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Vatican - Historical Flags

Last modified: 2017-09-09 by rob raeside
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Historical Overview

The first attested Papal flag was red with white cross, dated probably from c. 1195. In 1204 for sure (and perhaps before) it's attested the red flag with white cross containing white keys. The first available image is from 1316. The flag is rectangular with the fly rounded in the corners and swallow tailed in center and has four white keys, one in each quarter. The four keys were the keys called of St Peter. About 100 years later, a similar flag is attested on red cloth without white cross. In next centuries a red flag with keys or religious motives seems to be in use.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

Since the creation of Vatican City in 1929, I am not aware of any full-size "personal" flags for the popes being used at the Vatican. There were, however, flags for three different papal corps which bore each successive pope's personal arms. These corps were all disbanded in 1970 by Paul VI. The Palatine Honor Guard was an honorary body which served at papal ceremonies, and carried a yellow-white vertical bicolor charged with the pope's personal arms in the center, and ornamentations around the corners. I have a personal photo of the Palatine color from the pontificate of Pius IX, from the Vatican Historical Museum at the Lateran Palace in Rome. Its pattern was repeated for each pope until 1970, but with the new pope's arms. The Noble Guard also attended the pope in an honorary capacity. Their color was white, with the pope's personal arms in the center, the name of the corps, and golden brocade along the edges. The color of the Pontifical Gendarme Corps was blue with the pope's arms in the center, and the name of the corps. It has since been replaced by the "Vigilanza Vaticana," the Vatican City police force (which does not have its own color).
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

From <>:
""Flag of the Papacy by 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. "Sources: "Donald L. Galbreath: Papal Heraldry. Cambridge, 1930; Heffer and Sons. "Bruno Heim: Heraldry in the Catholic Church: Its Origins, Customs and Laws. Gerrards Cross: Van Duren, 1978. "Baron du Roure de Paulin: L'Héraldique Ecclésiastique. Paris, 1911; H. Daragon."
Santiago Dotor, 18 February 2005

1669 Flag

image by Jaume Ollé, 7 July 2001

This flag with Christ in the cross, St Peter and St Paul was dated 1669, reflected accurately a pattern of flag used by the Papal States ships.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

1771 (?) Flag

Dated in 1771, the British Enciclopeadya reported a red flag bearing a cross over a stone (near the hoist) and a bear (looking to hoist) at fly. I believe that this is a wrong reconstructed flag. According to this report, the red background was used in the XVIII century, but the change to red and yellow flag seems to be attested already in the previous century. The flag in the Navy and Holy See from XVII century seems to be red and yellow vertical (or horizontal?) bearing sometimes the tiara and the keys. This flag (described as bicolor without ornaments) was in use in1798 when french took Rome. .Becker, in Flag Bulletin 119, states that in reality there was not a flag (like the modern concept), but mainly cockardes of red and yellow, and he doesn't mention the keys. Becker says that was in use until 1808 when Napoleon took Rome.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

The colours of Rome seems to be red and yellow in vertical arrangement to this day. Don't know if these Papal flags are their origin or if it is the other way around (or even if it could be differentiated at the time). While Vatican changed its colours, the Rome sticks to them to this day, indeed maybe in somewhat unusual shaes, but yet.
Željko Heimer, 5 May 2003

1808 Flags

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
Pre 1808

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
From 1808

On 16 March 1808, Pope Pius VII ordered the new cockade: yellow and white, probably derived from the colors of the keys of St. Peter, but is not established that the change is related with any imposition from Napoleon. A good source for the period before 1808 seems to be: Luigi Zara, La bandiera Pontificia, Rivista Araldica (Roma 1929) Vol. 27, pag. 134 & 135.
In fact the use of the colors in flags is not attested. Officially, there were only cockades in use. The last colors were used in flags only after the Vienna Congress of 1815 bearing the tiara and keys (in the center?). The flag is pictured in "Les Pavillons des Potences Maritimes" (Paris, 1819), however, not in the original edition, but in a correction issued in a unknown date later than 1819. This flag was for merchant ships and for fisherman boats. Simultaneously were used other flags (is not clear what others, but seems to be clear that the pattern dated 1669 was in use, surely now - after 1808 - with white background). Cardinal Chamberlain established the yellow and white flag with keys and tiara as the single merchant flag in 17 September 1825. The use was moved to land when, in 1831, the colors were adopted by a army body. The book "Insigne militaire preunitaria italiana" show several examples of flags. The crossed keys and tiara patterns were similar but different from the current ones.
Frequently used between 1808/15 and 1825/31 at least, was a plain white flag bearing the keys and tiara. This seems to be used by the military navy and army on land as alternative design or as old design moved to white.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

Historical Naval Flag

image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 19 June 2005

The tiny papal navy flew a white ensign with a small tiara-keys emblem between the figures of Ss. Peter and Paul.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

This may be the same as the illustrated in Steenbergen [Steenbergen (1862)] as 523.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 19 June 2005

The Vatican Historical Naval flag is described at as the "Papal States war ensign for the “Immacolata Concezione” (1870), Flags of the World website". This website is maintained by William Becker.
Esteban Rivera, 14 June 2011

Flags According to Norie and Hobbs (1848)

