Coats of arms used by pope and bishops come to us from the days of knighthood
When we think of shields and coats of arms, we often think of knights and royal banners. But each bishop, including our new pope, has a coat of arms.
Coats of arms did develop among knights as a way of identifying themselves in battle and at court. The first coats of arms, often worn on clothing, came from the ancient custom of heraldry, a formal way of announcing one’s family and place of origin.
The advent of full armor around the 12th century made it hard to identify individuals in the midst of battle, so coats of arms were worn as cloaks, carried on banners and painted on shields. To avoid confusion, coats of arms were adorned with specific colors and symbols that told of their owner’s family, accomplishments or firmest beliefs. This latter part led to personal mottos. For example, Pope John Paul II’s motto was “Totus Tuum” or “totally yours.” Pope Francis’ papal motto is the one he used as a bishop motto: “Miserando atque eligendo,” which roughly translates as “having mercy, he called him.”
Coats of arms could tell a lot about someone, very quickly. They also gave a sense of identity, both personally and with a larger group such as the church. In the case of a bishop or a pope, this led to heraldic symbols for clerics. The most famous clerical coat of arms today belongs to the pope. However, each bishop and abbot also has a coat of arms. (Technically, priests may commission coats of arms, but most do not.)
Until 1960, the Vatican Curia had a Heraldry Commission that regulated coats of arms, both for dioceses and for church leaders, to keep matters clear. Perhaps that’s why the coat of arms for the Diocese of Green Bay bears a representation of Green Bay on a map.
While coats of arms were signs of those with power, the flip side is that these people were also protectors. Knights received the right to bear arms from their lords and, in turn, were charged to protect the weak; it was to their banners that people fled for help. Coats of arms often bore some symbol that identified the lord a knight had pledged to serve. This is why ecclesial coats of arms bear the symbols of Christ — most often a cross, sometimes a shepherd’s staff. Our new pope’s bears Christ’s monogram: IHS the first three Greek letters (or the first, second and last letters, as some prefer) of Jesus’ name.
The most famous coat of arms in the church is that of the pope. Papal arms are easily identifiable; they bear the crossed keys, representing Christ’s promise to Peter — “I shall give you the keys to the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven …” (Mt 16:19). One key — gold — represents the gates of heaven and that the pope’s power comes from God. The second key — silver — represents the pope’s power on earth. The red cord binding the keys represents the link between power in heaven and on earth.
Until Pope Benedict XVI, the papal coat of arms was topped with a tiara — the triple “beehive” crown. According to “The Church Visible,” a book on the church’s ceremonial life, the three combined crowns represented “the Vicar of Christ’s universal episcopate; second, his jurisdictional supremacy; and third, his temporal power. … (as well as) the pope’s power — militant, penitent and triumphant — and his role as priest, pastor and teacher.”
Pope Benedict replaced the tiara with a bishop’s miter. Pope Francis has continued that on his own coat of arms.
The shield of the papal arms varies from pope to pope and bears his personal insignia. For Pope John Paul II, the shield was blue — representing, along with loyalty and truth, the Blessed Mother, to whom the pope has a special devotion. Mary is also represented by the letter “M” to the right and below the gold cross.
Pope Benedict’s shield was gold and red and split into three sections to hold images that represented his German and Bavarian background. This included a bear, which Bavarian legend says became the steed of the first bishop of Freising. (Pope Benedict was archbishop of Munich and Freising.)
Pope Francis returned to the blue theme — in honor of Mary — for his shield which bears three symbols. They represent the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as well as the Jesuit order from which Pope Francis came.
Coats of arms for bishops other than the bishop of Rome have shields divided into two parts, each side bearing arms. On the left is the coat of arms for the diocese where a bishop serves; on the right is his own coat of arms. The two coats of arms on one shield represent the belief that a bishop marries his see.
A bishop’s coat of arms also has a cross behind the shield and is topped by an ecclesial hat, called the galero or “pilgrim’s hat.” (Sometimes, though it’s increasingly rare, the hat is replaced by a miter.) The galero is red for cardinals and green for bishops. The cords and tassels (fiocchi) hanging down both sides are the same color as the galero and vary in number: 15 for cardinals, 10 for archbishops and six for bishops.
Instead of galero and tassels, the papal coat of arms has the miter and keys. The shield of a pope is not divided in two, because he serves the universal church.
Sources: “The Symbolism of Heraldry”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; www.vatican.va; Catholic News Service; Green Bay diocesan records; and “The Church Visible.”
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.