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Vatican City (Holy See) - Part II

Stato della Cittá del Vaticano, State of the City of Vatican, Santa Sede

Last modified: 2017-09-04 by rob raeside
Keywords: vatican | holy see | pope | keys | catholic |
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Part I (precedent page)

Part II (this page):

See also:

Other sites:

  • Flag and Arms (in English)
  • Flag and Arms (in Italian)
  • History of the Flag (in Italian)
    Based on:
    - P. Ludovici, "L'origine e il significato storico del Vessillo di Sacra [Ludovici (1936)]
    - Romana Chiesa", in "L'Illustrazione Vaticana", 7, 1936;
    - M. Belardo, "Le vicende del biancogiallo", in "L'Osservatore Romano", 30 March 1956 [Belardo (1956)].
    The article itself being from: Mondo Vaticano - Passato e Presente a cura di Niccolò Del Re, 1995, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
    Santiago Dotor and M. Schmöger, 25 July 2002
  • Catalog of Papal Coats of Arms, reported by Kristian Söderberg, 26 April 2005
    Note: Trusting their filnames, Sixtus IV shows the arms of Julius II, Clement VI shows the arms of Gregory XI, Innocent XIII shows the arms of Innocent III, Pius II shows the arms of Pius III, and Clement VII, Leo XI and Pius IV all show the arms of Leo X.
    António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 April 2005

Rank Flags (?)

While driving I passed over a car with diplomatic plates which carried an interesting car flag. It was the VA flag but instead the expected keys there was an ornamated red double cross on the center (vertical hand of the cross on the
centerline between two colours).
Eli Gutterman, 15 February 2001

The double cross is symbolic for a bishop, maybe there is some connection. IMHO - the yellow and white flag clearly indicates the Roman Catholic connection - it may be an ususual flag used by Vatican mission, though it is not quite likely, I guess. I suspect that the flag may belong to some of the orders or alike organizations that may possibly have diplomatic status in Israel for some historical reasons (or whatever reason, for that matter), just like the Maltese Order has in many countries.
Željko Heimer, 15 February 2001

Could the Vatican use some sort of "rank" flag ? The VA flag with the key as a car flag might be reserved for the pope.
Marc , 15 February 2001

Here is a brief synopsis of Roman Episcopal Heraldry.  That crest that you mentioned is an Episcopal coat of arms, which means it is the arms of a bishop. Any shield that has a double cross behind it is the crest of an archbishop.  A single cross in the backdrop is the cross of a regular bishop.  On the bishops coat of arms, you also would have seen an elaborate arrangement of tassels on either side, rather then the keys of St. Peter, as in the papal coat of arms.  These tassels come in three different forms.  Twelve green tassels signify the rank of bishop, 20 green tassels signify the rank of archbishop, and 30 red tassels signify the rank of Archbishop/Cardinal Priest. All bishops, other than the archbishop of Rome (pope), have a shield in the center which is split in two halves.  The left half, is the arms of his diocese, and the right is his personal arms.  The scroll below the shield is the bishops personal motto. You may also see plain shields that have no tassels but have a mitre on them.  These shields are the arms of the actual diocese. 
I. Jasionowski, 17 March 2002

Jasionowski's paragraph muddled the terminology of "crest" and "coat of arms" and was also somewhat confusing about other accoutrements.  The following is from Carl Alexander von Volborth's Heraldry:  Customs, Rules, and Styles:
First, nowhere should the term "crest" appear.  Roman Catholic episcopal CoAs don't have crests.
Second, the crosses mentioned are the episcopal crosses carried in procession--a metal cross mounted on a staff.  The staff is behind the shield, the cross appearing above it and below the hat that indicates the prelate's rank.
Pope:  crossed keys behind shield, tiara above.
Cardinal:  red hat above shield with 15 tassels hanging down on either side.  (Note that most cardinals are also patriarchs, archbishops or bishops and if so have the appropriate episcopal cross behind the shield, as listed below.
Patriarch (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 15 tassels on each side; double-barred cross.
Archbishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 10 tassels on each side; double barred cross.
Bishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 6 tassels on each side; single barred cross.
Abbot and provost with mitre and crozier:  black hat with 6 tassels on each side; veiled crozier (pastoral staff) behind shield.
Abbot and prelate nullius:  green hat with six tassels on each side; veiled crozier behind shield.
Prelate di fiocchetto (senior official of curia):  violet hat with red cords with 10 red tassels on each side; nothing behind shield.
Protonotary apostolic:  violet hat with red cords and six red tassels on each side.
Prelate of honor:  violet hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Chaplain to the pope:  black hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Canon:  black hat with three black tassels on each side
Dean and minor superiores:  black hat with two black tassels on each side, one above the other.
Priest:  black hat with one black tassel on each side.
Anglican bishops and other clergy use a different arrangement.
Joe McMillan, 5 May 2002

