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Vatican City (Holy See) - The Keys and Coat of Arms

Last modified: 2013-01-20 by rob raeside
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The keys


taken from the official Vatican site.

Yellow (or golden) is associated with golden keys - symbols of Saint Peter (popes are the direct descendants of Saint Peter's office). The keys are supposedly the keys to paradise.
Željko Heimer
, 21 May 1996

I do not know the exact significance of the cord (although it might symbolize the "unity" of the Church or perhaps God's covenant with man?) , but it ties the keys together at the point at which they cross each other, and then forms a loop between the 'handles' of the keys with tassels hanging down.from the centre knot.
Christopher Southworth, 12 February 2004

You get a tassseld cord as part of cardinals hat (an authority symbol ?).
From church encycolopedia <www.newadvent.org>:
"Cincture  - The prayer now recited by the priest in putting on the girdle, "Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity", etc., strongly suggests that this vestment should be regarded as typical of priestly chastity. Like the other Mass vestments, the girdle requires to be blessed before use. Some kind of cincture, we may further note, is included in almost every form of religious or ecclesiastical costume. In certain religious orders it receives a special blessing, and in such familiar instances as the Cord of St. Francis or the Girdle of St. Augustine it is sanctioned and indulgenced by the Church as indicating a profession of allegiance to a particular institute. Again, the broad sash, which forms part of the civil attire of bishops, priests, and other ecclesiastics, has been imitated, apparently for sthetic reasons, in the costume of choir boys and servers at the altar. It should be said that this last development, while not expressly prohibited so long as certain rules are observed regarding colour and material, is not in any way prescribed or recommended by ecclesiastical authority. "
" Ecclesiastical Heraldry - The ecclesiastical hat is low, flat, wide-brimmed and depending from either side are cords and tassels.
The Holy See - Strictly speaking there are no official arms for the papal sovereignty. Although the crossed keys of St. Peter displayed upon an azure field, have occasionally been used for that purpose, and with such intention, they are more properly a device in the nature of external ornaments to the shield, and as such will be again referred to later."
"The Holy See - The emblems of the papacy consist of the tiara and the crossed keys of St. Peter "to bind and to unloose", one key being of gold and one of silver, the two being usually tied together with a cord. These are usually, and most properly, placed in saltire behind the personal arms of His Holiness (a practice originated by Adrian VI, in 1522), the shield being surmounted by the tiara, but the keys are frequently disposed in saltire below the tiara and above the shield, and, as the emblem of the papacy, the tiara and keys are often used alone without any shield at all."
Hugh Watkins, 12 February 2004

At <www.vatican.va>:
" Since the XIV Century, the two crossed keys have been the official insignia of the Holy See. The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth. The mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ. The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers."
Phil Nelson, 13 February 2004

Oddly, the arms of the Vatican, as shown here, do not have the horizontal binding centre cord, and so make more sense topologically. Although it is difficult to tell from them, I'd say that on the arms at least, you do the following.
1. Form the keys into a saltire, handles down, with a loop of cord vertically behind the keys.
2. Pass the two cord ends over the junction of the keys and down in front of them, through the loop you have formed.
3. Pass each loop through the handle of one key from the front.
4. Tie the two ends into a single tassle.
This, you will note, is quite different to what is shown on the flag.
James Dignan, 13 February 2004

The illustration I have on file 'appears' to be official, but I cannot be certain since I don't know when and how William Crampton obtained it. However, (whether official or not) it definitely shows a single, horizontal strand of red cord across the keys.  Incidentally, this model also shows the arms as being one-half of flag width high, which is rather larger than we show here.
Christopher Southworth, 13 February 2004

