Fig. A -
Fig. B –
Fig. C - St. Peter's Basilica & the
(Residenza Paolo VI, Extraterritorial Zone)
Fig. D - The Vatican flag at the Apostolic Palace
Fig. E -
(French sketch replicating 1825 decree)
Fig. F - Papal States,
1831-ca. 1841 (arms of Gregory XVI)
Fig. G -
1846-1849; pattern ca. 1831-1849
Fig. H -
ca. 1850-1860 (arms of Pius IX)
Fig. I - Palatine Guard color, 1859-1878
(arms of Pius IX); pattern until 1970
Fig. J -
Fig. K - Papal States War/Fort flag,
(Porta Pia fortifications)
Fig. L - Proto-National Papal Flag, ca. 1929
Description & Symbolism
The flag of
Yellow and white have been the papal colors since 1808 when they were first used in a cockade, i.e. a circular cloth badge. The keys of St. Peter, crossed diagonally, have symbolized the papacy's spiritual mission since the middle ages. They are referenced in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus to Simon: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The triple tiara has symbolized papal temporal sovereignty for centuries, as well.
Design & Use
Apart from the ceremonial
flag, the constitution does not explicitly specify proportions for state
flags displayed on official buildings; and in actual practice at the
The Vatican flag is flown
on occasions specified by the Pontifical Commission for
Roman Catholics throughout
the world often use the
History of the
The current papal flag
originated in the Papal States, where it was introduced for merchant and
fishing vessels on September 17, 1825. It was used until the
Authorized papal flags often changed with each new pope. Until the seventeenth century, they often had red fields bearing papal emblems. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, they usually had white fields (like the French royal standard) charged with various papal symbols. In the 1800s, yellow-and-white flags began to appear, and grew in frequency.
These colors were based on a yellow-and-white papal cockade first introduced by Pius VII on 13 March 1808 for papal troops and diplomats who remained loyal to the pope and who opposed the occupation of the Papal States by Napoleon. He abolished it and exiled the pope; but it was resurrected after Napoleon’s downfall and the restoration of the Papal States in 1814-1815.
In 1825, the first yellow-and-white flags were introduced for various maritime purposes, but the navy retained its old white designs. On land assorted yellow-white flags were soon employed by the Civic Guard (1831-1848) and the papal infantry (ca. 1831-1870). By mid-century various yellow-white flags were used by private citizens, some state fortresses (from at least 1849), and the Palatine Guard (from 1859). Their designs changed periodically and usually bore various papal emblems, but the final papal infantry color was a plain yellow-white flag with no emblem (1862-1870).
The same flag design – a
plain yellow-white vertical bicolor – flew from Castel
Sant’Angelo, the major papal fortress in
The latter two designs seem
to have remained in use by various papal loyalists during the Roman Question
period (1870-1929) which followed the fall of
The papal colors and emblem
The yellow-white papal cockade of 1808 was probably based on the traditional colors of the keys of St. Peter, gold and silver. In heraldry these colors translate as yellow and white, especially when rendered in cloth. As early as the middle ages, Dante Alighieri describes the keys of the kingdom as gold and silver, or as yellow and white.
The previous Roman cockade,
adopted in 1800, was red and yellow. This, too,
may have been a reflection of the Petrine keys, since
medieval papal banners were often red with the crossed keys in gold. The modern civic flag of
When placed on a red
shield, the tiara-keys emblem forms the coat-of-arms of
For several centuries, popes have used the tiara-keys emblem as heraldic “supporters” for their own personal armorial shield. However, the last pope to wear an actual tiara was Paul VI, and recent popes have replaced it with a miter in their pontifical arms.
Pontifical Swiss Guard
The flag of the Pontifical
Corps of the Swiss Guard is displayed on special occasions, including the
swearing-in of new recruits. Its basic
pattern was approved by the Secretariat of State on November 1, 1913, and
bears features drawn from previous Guard flags. It is square with a large white cross reminiscent
of Swiss military flags in centuries past.
At the center appears the commander’s coat-of-arms within a floral
wreath. Two of the flag’s resulting
quarters bear the current papal arms juxtaposed with those of the Guards’
founder, Pope Julius II, against a red background. The remaining quarters bear stripes in the
Guards’ colors, blue-red-gold. These
recall the armorial colors of Pope Clement VII de’Medici,
rescued by the Guard at great sacrifice during the sack of
© 2008, 2018, Rev. William M. Becker, STD, in honor of the bicentennial of the papal colors (1808-2008)
For details, see William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800 (Boston: North American Vexillological Association, 2018).
 Donald Lindsay Galbreath, Papal Heraldry (London: Heraldry Today, 1972, edited by Geoffrey Briggs), p. 17-26.
Fondamentale dello Stato della Citta del Vaticano," Acta Apostolicae Sedis (supplement for the Vatican City State, 8
June 1929), article 19 and Annex A. Updated version in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (supplement
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 102-106. William Becker, "The Vatican Flag: Proportions & Alternatives," NAVA News, no. 213 (Jan–Mar 2012, Trenton NJ: North American Vexillological Association), pp. 2-4.
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 106-109.
 Bandiere di segnale delle Marine dei vari Stati, undated 19th-century manuscript. Rome, Biblioteca Casanatense, MS 3800 (CD-Rom CSMIN 144). See William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 35-39.
