei Vir Dei, & appositam super se sagmam ipse ursus quasi domesticus equus eandem sagmam usque ad Romam perduxit, ibique a Viro Dei dimissus abiit viam suam.

Arms of previous popes

Here are some coats of arms of popes from contemporary monuments:

  • Arms of Paul II (1464-71), Viterbo.

  • Arms of Gregory XIII (1572-85), he of the calendar: pavement of St. Peter.

  • Arms of Urban VIII (1623-44), S. Peter.

  • Arms of Innocent X (1644-55) on the Porta Portese.

  • Arms of Alexander VII (1655-67) on the Colonnade of Bernini, Saint Peter.

  • Arms of Clement XII (1722-40), palazzo della Consulta, Rome.

  • Arms of Pius VI (1775-99), reverse of a 1780 silver scudo. Courtesy Compagnie Générale de Bourse.

John Paul II, elected in 1978, bore the following arms.

The arms of the Church have been unvarying since the 16th century. They are: Gules, two keys in saltire or and argent, interlaced in the rings or. They are surmounted by a tiara. From those arms were derived the colors of the Papal troops, red and yellow, and their traditional cockade.

The Holy See, as governing body of the Church, has the following arms, since the 16th century: Gules, two keys in saltire or and argent, interlaced in the rings or, beneath a tiara argent, crowned or. The difference is here that the tiara is a charge, not a timbre.

The arms of the Papal States are: Gules, on an ombrellino gules and or, two keys in saltire or and argent. (Galbreath gives a simpler blazon, Gules a pavilion or charged in the staff with a pair of tied keys in saltire or). These arms appeared as one quarter of the short-lived Kingdom of Italy (1805-15). They do not appear to have been adopted by the Citta del Vaticano after the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

The ombrellino was the emblem of the Pope's temporal powers. This can be seen from the fact that it is shown behind the arms of the camerlengo (the cardinal who heads the Apostolic Camera), who automatically becomes responsible for the Pope's temporal powers when the Pope dies. Coins issued in the Papal states during interregna invariably show the arms of the camerlengo, with the cardinal's hat and the ombrellino. The ombrellino was used by the popes in processions as early as the 12th c. Its shape varied over time, and is now that of a conical sunshade, with vertical stripes of gules and or, and an edge where the tinctures are counterchanged. It is carried by a man standing behind the Pope. Its use as a badge indicating temporal powers dates to Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503). It is also used as the mark of a basilica (major or minor), and is usually displayed to the right of the altar. The rank of basilica is an honor bestowed by the Pope on any church he pleases. A few German abbeys (Reichenau on the lake of Constance, Maria Laach near Koblenz) use it to emphasize their immediate subjection to the Holy See nullo mediante.

Finally, some families who have given Popes place the ombrellino in their arms (with the keys on a chief gules, for example) or more usually as a timbre: Galbreath gives a number of examples, including the Boncompagni arms with the Basilica on a chief, Barberini, Pamphili, Chigi, Orsini, or outside the shield: Medici-Ottaiano, Aldobrandini.  In 1854 the Congregazione Araldica Capitolina, pursuant to a decision by the Pope in 1853, decided on a list of families of
princely and ducal Roman rank.  In that list, the following:   Aldobrandini, Borghese, Altieri, Barberini, Boncompagni Ludovisi,  Caetani, Chigi, Colonna di Paliano, Colonna di Sciarra, Corsini, Doria Pamphili, Ludovisi Boncompagni, Odescalchi, Orsini, Ottoboni, Rospigliosi
were distinguished as having given one or more popes, and to those granted the augmentation of the Basilica (the two keys and ombrellino) outside the shield.

I do not know for sure what arms were chosen for the Citta del Vaticano in 1929, after the Lateran treaty.

Flag of the Papacy

From: esn4616@ACFcluster.NYU.EDU (Elliot Nesterman)

The flag of the Vatican is yellow and white. However it has been so only since 1808, at which date, Napoleon amalgamated the pontiff's army into his own and so the Pope, Pius VII, thought that new colors were necessary. He chose yellow and white. These colors were used for various flags of the Pontifical State from their approval in 1825 until the State was incorporated into Italy in 1870. When the state was revived as Vatican City in 1929 the yellow and white flag was reborn. The modern flag was first officially hoisted on June 8, 1929. (Keep in mind that the conventions of flag use differ significantly from armorial conventions regarding the shield proper.)

