The Papal Flag: Symbols and Meaning

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A Tiny Country with Immense Power

Though Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, it is arguably one of the most influential of all time. It is the home of the Pope, the titular head of the Roman Catholic church and the site of some of some of the most important art and architecture on Earth: Pretty impressive for a tiny patch of land just over 100 acres in size. The population is similarly limited, with only 594 citizens registered in 2011. Most of these live abroad in diplomatic capacities attached to embassies.

The Vatican is also a storehouse of some of the rarest, most delicate, and beautiful books collected through the entirety of human history. While the Catholic church may seem rich with ostentatious displays, its true treasure and wealth is this carefully guarded and maintained link to our past. With over a million rare printed works within its main library, and another 150 000 items cached in its Secret Archives, the library’s worth is beyond calculation or comprehension.

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Gold and Silver: A Rare Combination

The flag of Vatican City is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it has a color combination usually discouraged by official vexillologists. At a distance, both pale colors (white and yellow) become largely indistinguishable from each other, making it difficult to “read” the flag.

Visual issues aside, each color has its own significance. White symbolizes purity and honesty; yellow represents wealth, power, and energy. Together they can be read as an intent to use worldly power with ethical and moral boundaries.

The shape of this flag also makes it highly unique. Most flags the world over are rectangular. This is a practical design, giving a lot of design space to literally “show your colors.” Three national flags on Earth defy this pattern: Nepal hoists a pair of overlapping triangles, while Switzerland and Vatican City opt for square flags.

Coat of Arms

A perfectly centered line runs down the center of this flag, splitting the yellow (on the hoist side, the one with the fastenings), from the white, which carries the coat of arms of Vatican City.

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An abbreviated form of the coat of arms of Vatican City, displayed on a red field.

Here is where the imagery gets complex and historically interesting. Centered in the white side of the field are two keys, one gold, the other silver. These are the famous Keys of Heaven that Jesus promised Saint Peter in the Gospel of Matthew. As all subsequent popes are considered to be the heirs of Saint Peter, the keys belong to them as well.

Each key in itself has deeper significance. The gold key represents spiritual power: a divine essence that guides and guards the Catholic church. The silver key denotes worldly power, showing that the church isn’t merely a passive organization, but one that accepts earthly duty and responsibility.

Surmounting the crossed keys is a strange looking object that resembles a beribboned acorn. This in fact is the papal tiara, the coronet of authority that the pope alone wears as the head of the Catholic Church.

Founding and Usage

The Vatican has not always been as we know it today. Neither has it always been the residence of the pope. Historically, that was across Rome at the Lateran Palace. Italy at one time contained an extensive series of Papal States, which was land granted to or seized by the church. During the 19th century papal power waned, and the church lost control over all the land previously under its jurisdiction, including the Vatican itself.

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The Lateran Palace.

 

In order to resolve the social, political, and spiritual conflict tearing Italy apart, Benito Mussolini (otherwise known for his dictatorial reign over Italy during World War II) signed an agreement with Pope Pius XI. On June 7, 1929 the Lateran Treaty ceded the land that was to become the Vatican to the Holy See and recognized its status as an independent state. It was at this time that the flag we now recognize was instated as the official banner and heraldry of Vatican City.

 

Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, designed by Renaissance artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

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