The Catholic Church’s 800-Year-Old Tradition of Heraldry

Every pope since the 12th century has kept this heraldic tradition going.

Pope Francis gives the Urbi et Orbi blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.
Pope Francis gives the Urbi et Orbi blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

One would have thought that in the post-Vatican II era, the papacy — which had dispensed with coronations, tiaras, silken gloves, the sedia gestatoria and ostrich feather fans, — would have shelved ecclesiastic heraldry as some sort of feudal-era relic.


In a world where the art of heraldry is about as well understood as that of falconry or competitive croquet playing, it is more than a bit remarkable that (a) heraldry continues to hold on, (b) books concerning the study continue to be published on the subject, and (c) popes—who stopped being temporal rulers in any real sense of the word about 150 years ago—continue to come up with these seemingly inscrutable symbols. And following the pope’s lead, all cardinals, metropolitans, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and even some priests have their own coat of arms as well — as does most every diocese.

Here one should not be afraid to pause and ask the obvious question here: “What is heraldry?”

Like poetry, heraldry makes nothing happen. And, like poetry, it has its own almost specialized language to describe the symbolism it depicts. One book on the subject describes it as “the science that studies armorial bearings, the colored emblems pertaining to an individual, a family or a community. Composition is governed by the specific rules of blazon that distinguish the medieval European heraldic system from all other systems of emblems, whether earlier or later, military, civil [academic or ecclesiastical].”

Already the verbiage is twined and tangled in what seems like hopeless archaisms.

But as poetry can be as simple as “roses are red/violets are blue,” heraldry, too, need not be over-complicated or convoluted to be appreciated.

To continue the parallel with verse: poetical notation requires a grounding both in math—not for nothing was knowledge of poetry known as “numbers”—and taxonomy. So heraldry, too, is a sort of bridge between artistic representations and a hidden meaning behind it. But why should Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) have started the use of it and why did Pope Francis bother even coming up with his own coat of arms?

For one thing, it’s tradition—which has always held high stock in the Church. Every pope dating back to Innocent III has had his own heraldic coat of arms. Originally, heraldry was like a business card of sorts: it showed what side you were on—especially on the Continent. However, its origins are obscure and no one agrees on why, suddenly in the 12th century, everyone from academics to knights to royalty to popes collectively agreed to distinguish themselves by a bizarre combination of colors, patterns, insignia and agreed-upon shapes (most common: the chevron). Some trace it back to Islam, others to Scandinavia, and a third group of scholars center it in the Greco-Roman world. No matter. For almost a thousand years every pope—along with universities and some of the most prestigious families of Europe—have insisted upon a heraldic crest.

In the case of Pope Innocent, heraldry was a bit of a necessity: since he was to battle the Muslims both in Spain and in the Holy Land, his crusaders needed a symbol to differentiate ally from foe (thus decreasing the risk of death by “friendly-fire”). In addition to the Latin Cross banner, the pope himself drew up a red field with an eagle (or falcon) splayed out in a black-and-yellow checkboard pattern. No one could confuse that emblem with the star and crescent of the Moors.

And every pope since Innocent has kept this emblematic tradition going.

As mentioned above with poetry, no one said papal heraldry had to be completely impossible to decipher. Pope St. John Paul II gave us one of the simplest and most memorable coats of arms, with his simple gold cross on a blue field. To clarify the meaning behind the blue (“Mary’s color”, in the words of T.S. Eliot), St. John Paul broke with centuries of heraldic tradition by adding an “M” to his emblem. One of the strangest “laws” governing the “science” of heraldry says that lettering is not allowed on the field or shield. (It’s usually placed underneath on a scroll—in St. John Paul’s case, “Totus Tuus.”) However, St. John Paul supposedly told his papal heraldist that the “M” was the representation of a “river” or “flowing water”. No matter: by the time of his death in 2005, St. John Paul’s coat of arms was very well-known.

But was it necessary?

Strictly speaking, no. And this is what makes heraldry so intriguing — its ability to hang on for eons.

Pope Francis’s coat of arms, is, of course, simple: a blue field with three designs. In the center is the Society of Jesus’ monogram of the Divine Name (with the addition of three nails that pierced Our Savior); to the lower left, a star (representing Mary, Star of the Sea); and to the right, spikenard, which represents St. Joseph. The scroll bears His Holiness’s motto: “Through the Eyes of Mercy and Choosing Him.”

The Pope, of course, gets his “power” from being the Bishop of Rome. I’ve never met a Bishop of Rome, but I did have the distinct honor and pleasure of befriending the late Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn-Queens/South, His Excellency Ignatius Catanello. Bishop Catanello had an office at St. John’s University where I was a graduate student and we became friends. Instead of the traditional bishop’s ring (a jewel with a saint’s relic), he had his own coat of arms impressed onto a simple, flat silver-surfaced ring. When I asked him how on earth he found someone who specialized in creating such arcane designs, he said it wasn’t difficult—in fact, he was, in a shy way, proud of his family’s coat of arms.

One could go on and on about heraldry and, as Bishop Catanello found out, there are still those who study and specialize in it—even in an age that can’t name the only one true armorial banner of all the fifty state flags. (Can you?)

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