Flags used by Roman Catholic Dioceses

As for flags used by Roman Catholic dioceses, there are no official guidelines. I suspect that (almost) every diocese has a coat-of-arms, but very few use a distinctive flag. Those that do are at liberty to design them as they please. In my diocese, we fly an "armorial banner" of the diocesan arms at key diocesan sites. It is red, with a white St. George cross, and charged in the middle with a blue lozenge bearing a white mystical rose. Here in the US the Vatican flag is commonly used by Catholic parishes and institutions as a symbol of ecclesial communion with the pope. By the way, a very good resource for ecclesiastical heraldry is Bruno Bernard Heim's book, Heraldry in the Catholic Church.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

Vatican Flag Myths

I have composed articles for the Flag Bulletin on Vatican Flags (no. 119) and 19th-century Papal States Flags (pending), and previously lived in Rome in extraterritorial Vatican zones. Here are some myths about Vatican flags that I have encountered over the years, inviting correction. Illustrations are below.

Myth #1: "The Vatican flag is officially square." - Not exactly.
Its infantry color should be square, but it is not clear that all other flags should be. An illustration in the Vatican constitution shows its "official flag" as a square infantry color, with a special lance, finial, and cravat (Constitution, 2001, annex A). As such it is carried by the Swiss Guard (Color, Swiss Guard Barracks, 1984 and Color, St. Peter’s Square). Square infantry colors were the custom of the Papal States and the Italian peninsula generally, although rectangular flags prevailed for other state purposes. The current Vatican flag served as the Papal States civil ensign from 1825-1870 and was rectangular. Hence it is not clear whether the constitution requires all Vatican flags to be square, and in practice those flown on Vatican buildings are not. Since most are manufactured in Italy, they follow the Italian proportions of 2:3. The size of the tiara-keys emblem depends on the flag's size and/or manufacturer; and the shade of the yellow stripe depends on the flag-maker and/or fabric. Most use golden-yellow, but linen flags use lemon-yellow.

Myth #2: "The Vatican never flies its flag, except overseas for diplomatic purposes." - False.
It only flies from local Vatican buildings, however, on annual holidays specified by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, including Catholic holy days, papal anniversaries, and special state occasions. In fact the Vatican phones its various buildings to remind them to fly the flag, although some are more regular in its display than others. Below are photos of the flag flying at the St. Anne’s Gate (Vatican's public entrance) , St. Damasus Courtyard (diplomatic entrance) , and an extraterritorial children's hospital (Bambino Gesu Hospital, Rome, extraterritorial zone of the Holy See).

Myth #3: "A plain yellow-white flag is proper for extraterritorial properties of the Holy See in Rome." - False.
Such properties should use the regular Vatican flag, as clarified by the governor of Vatican City State (letter to the author, 25 February 1993). These properties enjoy various degrees of extraterritorial privileges according to the 1929 Lateran pacts and successive agreements. They include Catholic shrines, church offices, and other properties. Occasionally, however, a plain bicolor is seen -- probably for reasons of economy.

Myth #4: "There is a special flag to represent the Holy See apart from the Vatican City flag." - False.
Smith's Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (1975) mistakenly showed such a flag (p. 223) which was employed to welcome Paul VI at Amman airport in 1964 (National Geographic, December 1964, p. 825). It bore the tiara-keys emblem in stylized fashion in the center of the flag, and was almost certainly an erroneous model of the Vatican flag. Indeed all other papal journeys have employed the usual Vatican flag, including the pilgrimage of John Paul II to Jordan in 2000. Moreover, papal diplomats, accredited in the name of the Holy See, are expected by the Secretariat of State to fly the regular Vatican City flag despite the technically distinct sovereignties involved (Vatican flag at the Apostolic Nunciature (Embassy) in Bogota, Colombia). Since the tiny Vatican state is viewed by papal officials as the sign and guarantee of the Holy See's independence in international affairs, its state flag logically serves both entities, and is commonly referred to as "the papal flag" ("la bandiera pontificia").

Myth #5: "On the flag, the keys are juxtaposed with the gold key on the dexter when representing the Holy See, and on the sinister when representing Vatican City." - False.
No symbolic difference attaches to the juxtaposition, as can be seen from the Vatican website, which shows the coats-of-arms of both entities with the gold key handle on the dexter. It is true, however, that all papal coats-of-arms since the creation of Vatican City in 1929 have placed the gold key handle on the sinister, while the constitutional illustrations of the flag and arms of Vatican City have always placed it on the dexter. The difference is merely a matter of custom, however, and the flag is not manufactured in "different versions" for the two entities. In actual flags, moreover, liberty prevails in the juxtaposition of the gold and silver keys.