According to <www.vatican.va>:
"The symbolism is drawn from the Gospel and is represented by the keys given to the Apostle Peter by Christ.
The insignia is red with the two keys crossed as the Cross of St. Andrew, one gold and one silver, with the cotter pointed upwards and towards the sides of the shield. Two cords hang from the grips of the keys, usually red or blue.
The shield is surmounted by the tiara or triregnum.
Two ribbons hang from the tiara, each with a patent cross.
Ordinarily the keys have the mechanical part placed up, facing to the right and the left and usually in the form of a cross, not for the mechanisms of a lock, but as a religious symbol. The grips vary according to artistic taste, from the Gothic to the Baroque.
Since the XIV Century, the two crossed keys have been the official insignia of the Holy See. The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth. The mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ. The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers."
Paolo Montanelli, 20 October 2004

This is a bit confusing, as they are crossed. Perhaps it should say, "The gold one, with its *handle* on the [heraldic] right [viewer's left]..."
Nathan Lamm, 20 October 2004

I believe that the answer should be fairly simple, in fact, accroding to the heraldical rules. The first mentioned key (the golden one) is making the proper bend, as the first and thus having precedence while the second one, the silver key is, well, secondary and is those set in the bend sinistre. Now, I do not know exact heraldic balzon, but I would assume that there is something in the line of above.   Anyway, it seems that unlike the state arms, the personal arms of the popes have the kays set the other way around, at least for the several recent popes (probably before that time the issue was not that precisely set).
The first charge in the saltire is set in bend sinistre, so /, while he other is in bend, this way: \ The golden key on vatican flags has the "ring" towards bottom and hoist,
Željko Heimer, 20 October 2004

There is also (probably) a deliberate difference between the arrangement of the keys as used by the Papacy/Holy See (gold key representing spiritual power to upper left) and the keys as used by the State of the Vatican City (silver key representing temporal power to upper left).
Richard d'Apice, 21 October 2004

In fact they represent the Pope's double power, to bind or to loose on earth and also in heaven. The symbolism is derived from the episode where Jesus tells St Peter that he is being given the power to bind on Earth as well as in Heaven ["...what you bind on earth is also bound in haven; what you loose on earth is also loosed in Heaven"].
Paul Folley, 28 May 2008


Arms of the Vatican State

I recommend Galbreath (1972) as a good reference for papal heraldry.
Pascal Vagnat, 17 May 1996

From Heim (1978), page 101:
From the 16th Century on the coat of the Papacy may be blasoned: Gules a pair of keys crossed in saltire, one gold, one silver, tied gold, surmounted by a tiara silver, crowned gold.
Philip E. Cleary, 17 May 1997

I would strongly suggest the Vatican webpage at <www.vatican.va> is also a good start for Vatican heraldry. I do know a little bit about it, for example the keys represent the keys to heaven, and the hat represents papal authority.
John D. Giorgis, 10 December 1997

The arms of the Vatican City and the papacy are (in plain English) On a red field, two crossed keys, one gold and one silver, and a tiara. (less plain) Gules, two keys, or and argent, in saltire, a tiara of the second and third.. The Pope uses his own arms, with the keys behind and the tiara on top.
Ole Andersen, 13 December 1997

Ole is right. The coat of arms of the State of the City of the Vatican has been officialised with the Fundamental Law of the 7th of June 1929, as part of the Treaty of Lateran. In this one, the article 19 says: "The flag of the City of the Vatican consists of two fields divided vertically, yellow field on the staff side and a white field on the other side, which bears the tiara and the keys, the whole following the model A annexed to the present law. The shield shows the tiara with the key, according to the model B annexed to the present law. The seal bears in the centre the tiara and the keys, and on the circumference the words "State of the City of the Vatican", according to the model annexed to the present law."
The flag is a square flag with at the top of the yellow and gold hoist, a pike with an angel's face. On the hoist is attached a ribbon (French: une cravate et un noeud) in yellow and white. The ends of the "cravate" are fringed in gold. In Italian: "Asta gialla istata d'oro, cimata di lancia ornata di coccarda degli stessi colori della bandiera e frangiata d'oro".
The coat of arms consists of a red French styled shield:

         ___________
        |           |
        |           |
        |           |
        |           |
         \___  ____/
             \/