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 9-75. Aldo Ziggioto, "Le bandiere degli stati italiani (Parte I)," Armi Antiche (Torino: Accademia di S. Marciano, 1981), p. 91-124.
 Patrick V.E. MacSwiney de Mashanaglass, La coccarda pontificia (Rome: Tipografia Vaticana, 1908). Claudio Ceresa, “Il giallo e il bianco, da due secoli colori pontifici,” L’Osservatore Romano (Vatican City), 8-9 July 2008; translated as “Vatican City State Flag Flies for Two Centuries [sic],” L’Osservatore Romano weekly edition in English, 6 August 2008, p. 12. See William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 21-27.
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800 (Boston: North American Vexillological Association, 2018), pp. 35-75. L. Piroli, Costumi militari dello Stato Pontificio 1823-1870 [also known as “Piroli Collection,” “Raccolta Piroli”], Museo Centrale del Risorgimento di Roma, Library, mss. 71-79, information courtesy of “Internet Culturale.” Attilio Vigevano, La fine dell'esercito pontificio (Rome: Stabilimento Poligrafico per l'Amministrazione della Guerra, 1920), p. 72-77. Stefano Ales, Insegne militari preunitarie italiane (Rome: Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito, 2001), p. 87-91, 382-397.
 Museo Vaticano Storico, Palazzo Lateranense, inventory no. 30615: 250 x 270 cm (98.4 x 106.3”). See William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 51-59.
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 51-59. Conti Paolo & Roncone Fabrizio, “Veglie divise, ultima sfida su Pio 9°,” Corriere della Sera, 3 September 2000, p. 9.
 William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 89-93. William
Becker, “The Proto-National Papal Flag,” The
Flag Bulletin, Vol. 45:2 (
 Purgatorio, Canto 9:117-118.
 Attilio Vigevano, La fine dell'esercito pontificio (Rome: Stabilimento Poligrafico per l'Amministrazione della Guerra, 1920), p. 69-70.
 Holy See Press Office, “Coat of Arms of the Holy See and of the State of Vatican City.” See William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 110-113.
 Holy See Press Office, “Coat of Arms of His Holiness ...”
 The flag measures 220 c.m. (86.6”) square. For the current version, see “The Flag” (official Swiss Guard website). Cf. Robert Walpen, La Guardia Svizzera Pontificia. Acriter et fideliter. Coraggio e fedeltà, Second Edition, Locarno, Switzerland: Armando Dadò, 2005, p. 110-114, including the original 1911 sketch. “Die neue Fahne der Schweizergarde,” Archives Héraldiques Suisses / Schweizerisches Archiv für Heraldik, vol. 28, no. 4 (Zürich: Imprimérie Schulthess & Co., 1914), p. 205-206 & Plate 5. See William Becker, Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns since 1800, pp. 115-119.
• Fig. A – "Legge Fondamentale dello Stato della Citta del Vaticano," Acta Apostolicae Sedis (supplement for Vatican City State, 26 November 2000), Annex A.
• Fig. B-D – Author’s
archives, contemporary photos. The
• Fig. E – From an
undated supplement to Pavillons des puissances maritimes en 1819 (
• Fig. F – Reconstructed sketch based on L. Piroli, Costumi militari dello Stato Pontificio 1823-1870 [also known as “Piroli Collection,” “Raccolta Piroli”], Museo Centrale del Risorgimento di Roma, Library, part 1, vol. 2, ms. 72/33. Information courtesy of “Progetto Digima.”
• Fig. G – A. & B. Bruckner, Schweizer
Fahnenbuch (St. Gallen: Zollikofer, 1942), plate 70. Flag held by the Rathaus in Stans,
• Fig. H – Paolo Edoardo Fiora, Bandiere in Piemonte (Turin: Accademia di S. Marciano, 1971), fig. 77. Flag held by L’Armeria Reale di Torino, no. O-23: 140 x 140 cm (55 x 55”).
• Fig. I – Author’s archives, personal photo. Flag held by the Museo Storico Vaticano, no. 30516: 150 x 160 cm (59 x 63”).
• Fig. J – Colonel Attilio Vigevano, La fine dell'esercito pontificio (Rome: Stabilimento Poligrafico per l'Amministrazione della Guerra, 1920), plate 1. Online access via Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, Rome.
• Fig. K – Vatican Gendarmerie Collections: 78 x 108" (196 x 274 cm). Photo courtesy of Prince Sforza Ruspoli. Cf. William Becker, “The
Proto-National Papal Flag,” The Flag
Bulletin, Vol. 45:2 (
• Fig. L – Author’s
collections: 56 x 55” (142 x 140 cm).
Cf. William Becker, “The Proto-National Papal Flag,” The Flag Bulletin, Vol. 45:2 (
“State of Vatican City flag …,” Holy See website
Half-staffing the Vatican flag for Pius XII, 1958, Life/Google
Papal States state ensign for coastguard vessels (1825-1870), Biblioteca Casanatense website
Papal States war ensign for the “Immacolata Concezione” (1870), Flags of the World website
Papal States naval jack for the “Immacolata Concezione” (1870), Italian Navy website
New Papal Flag proposal (etc.) by Abp. Bruno Heim (papal herald), Heraldik Vatikan website
Standard of the Holy Roman Church, Wikipedia website (Italian)