VATICAN CITY — Have you ever wanted to decipher the mysterious signs and symbols on a coat of arms?
An Italian cardinal has just published a book (alas, in Italiano) on cracking the code of heraldry in the church — the unique and personal crest every bishop, cardinal and pope adopts with their episcopal ordination, elevation to the College of Cardinals or election to the papacy.
The author, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, is an expert on heraldry and created Benedict XVI’s blazon when he was elected pope in 2005.
It gives an in-depth look at the history and “grammar” of a properly designed coat of arms.
Pope Benedict introduced a number of radical changes to the papal crest when he and the cardinal set about designing his papal shield.
The pope’s resignation then prompted Cardinal Cordero to think about how the now-retired pope’s coat of arms should be amended, given his change of status to “supreme pontiff emeritus.”
It was a tough question since there were no precedents to look at. Yes, there were popes who had stepped down, but it was not clear if or how their shields ever reflected that change, the cardinal said in the book.
The coat of arms of a retired pope should retain all the symbolic elements on the shield that reflect his personality and history, the cardinal said.
But, he said the external elements — like the two crossed keys, which symbolize the powers Christ gave to the Apostle Peter and his successors — should be abandoned or altered since they represent an office he no longer holds.
The cardinal includes two hypothetical designs of what he thought the new pope-emeritus shield should look like, replacing the bishop’s miter with a white “galero” with 15 tassels and returning the banner with his episcopal motto: “Cooperatores Veritatis” (“Cooperators of the truth”).
However, the retired pope passed on any changes. The cardinal said Pope Benedict thanked him for his “interesting study,” but preferred not to alter his papal shield.
Other bits of trivia are highlighted in the book such as the elements in Pope Francis’ coat of arms. It’s the first time the emblem of the Society of Jesus ever appears on a papal blazon, Cardinal Cordero said, and probably the first time the spikenard flower has ever appeared on a coat of arms.
But see if you can catch a very small, yet “inexplicable” detail in Francis’ papal coat of arms. I hadn’t noticed the mistake until the cardinal pointed it out in his book. Happy hunting!