This page is part of © FOTW Flags Of The World website

Vatican City

Stato della Cittá del Vaticano, State of the City of Vatican

Last modified: 2003-01-18 by dov gutterman
Keywords: vatican | holy see | pope | europe | keys |
Links: FOTW homepage | search | disclaimer and copyright | write us | mirrors

by Marcus Schmöger, 20 August 2002
Flag Introduced in 1825, official since 8 June 1929 , present coat of arms adopted 7 June 1929.

See also:

Other Sites:

  • Flag and Arms (in English)
  • Flag and Arms (in Italian)
  • History of the Flag (in Italian)
    Based on:
    - P. Ludovici, "L'origine e il significato storico del Vessillo di Sacra
    - Romana Chiesa", in "L'Illustrazione Vaticana", 7, 1936;
    - M. Belardo, "Le vicende del biancogiallo", in "L'Osservatore Romano", 30 March 1956.
    The article itself being from: Mondo Vaticano - Passato e Presente a cura di Niccolò Del Re, 1995, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
    Santiago Dotor and Marcus Schmöger, 25 July 2002


There seem to be a confusion between the Vatican City State, the minuscule state that exists only since 1929, and the Holy See (of Rome), which is the entity which is active in all international relationships except those of a clearly territorial nature, such as membership of UPU (Universal Postal Union), INTELSAT, CEPT and UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law).
No government would have much interest in relations with so tiny a state as Vatican City.  But 172 states maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and half of those that have accredited their ambassador to the Holy See find it worthwhile to have him or her resident in Rome, distinct from their ambassador to the Italian Republic.
The flag of the Vatican City State is as on your webpage, showing the arms with the silver key in the dexter position.  When what is represented is the Holy See, not Vatican City State, the keys are reversed.  Rather, when the state was set up in 1929, the keys in the arms of the Holy See, with the gold one in dexter position, were reversed to provide a distinctive symbol for the new entity.  In the personal arms of the popes, the keys are, of course, arranged as in the arms of the Holy See: the other arrangement would be equivalent to treating him as merely the head of that little state.  The arrangement for the Holy See is seen in the arms of Pope John Paul II on your webpage.
Rather than "the keys of paradise", as given on your page, the reference would be better expressed exactly as in Jesus' words to Peter in St Matthew's Gospel 16:19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven."
I doubt too the exactness of the description given of the papal flag in use before the Napoleonic occupation of Rome.  The flag used then was that of the city of Rome, which, if I rightly recall what is today displayed in Rome, is not "yellow and red" but gold (yellow) and purple, as it no doubt was also in 1848 and before 1808.
"nuntius" , 14 Febuary 2000

The Vatican has citizens (1500 persons), but there is nobody with only Vatican citizenship. For example, the Pope is citizen of both the Vatican and Poland. The other peculiarity is that the Vatican issues only diplomatic passports, so this is a country, where all the citizens are diplomats.
Maxval, 14 March 2001

I would suppose the Holy See could be considered to be part of the government of the Vatican City State, which does have a small territory.
Elias Granqvist, 15 March 2001

US Department of State's background notes on the Holy See explain the situation this way:
"The term "Holy See" refers to the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to direct the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. As the "central government" of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 166 nations, including the United States. Libya, Guyana, and Angola established diplomatic relations in 1997. Created in 1929 to administer properties belonging to the Holy See in Rome, the State of the Vatican City is recognized under international law and enters into international agreements. Unlike the Holy See, it does not receive or send diplomatic representatives."
Joe McMillan, 15 March 2001

I notice that the Vatican is listed as "Holy See" in a list of UN observers at the UN site. Is this used as an alternative name only, or does it imply something else- more of a supernational organization, the Catholic Church perhaps? It is listed as a "non-member state".
Nathan Lamm, 1 October 2002

Holy See is the center of the catholic church, while Vatican City State is the territorial unit where Holy See is placed. (the situation is much more complicated, as Holy See not *the* state is a subject of diplomatic recognition. See web page of the Holy See's observer mission to UN.) The HS is not a member of UN (and does not want to become a member). Again - see the web page: <>.
Jan Zrzavy, 1 October 2002