The seal has the words "STATO DELLA CITTA DEL VATICANO" written.
Still on this subject, for those who are interested in Papal heraldry, I recommend:
Galbreath, Donald Lindsay: "Papal Heraldry", second edition revised by Geoffrey Briggs, Heraldry Today, London 1972.
Source: Acta apostolicae sedis, supplemento per le leggi e disposizioni dello città del Vaticano. Pontificato di S.S. Pio XI- Anno VIII. Città del Vaticano, tipografia poliglotta vaticana. 1929
Pascal Vagnat, 14 December 1997

Thanks for the infos about the Vatican City State flag and arms. But some years ago I noted a certain discrepancy which one of you may solve.
The arms of all of the popes I know show the heraldically right (= dexter) key as golden, the other one as silver.
BUT: In the illustration to the law Pascal quoted (I own a colourful sample of it) the keys in the Vatican City State are exchanged, i. e. the dexter key is SILVER.
Why this difference? From an heraldic view the more prominent key (I think gold is more worthy than silver) should show to the heraldically right side, which is followed by the popes' arms, but not by the state's arms. Does anyone know the reason?
Ed Linder, 15 December 1997

The position of the gold key isn't so important. In fact during the history, both versions can be found: dexter key: gold and sinister key silver or vice versa. But more important: at first, in the history of this coat of arms, there wasn't any gold key: both were silver (see for instance in the Cathedral of Bourges the picture of the Church coat of arms which is accompanying the achievements of the anti-popes Clement VII and Benedict XIII). Then came a time where gold keys are to be found and finally the present usage of placing a gold key in bend across silver one in bend sinister slowly makes its way, but it is to be noted that the relative positions are sometimes reversed. The colour of the field also varied: the field is almost always red, ccasionally blue.
So, having gold in dexter and silver in sinister isn't important. Why would be a key more important than the other, as we also know that there wasn't any gold key at first? I think the coat of arms is normal as this case occurred in the past for the Church coat of arms (now, the coat of arms of the State of the City of Vatican), or maybe is it a reproduction error, the picture being inverted, as it can happen sometimes.
Source: - Galbreath, Donald Lindsay: "Papal Heraldry", second edition revised by Geoffrey Briggs, Heraldry Today, London 1972.
Pascal Vagnat, 16 December 1997

There seems to be literary if not heraldic authority for one golden and one silver key as early as the fourteenth century; they were at least being thought of as gold and silver. In Dante's Purgatorio, Canto IX, beginning at line 118, the angel posted at Peter's Gate is portrayed with Peter's keys and explains their significance. Dorothy Sayers, in the notes to her translation of the Purgatorio (Penguin Books, 1955), glosses this explanation as follows:

"[The Keys] are the two parts of absolution: The Golden Key is the Divine authority given to the Church to remit sin; it is 'the costlier' because it was bought at the price of God's Passion and Death. The Silver Key is the unloosening of the hard entanglement of sin in the human heart: and this needs great skill on the part of the Church and her priesthood when administering the sacrament of Penance. Both keys must function smoothly for a valid absolution: the use of the golden key without the silver lands you exactly where it landed Guido da Montefeltro (Inf. xxvii. 67 sqq.): the silver without the golden (i.e. remorse for sin without seeking reconciliation) leads only to despair and the Gorgon at the Gates of Dis. (Inf. ix.)"
M.H.S. 14 October 1999

The Vatican coat of arms looks very similar to the arms of French Historical Province called Comtat Venassin (near Avignon), which was the former capital of Popes (and a papal territory from Medieval Ages to 1792). The Comtat Venassin Arms are red with two GOLD St. Peter keys crossed.
Jerome Sterkers, 23 August 2000

