Hark, the heraldry: cracking the coat-of-arms code

book cover coat of arms

Cover of a new book on the heraldic signs and symbols in the church. (CNS/Carol Glatz)

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.


Under a large reproduction of his coat of arms, Pope Benedict XVI giving his homily during Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York in this April 20, 2008 file photo. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

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!

Vatican updates coat of arms of Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ coat of arms. (CNS photo).

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14 Responses to Hark, the heraldry: cracking the coat-of-arms code

  1. Hope Francis ends this medieval nonsense.

  2. Jeremy Lavin says:

    Metal on metal?

  3. Paige says:

    OK… I give up. What is the small, yet inexplicable detail?

  4. Carol Glatz says:

    look at the white banner carefully…

  5. Jim Lackey says:

    Bad translation of “misery loves company” 😉 ?

  6. Carol Glatz says:

    ooh! Good one, Jim! Nope. Follow the white color of the banner starting from the middle to one of the ends. See how it should have stayed white and not turned red as it curls?! Who knew?!

  7. Bari Colombari says:

    I do note that the current Pope’s coat-of-arms is absent the pallium that was present in that of Benedict XVI.

  8. “Hope Francis ends this medieval nonsense.”

    I hate these philistines who hate culture. Who hate symbolism and pomp and traditions and customs. They are insufferable.

    This is Catholicism. If you don’t like it piss off and become a Methodist.

  9. Saw that. Ribbon is supposed to stay white on top and end up red when it curls at the end. Surely, they can fix that, right?

  10. David Persyn says:

    Francis’ lacks a pallium.

  11. Ikilope says:

    A papal coat of arms never includes a motto.

  12. billy says:

    Who cares???

  13. Ceile De says:

    I do.

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