"In the period between the annexation of the Papal State by Italy in 1870 and the restoration of its temporal sovereignty in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Holy Sea concluded treaties (in the form of concordats) and entertained diplomatic relations with the great majority of States.  It was to that extent a subject of international law without being a State in the accepted sense of the term." (International Law; Collected Papers of Hersch Lauterpacht).
David Prothero, 29 December 2002

Vatican has 44 hectares of area + 13 other dependencies of which Castel Gandolfo who has 7 km2, if I remember well. The Holy See of whom Vatican is the head territory (Vatican is not strictly equal to Holy See), is the remnant of the Church States.
Jean-Marc Merklin, 28 December 2002

The Flag

Crampton [cra90] states the yellow and white used today date from 1808. Before that yellow and red were used. However, I'm reading Trevelyan's Garibaldi and the Defence of the Roman Republic at the moment and that source clearly describes the Papal colours in 1848 as still being yellow and red.
Roy Stilling
, 13 May 1996

From Smith's [smi75]: 'In the whole middle age red was the colour of Catholic Church, and gold was used for the crossed papal keys. Napoleon mixed his army with papal, so pope Pius VII decided new colours should be found.'
Pius VII choose gold and silver, and those were accepted in 1825. The flag was used until 1870, when the state was integrated into Italy. When the City of Vatican was formed as separate state, it took the same flag in 1929.
Zeljko Heimer
, 16 May 1996

Car Flag

by Marcus Schmöger, 20 August 2002

Non-Square Flags

The (larger) Vatican flags seen displayed over Jordan and Israel during the Pope visit , appeared to be 1:2 rather than 1:1. Some of them as banners.
Santiago Dotor , Jorge Candeias and Dov Gutterman , 21 March 2000

I see vatican flags in 1:2 ratios constantly.  This has to do with the fact that I went to Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools, my sister went to a Catholic Primary School, and so is my brother.  Overall, the three of us have attended (or are attending) 4 different schools.  The reason for the Vatican's flag is that, as a Catholic school, our teaching falls under the "jurisdiction" of the Vatican.  And since Canada has the law about all flags being the same size as the Canadian flag, the Vatican's flag is stretched to be 1:2.
Georges G. Kovari, 25 Febuary 2002

In the States the Vatican flag is seen in 2:3 and 3:5, being made to fit with the standard sizes manufactured by US flag makers. In our church the US and Vatican flags are 4 foot by 6 feet, i.e. 2:3.
Devereaux Cannon, 25 Febuary 2002

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.
Zeljko Heimer
, 21 May 1996

Arms of the Vatican State

I recommend [gal72] as a good reference for papal heraldry.

Pascal Vagnat, 17 May 1996

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.[hei78], page 101

Philip E. Cleary, 17 May 1997

I would strongly suggest the Vatican Web Page at 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.)"
Matthew H. Seeger , 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

Personal Flag and Arms of John-Paul II

The Flag

by Antonio Martins, 8 November 2001

car flag
by Antonio Martins, 8 November 2001

I just saw in the news a short coverage of an Vatican meeting where the Pope came by car that was addorned with two flags that were sometimes reported as Pope's personal flag. There were of the same design as the state flag of Vatican, but the Vatican CoA being replaced with the papal personal coat of arms (blue, golden cross and letter M) of Pope John Paul II.
Even if these flags are somtimes (rather often?) seen in various occasions, I think that this is first time I have seen them used by the Pope himself or the Vatican government - otherwise these flags were always seen (more or less) as ornamentation hoisted by  Catholics in various occasions. The two flags on the car were rather in the triangualr pennant form, with the white fields therefore being considerably larger then the yellow field, so that it could contain the CoA confortably.
Zeljko Heimer, 21 May 2001

The Arms

by Antonio Martins, 8 November 2001

John-Paul II has a blue shield with golden cross off-centered towards dexter chief, with a golden 'M' in sinister base field. The 'M' stands for Mary, Mr. Woytil~a's personal devotion. Above the shield there is a papal tiara (three times crowned hat), and behind shield are crossed golden and silver keys.

