Skip to main content

Papal Coat of Arms Still Relevant

Interview With Expert on Ecclesiastical Heraldry

DARLINGHURST, Australia, SEPT. 16, 2007 (Zenit) - Ecclesiastical heraldry is as relevant today as it ever was, and should be valued as part of the Church's rich cultural and artistic patrimony, according to an author of a book on papal arms.

Michael McCarthy, founder and proprietor of Australia's Thylacine Press, argued that point in his book "Armoria Pontificalium: A Roll of Papal Arms 1012-2006."

In this interview with us, which McCarthy gave before his sudden death Aug. 3 at age 57, he spoke about the place of ecclesiastical heraldry in the modern Church.

Q: What is ecclesiastical heraldry?

McCarthy: Heraldry, of which coats of arms are the central part, is a system of pictorial identification making it possible to determine a person's identity, rank and standing in society.

In heraldry, rank is always denoted by headgear. For example, kings are denoted by crowns, and bishops first by miters and then, from about 1600, by a series of flat broad-rimmed pontifical hats with cords and numbers of tassels. The various colors and numbers of tassels show the rank of the user from cardinal down to priest.

Additionally, in northern and English-speaking countries most dioceses have also adopted arms, and these are incorporated into the shields of their bishops. Displayed on seals, documents and buildings, these identify what belongs to whom and in whose name acts are carried out. A perusal of the Web sites of dioceses and bishops will bear this out and demonstrates their continued relevance today in the Internet age.

Q: Who was the first pope to have had a coat of arms?

McCarthy: It is not known which pope was the first. Heraldry emerged in the 12th century as a means of identifying people in battle. Because most of the knights were illiterate it also very quickly became a form of general identification, especially on seals, etc. From there it was a short step for ecclesiastics to do the same and this unique system of identification came into its own. Popes have been credited with coats of arms back to St. Peter, but it is generally accepted that Innocent III -- 1198-1215 -- was the first.

Q: Benedict XVI has altered heraldic custom, using the miter instead of the papal tiara and adding the pallium. Why do you think he did this?

McCarthy: All things evolve and heraldry is no exception. Benedict XVI, on becoming Pope, made it plain to the designer of his arms that he did not want a crown because he did not wish to be seen as a king. He added the pallium because he wanted to indicate the importance of communion with the Church. The pallium is used by metropolitans to show communion with the Pope and this seemed a logical step forward.

The papal tiara had a long history of development over a period of about 1,700 years. Originally in appearance it was merely a tall conical hat known as the camelaucum, which might have evolved from a miter sewn together at each side to mark the wearer as different from his fellow bishops.

However, it is more likely that it had its origins in the Phrygian Cap which the Emperor Constantine presented to Sylvester I -- 314-335. It should be remembered that the miter, when it emerged in the 10th century, was originally worn with the points over the ears, suggesting that the papal miter had been opened for the use of bishops but was incomplete to show the lesser status of the wearer.

The first coronet seems to have been used by Nicholas II -- 1059-1061. Given the historical context of that period, the reason for this is not hard to fathom. As well as being the Pontiff, he was a temporal ruler and presumably this was expressed by the coronet; the feudal mind liked to have everything clearly defined.

This single coronet remained in vogue until the end of the 13th century, but with the ascension of Boniface VIII -- 1294-1303 -- a gradual change began. Benedict XII -- 1334-1342 -- is credited with the addition of the third coronet, once again for obscure reasons, although his successor Clement VI -- 1342-1352 -- seems to have been the first Pope to have actually used it. Perhaps the way forward is to restore the camelaucum in its original form to show the unique nature of the papal office, devoid of any allusion to kingship.

Q: What is the story of Benedict XVI's shield?

McCarthy: The elements of the Pope's shield, including the Moor's head and the bear wearing a backpack, both commemorate St. Corbinian, a seventh-century bishop of Freising -- now Munich and Freising. The bishop was supposedly black-skinned and he, on a pilgrimage to Rome, encountered a bear which killed his horse. The saint then compelled the bear to carry his baggage for him instead.

Today the Moor's head is the emblem of the Diocese of Munich Freising, while the ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article


Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Malachi 3:13-20
'You have said harsh things about me, says Yahweh. And yet you ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked and ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 11:5-13
He also said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend and goes ... Read More

Saint of the Day

October 8 Saint of the Day

St. Pelagia
October 8: Pelagia, more often called Margaret, on account of the ... Read More