At J.W. Norie / J.S. Hobbs: Flaggen aller seefahrenden Nationen, 1971 [Norie/Hobbs (1971)] (original print 1848):
160 Papal Standard:
White, charged with arms which are to elaborate to derive from a flag image. Let me just say golden keys and tiara feature in them, as well as the colour blue and the word "PAX". (The Vatican State?).
161 Roman Merchant:
As current flag in a different style. Both keys appear to be yellow, though.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

Flags According to Steenbergen Book (1862)

image by Jaume Ollé, 27 January 2003

No. 126 - Papal States, flag of destress, also related to require a pilot.
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
Jaume Ollé, 27 January 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 520

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 521

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 521 (corrected - 1815-1823)

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 521 (corrected - 1823-1829)

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 521 (corrected - 1831-1846)

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 521 (corrected - 1846-1870)

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 522

The Papal fortress and military navy belonging to Pope or with the Pope abroad, must use the flag bearing the Papal arms, keys and tiara. The example is illustrated in Steenbergen (1862) under number 521. This flag is slightly wrong because some details of the Pope arms are bad represented. Therefore I add reconstructed images of the same flag from the respective dates (1815-23, 1823-29, 1831-1846, and 1846-70). Steenbergen mentioned it as "State and Navy" (standard). The ships from the Papal states that wasn't belonging to the Pope, and merchant ships, used a white flag with St Peter and St. Paul pictured by Steenbergen as 522. I believe that this flag was suppressed in 1825 but was used for some years more. Periodically the Popes changed, always by death of the previous one. Until a new Pope was designated, there was a period (between some weeks and some months) of "vacation". The flag attached as must be the State flag and Navy ensign during the vacation period. Steenbergen captioned it as "Rome, vacation of the Holy see". This flag was in use in 1823, 1829-1831 and 1846 at least.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 523 - Papal Navy ensign

image by Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003
No. 524 - Holy Church

Both flag are supposed to be in use until 1870. Probably already in use before 1800. Steenbergen stated that there are many variations of them, in drawing and colours.
In 1870, the Papal states were annexed to the Italian Kingdom.
Jaume Ollé, 30 April 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 21 September 2003

No. 997 - Papal States, port captain.
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
Jaume Ollé, 21 September 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 13 October 2003

No. 1063:
a) Papal States fishermen
b) Papal States Merchantmen at festival days only
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
Jaume Ollé, 13 October 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 13 October 2003

No. 1064 - Papal states. Duties of impost and export and treasury (The inscription means: "Reverende Camera Apostolica").
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
Jaume Ollé, 13 October 2003

by Jaume Ollé, 14 November 2003

Addition No. 125 - Papal states flag of honor 2nd class, Captains that have made a determined number of voyages in the great course.
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
image Jaume Ollé, 14 November 2003

image by Jaume Ollé, 16 November 2003

Addition No. 525a - Papal States, Pope flag; Papal states on all fortress; Papal states, at the foremast on the festival days
Source: Steenbergen (1862).
Jaume Ollé, 16 November 2003

1920s Flag

image by Ivan Sache, 11 February 2002

Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg wrote: "At "Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustre" (1924), the Holy See flag appears to be with equal lengthwise stripes, white over yellow".
The very same Vatican flag is shown in "Grand Larousse Illustré du XXe siècle" (1929). Since all flags are shown there with 3:4 proportion, I have used a more standard 2:3 proportion for my image.
Ivan Sache, 11 February 2002

The Car Pennant of Pope Paul VI

image by Željko Heimer, 30 June 2004

The car pennant of Pope Paul VI, as used in 1970.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

A yellow-white vertically divided pennant with the papal personal coat of arms in the middle: Gules three fleurs-de-lis argent one and two and coupeaux of six in base. Crowned with a tiara and supported by two keys in saltire, wafts to top and outwards, the one with the waft to dexter or and the one to sinister argent, tied together with a cord with tassels gules.
Paul VI name before he became pope was Jean-Baptiste Montini (1897-1978), and the coupeaux may be referring to his family name (are these based on the family coat of arms ?)
Željko Heimer, 30 June 2004

According to Galbreath's book "Papal heraldry" [Galbreath (1972)], Montini assumed the canting arms when appointed archbishop of Milan in 1954. Blazoning of the arms in Galbreath (1972): "Gules, issuant from the base a mount of six coupeaux and in chief three fleurs-de-lis, one and two argent."
M. Schmöger, 30 June 2004

The Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard

Paul VI abolished two bodies, the Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard, leaving only the Swiss Guard. These two groups must have had flags, too. One example, not very clear though, at <>.
Jan Mertens, 21 June 2005

Flag at eBay

image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 4 October 2007

image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 4 October 2007

From eBay: An Antique Flag of the Vatican City with the Papal Coat of Arms embroidered with real silver and gold threads. This Flag has the Coat of Arms of the Holy See bisecting the yellow and white. Antique market near Bassano Italy, It seems that a family he knew in Rome was moving and needed to divest themselves of their Grand Uncles’ vestments. The uncle had been a Cardinal."
Bill Garrison, 30 June 2007

The emblem takes only ~1/4th of the flag's height.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 4 October 2007