Note that the cord should be red, also all of the gems in the tiara. The ribbon emerging from the tiara will be red, too, with golden crosses and golden fringes. A pretty good source for symbols of the Catholic church might be named: Peter Bander van Duren (ed.): Armorial Bruno B. Heim, Van Duren, Gerrards Cross, England, 1981.
Zeljko Heimer, 16 May 1996, Dieter Linder, 29 May 1997

Rank Flags (?)

While driving I passed over a car with diplomatic plates which carried interesting car flag. It was the VA flag but instead the expected keys there was an ornamated red double cross on the center (verticl hand of the cross on the
centerline between two colours).
Eli Gutterman, 15 Febuary 2001

The double cross is symbolic for a bishop, maybe there is some connection. IMHO - the yellow and white flag clearly indicate the Romancatholic connection - it may be an ususual flag used by Vatican mission, though it is not quite likely, I guess. I suspect that the flag may beling to some of the orders or like organizations that may possibly have diplomatic status in Israel for some historical reasons (or whatever reason, for that matter), just like the Maltese Order have in many countires allover the world.
Zeljko Heimer, 15 Febuary 2001

Could the vatican use some sort of "rank" flag ? The VA flag with the key as a car flag might be reserved for the pope.
Marc , 15 Febuary 2001

Here is a brief synopsis of Roman Episcopal Heraldry.  That crest that you mentioned is an Episcopal coat of arms, which means it is the arms of a bishop. Any shield that has a double cross behind it is the crest of an archbishop.  A single cross in the backdrop is the cross of a regular bishop.  On the bishops coat of arms, You also would have seen an elaborate arrangement of tassels on either side, rather then the keys of St. Peter, as in the papal coat of arms.  These tassels come in three different forms.  Twelve green tassels signifies the rank of bishop, 20 green tassels signifies the rank of archbishop, and 30 red tassels signifies the rank of Archbishop/Cardinal Priest. All bishops, other than the archbishop of Rome (pope), have a shield in the center which is split in two halves.  The left half, is the arms of his Diocese, and the right is his personal arms.  The scroll below the shield is the bishops personal motto. You may also see plain shields that have no tassels but have a mitre on them.  These shields are the arms of the actual diocese. 
I. Jasionowski, 17 March 2002

Jasionowski's paragraph muddled the terminology of "crest" and "coat of arms" and was also somewhat confusing about other accoutrements.  The following is from Carl Alexander von Volborth's Heraldry:  Customs, Rules, and Styles:
First, nowhere should the term "crest" appear.  Roman Catholic episcopal CoAs don't have crests.
Second, the crosses mentioned are the episcopal crosses carried in procession--a metal cross mounted on a staff.  The staff is behind the shield, the cross appearing above it and below the hat that indicates the prelate's rank.
Pope:  crossed keys behind shield, tiara above.
Cardinal:  red hat above shield with 15 tassels hanging down on either side.  (Note that most cardinals are also patriarchs, archbishops or bishops and if so have the appropriate episcopal cross behind the shield, as listed below.
Patriarch (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 15 tassels on each side; double-barred cross.
Archbishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 10 tassels on each side; double barred cross.
Bishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 6 tassels on each side; single barred cross.
Abbot and provost with mitre and crozier:  black hat with 6 tassels on each side; veiled crozier (pastoral staff) behind shield.
Abbot and prelate nullius:  green hat with six tassels on each side; veiled crozier behind shield.
Prelate di fiocchetto (senior official of curia):  violet hat with red cords with 10 red tassels on each side; nothing behind shield.
Protonotary apostolic:  violet hat with red cords and six red tassels on each side.
Prelate of honor:  violet hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Chaplain to the pope:  black hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Canon:  black hat with three black tassels on each side
Dean and minor superiores:  black hat with two black tassels on each side, one above the other.
Priest:  black hat with one black tassel on each side.
Anglican bishops and other clergy use a different arrangement.
Joe McMillan, 5 May 2002