Myth #6: "The current Vatican flag was the flag of the Papal States." - Not exactly.
It was the Papal States civil ensign from 1825-1870, and no doubt gained international familiarity as such, but other flags served other functions in the same era. The customs ensign was a yellow-white vertical bicolor with the cardinal chamberlain's umbrella-and-keys on the white stripe. Plain yellow-white bicolors (horizontal or vertical) served as unofficial civil flags. A white flag charged with the arms of the reigning pope was the war flag for forts and garrisons. The tiny papal navy flew a white ensign with a small tiara-keys emblem between the figures of Ss. Peter and Paul (Papal States War Ensign, Vatican Museums, ca. 1984). The Infantry color changed with successive popes; from 1860 it was a plain, square vertical bicolor of yellow-white. There appears to have been no state flag for unarmed government buildings. In 1929 Vatican City resurrected the pre-1870 civil ensign as its state flag, probably because it contained the official papal colors (yellow-white) and the tiara-keys emblem as an unvarying symbol of the papacy (unlike the personal arms of each pontiff).

Myth #7: "The yellow-white papal colors come from the medieval crusader banners of Godfrey of Bouillin." - False.
The most likely origin of the papal colors are the keys of St. Peter, which in the modern era have usually been rendered in gold and silver - heraldic tinctures which equate with the colors yellow and white. The colors were first adopted for the papal cockade in 1808, when Napoleon's occupying army forcibly incorporated the papal army into his own, and papal loyalists desired a symbol of resistance. The colors next appeared in civil and state ensigns (1825) and in infantry colors (ca. 1835).
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 23 June 2004

Concering Myth #1, I do not have a copy of Annex A to the Constitution of 2001, however, I do have a copy of Annex A to the "Acta Apostolicae...etc" of 7 June 1929 which established the flag of the Vatican City State. This shows a square flag with the finial and fringed cravat as described by Rev. Becker, however, the size of the Apostolic arms is illustrated at exactly one-half the width of the flag as opposed to the one-third on the Construction Sheet.
Interestingly enough, these arms show a height to width ratio of 10:7.
Christopher Southworth, 6 August 2004

Regarding Vatican flag proportions, I would now conclude that the state flag is officially square, despite uncertainty in my 2004 FOTW posting (above). In fact I have discovered several photos of square state flags soon after 1929. A few examples can be found in the links at the bottom of my Vatican flag webpage ( These have convinced me that from the outset, the constitution was interpreted as obliging all Vatican flags to be square – not just the infantry color. However, with the rise of mass production techniques in Italy, oblong Vatican flags became more frequent – probably because Italy’s flag is oblong, and square flags required custom-manufacture and greater expense. I lived in Rome in the 1980s and 1990s. Then as now, state flags were almost always oblong; and so is the current infantry color.  Although the Governor’s office states that all Vatican flags should be square, this is clearly not regulated.

Historically the square proportions happened by accident – not by calculated design. The flag had been oblong when it served as the Papal States civil ensign from 1825 to 1870. However the artist who composed the Vatican flag design draft in 1929, employed as a template an illustration of a square infantry color from a contemporary book on the Papal States military by Attilio Vigevano – a plain bicolor. Vigevano’s illustration appears as Fig. J at my Vatican flag webpage ( A photo of the resulting Vatican flag draft is attached to this email (actually a replica from a recent Vatican exhibit on the Lateran Treaty). That draft in turn became the basis for the square infantry color pictured in the Vatican City constitution. After research in the Vatican archives, I wrote about the process of choosing a Vatican flag design in Flagmaster no. 137 (“The Design of the Flag of the Vatican City State, 1929”).

In the design process, I doubt that anyone considered the proportions to be significant. They simply needed a credible papal flag for the new Vatican state in time for its establishment in June 1929. Once a basic design was decided, details were left to the artist – such as proportions (square) and format (an infantry color). Once the results appeared in the constitution, the proportions were presumed to apply to all Vatican flags.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 12 June 2011

Vatican Flag-Flying Days

Here is the list of Vatican flag-flying days. They are specified by the Pontifical Commission for the State of Vatican City.  Some of the religious feasts have variable dates (e.g. Easter, etc.), and some of the papal anniversaries change with each pope (e.g. his birthday, etc.):

- February 11 - Anniversary of the Lateran Accords
- March 19 - Name Day (Benedict XVI: St. Joseph)
- April 2 - Anniversary of the death of the previous pope (half-mast)
- April 16 - Birthday (Benedict XVI)
- April 19 - Anniversary of Election (Benedict XVI)
- April 24 - Anniversary of Inauguration of Pontificate (Benedict XVI)
- Variable - Easter
- Variable - Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter)
- Variable - Pentecost (50 days after Easter Sunday)
- Variable - Corpus Domini (second Thursday after Pentecost)
- June 29 - Solemnity of Ss. Peter & Paul
- November 1 - Solemnity of All Saints
- December 25 - Christmas
- Variable - Public Consistory
- Variable - Beatification
- Variable - Canonization
- Variable - Opening and Closing of the Holy Door.

Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 13 July 2007