Jerome is globally right. I just would like to make a slight linguistical correction and add historical comments. The banner of arms is shown here .
The correct name of the place is Comtat Venaissin. Comtat is probably a Provencal deformation of Comte (County). The inhabitants of Comtat Venaissin are called "Comtadins". "Venaissin" comes from the city of Venasque, now a village of ca. 600 inhabitants, but formerly the siege of the diocese of Comtat (later transfered to Carpentras).
Concerning the city of Avignon and Comtat Venaissin, the story is a bit difficult: Comtat Venaissin has been a Papal possession since 1274, but Avignon had remained under the rule of the Counts of Provence. In 1309, the French Pope Clement V (Bertrand de Got, elected in 1305), followed the "advice" of the king of France Philippe le Bel and moved officially to Avignon on 9 March 1309. He died in 1314 and the next Pope, Jean XXII, from Avignon, was elected only two years later. Benoit XII (1335-1342), a Cistercian monk, commanded the construction of the Old Palace (Palais Vieux), looking like a fortress. The next Pope, Clement VI (1342-1352) was much more interested in art and comfort and commanded the construction of the New Palace (Palais Neuf) and its rich decoration. Embelishments were carried on by Innocent VI (1352-1362), Urbain V (1362-1370) and Gregor XI (1370-1378). The papal city of Avignon became a place of tolerance and asylum for the political refugees, such as the Italian poet Petrarco, and an important Jewish community. The place became also unfortunately a safe place for rioters, burglars and all kinds of criminals. The Italians violently claimed the return of the Pope to Roma, and called the era "the Babylon captivity".
Urbain V had moved to Roma in 1367 but came back three years later because of the insurrectional situation of Italy. In 1376, Gregor XI was convinced by St. Catherine of Siena to leave Avignon against the willingness of the King of France. His death in 1378 was the starting point of the Great Western Schism. Clement VII (1378-1394), supported by the French cardinals and the king of France, came back to Avignon. Benoit XIII (1394-1409) lost the support of the king of France and left Avignon in 1403, but his supporters resisted in the palace until 1411. In the same time, anti-popes (who themselves called the French popes antipopes) had been elected in Roma. The unity was restored only in 1417 with the election of Martin V.
After the departure of the popes, Avignon remained a papal possession and was ruled by a legat and  later by a vice-legat. After the French Revolution, the partisans of rattachment to France won over the papists and the Assemblee Constituante voted the annexion on 14 September 1791.
The Comtat was incorporated to the department of Vaucluse (named after Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, from Latin "vallis clusa", the closed valley), which still has an exclave in the department of Drome, constituted by the municipality of Valreas, a.k.a. the papal enclave.
Ivan Sache, 23 August 2000


Emblem for the Vacancy of the Apostolic See

I was checking the Vatican web site (<www.vatican.va> ) and they have change the emblem on the home page to this one. Which in the inner pages it is refered as the emblem for the Vacancy of the Apostolic See.
Fred Drews, 4 April 2005

The emblem is used, I believe instead of the Vatican coat of arms during the Vacancy (i.e. since the passing of one pope until the election of the next).
As far as I am aware the Vacancy symbol did not found its place on any flags for now. It is found however on the stamps issued in several of the last vacancies.
Željko Heimer, 4 April 2005

Now, the Cardinal enthroned Pope maintains his Arms but naturally changing its external ornaments, replacing the red cap as crest which two games of tassels at flanks more another attributes that corresponds with the Cardinal dignity with the Tiara (closed mitre with ovoid form and three crowns, everything in Gold) over the Chief and the two crossed keys (one of Gold and another one of Silver) disposed behind the field in saltire and rolled by cord in Gules (red). Once takes place the outcome that lamentably is imminent [i.e., the death of Pope John Paul II], the Arms of HH John Paul II will mantains the Tiara but will omit the keys, since these symbolize the government of the Church as much Sovereing State as Religious Institution, alluding naturally to the "keys of the Kingdom of the Heaven" that Our Lord Jesus Christ gave to Saint Peter constituing him First Pope.
Meanwhile "Vacant Seat" takes place (transition between the decease of a Pope and election of its successor) the Church Government was in charge of Cardinal School and all the Eclesiastic Hierarchy; nevertheless, to the State effects, is assumed by to so called "Camarlenge Cardinal" who during the exercise of his functions will may use as Ensign of his dignity the Papal Umbrella: it's in effect, an umbrella enameled in Or and Gules and singularly ornamented.
Raul Pardo, 2 April 2005