It is true that the flag is now often shown with the keys and tiara over the division between yellow and gold. As a result, they are hard to distinguish, and have been rightly criticized by Bruno Heim. This flag does not, per se, constitute a violation of the "tincture rule" in heraldry. Flags are not subject to the same rules, and even Old Regime France used a semis of fleur-de-lys gold on a field of argent as the flag for its Navy.

Prior to the modern 19th century flag, there existed something called the papal banner, which has a very long and confused history. According to Galbreath, Leo III (pope from 795 to 816) gave Charlemagne a banner which is represented in a contemporary mosaic of the Lateran triclinium: "it is a green flag of the gonfalon type with three tails, with numerous gold dots and with 6 disks coloured red, black and gold, which doubtless are meant to represent embroidery." This banner was the vexillum of the Roman militia, not really the papal banner, and in any event disappears from history until the mid-11th c., when popes take the habit of giving specially blessed flags for specific military campaigns; one of which was that of William the conqueror. Parallel with this flag of the gonfalon type we find the persistence of the classical signum, a staff tipped by a cross with a short oblong of red cloth fastened to a transverse bar below. Of the various banners given out in that period (1044, 1059, three around 1065, 1087, 1098, 1106, 1114) nothing is known except from the tapestry of Bayeux. In the tapestry, William the Conqueror (to whom we know from elsewhere that a papal banner was given) is shown with a banner of Argent, a cross or between four objects (cots? crosslets?) sable.

The cross is mentioned on flags with the second crusade only (1147-49). A contemporary depiction of the emperor Frederic I as crusader (1190) shows him with a white shiled bearing a gold cross. In 1203 Innocent III sends a flag to the tsar of the Bulgars with a cover-letter; the flag bore a cross and the keys of St. Peter. This flag reappears in 1316 when the town of Viterbo was allowed to add the vexillum of the Church to its arms: it is depicted as a red oblong flag with two tails, with a white cross cantonned by four upright white keys. By the 16th c., the simpler and more familiar version of the arms of the Church (keys gold and argent on a field gules) had won out.


The "Roman" Nobility

From the late Middle Ages onward, popes have granted titles of nobility. The titles, which became especially common at the end of the 16th c., became known in the early 19th c. as Roman nobility although they have less to do with Rome than with the Pope.

The titles included prince, duke, count, among others. One particular title was that of count palatine. It apparently emerged during the Avignon period, and was defined by the Trento Council as "knight of the Sacred Palace and of the Court of Laterano and palatine count". The title was associated with the Order of the Golden Spur.

During the French occupation in the Napoleonic period, Roman titles were abolished, and they were re-established on July 6, 1816. The Order of the Golden Spur, which had lost a good deal of its value by being awarded too easily, was abolished on Oct. 31, 1841 (replace with the Order of Saint-Sylvester). The title that used to accompany it was shortened to "Roman count palatine", and further simplified to "count" in 1847. The pope continued to grant titles even after 1870 and the loss of the Papal States. By the Lateran Accord of 1929, the Italian government recognized and confirmed the pope's power to grant titles, and the titles were considered equivalent to Italian titles. With the abolition of nobility in the Italian Republic in 1948, the Roman nobility was once again considered as foreign. Pius XII granted a few more titles, John XXIII confirmed some but none have been granted under Paul VI and John-Paul I.

The titles could be for life or hereditary. Typically, it was fairly easy for the holder of a life title to petition for conversion into a hereditary title. The titles were usually, but not always transmissible by male primogeniture only; there were usually, but not always granted to men.

Are these titles granted by the pope as temporal sovereign or as head of the Church? I personally incline toward the latter. The facts are that the pope granted these titles mainly to foreigners, not to his subjects in the Papal States; moreover, he continued to grant such titles even between 1870 and 1929, when he had no subjects and no sovereignty. The acts by which these titles are created are registered with the Actae Apolosticae Sedis, indicating that they are acts of the Holy See, that is, the governing body of the Catholic Church, not the government of Vatican City. Finally, the text of such acts makes clear that it is the grantor is the pope as spiritual figure; and the conditions imposed for transmission of nobility, in the case of hereditary titles, include a clause that the descendants must be Roman Catholic and must "persevere in their obedience to the apostolic Holy See." Such conditions have nothing to do with the pope's temporal sovereignty, and everything with his position as head of the Church.


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François Velde

Last modified: Nov 18, 2008