See picture of His
Holiness' coat of arms.
Something old, something new
Armour bearings have been in common use by soldiers and the nobility
since the Middle Ages. This has given rise to a very specific heraldic
language to regulate and describe civic heraldry.
At the same time, an ecclesiastical heraldry for clergy also
developed. This heraldic usage follows exactly the same rules as civic
heraldry with regard to the composition and definition of the shield,
but surrounds it with religious or Church symbols and emblems according
to one's ecclesiastical rank in Holy Orders, jurisdiction and dignity.
There is an at least 800-year-old tradition for Popes to have their
own personal coat of arms, in addition to the symbols proper to the
Apostolic See. Particularly during the Renaissance and the centuries
that followed, it was customary to mark with the arms of the reigning
Supreme Pontiff all his principal works. Indeed, Papal coats of arms
appear on buildings and in various publications, decrees and documents.
Popes often used their family shield or composed their own with
symbols indicating their ideal of life or referring to past events or
experiences, or even elements connected with specific Pontifical
programmes. At times, they even added a variant to a shield that they
had adopted on becoming a Bishop.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, elected Pope and taking the name Benedict
XVI, has chosen a coat of arms rich in symbolism and meaning that
transmits to history his personality and Pontificate.
Arms indicate rank, title
A coat of arms consists of a shield bearing several important symbols
and surrounded by elements that indicate the person's dignity, rank,
title, jurisdiction and more.
The shield chosen by Pope Benedict XVI is very simple: it is in the
shape of a chalice, the most commonly used form in ecclesiastical
The field of Pope Benedict XVI's shield, different from the
composition on his shield as Cardinal, is now gules (red),
chape or (gold). The principal field, in fact, is red.
In each of the upper corners there is a "chape" in gold. The "chape"
[cape] is a symbol of religion. It indicates an idealism inspired
by monastic or, more specifically, Benedictine spirituality. Various.
Orders and Congregations, such as the Carmelites and the Dominicans,
have adopted in their arms the form of the "chape", although the latter
only used it in an earlier form rather than their present one. Benedict
XIII (1724-1730) of the Order of Preachers used the "Dominican chief"
[heraldic term: upper part of the field] which is white divided by a
Pope Benedict XVI's shield contains symbols he had already used in
his arms when he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and subsequently
as Cardinal. However, they are arranged differently in the new
The principal field of the coat of arms is the central one which is
red. At the point of honour of the shield is a large gold shell that has
a triple symbolism.
Its first meaning is theological. It is intended to recall a legend
attributed to St Augustine. Meeting a child on the beach who was trying
to scoop up the sea into a hole in the sand, Augustine asked him what he
was doing. The child explained his vain attempt and Augustine took it to
refer to his own futile endeavour to encompass the infinity of God
within the confines of the limited human mind.
The legend has an obvious spiritual symbolism; it is an invitation to
know God, yet with the humility of inadequate human understanding,
drawing from the inexhaustible source of theology.
The scallop shell, moreover, has been used for centuries to
distinguish pilgrims. Benedict XVI wanted to keep this symbolism alive,
treading in the footsteps of John Paul II, a great pilgrim to every
corner of the world. The design of large shells that decorated the
chasuble he wore at the solemn liturgy for the beginning of his
Pontificate, Sunday, 24 April, was most evident.
The scallop is also an emblem that features in the coat of arms of
the ancient Monastery of Schotten near Regensburg (Ratisbon) in Bavaria,
to which Joseph Ratzinger feels spiritually closely bound.
The 'Moor of Freising'
In the part of the shield called "chape", there are also two symbols
that come from the Bavarian tradition which Joseph Ratzinger introduced
into his coat of arms when he became Archbishop of Munich and Freising
In the dexter corner (to the left of the person looking at it) is a
Moor's head in natural colour [caput Aethiopum] (brown) with red
lips, crown and collar. This is the ancient emblem of the Diocese of
Freising, founded in the eighth century, which became a Metropolitan
Archdiocese with the name of München
and Freising in 1818, subsequent to the Concordat between Pius VII and
King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria (5 June 1817).
The Moor's head is not rare in European heraldry. It still appears today
in the arms of Sardinia and Corsica, as well as in the blazons of
various noble families. Italian heraldry, however, usually depicts the
Moor wearing a white band around his head instead of a crown, indicating
a slave who has been freed; whereas in German heraldry the Moor is shown
wearing a crown. The Moor's head is common in the Bavarian tradition and
is known as the caput Ethiopicum or the Moor of Freising.
A bear with a pack-saddle
A brown bear, in natural colour, is portrayed in the sinister (left)
corner of the shield, with a pack-saddle on its back. An ancient
tradition tells that the first Bishop of Freising, St Corbinian (born c.
680 in Châtres,
France; died 8 September 730), set out for Rome on horseback. While
riding through a forest he was attacked by a bear that tore his horse to
pieces. Corbinian not only managed to tame the animal but also to make
it carry his baggage to Rome. This explains why the bear is shown
carrying a pack. An easy interpretation: the bear tamed by God's grace
is the Bishop of Freising himself; the pack saddle is the burden of his
The shield of the Papal coat of arms can therefore be described
("blazoned") in heraldic terms as follows: "Gules, chape in or, with
the scallop shell of the second; the dexter chape with a moor's head in
natural colour, crowned and collared of the first, the sinister chape a
bear trippant in natural colour, carrying a pack gules belted sable".
The shield carries the symbols connected to the person who displays
it, to his ideals, traditions, programmes of life and the principles
that inspire and guide him. The various symbols of rank, dignity and
jurisdiction of the individual appear instead around the shield.
It has been a venerable tradition for the Supreme Pontiff to surround
his armorial shield with crossed keys, one gold and the other silver, in
the form of a St Andrew's cross: these have been variously interpreted
as symbols of spiritual and temporal power. They appear behind the
shield or above it, and are quite prominent.
Matthew's Gospel recounts that Christ said to Peter: "I will entrust
to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on
earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth
shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19). The keys are therefore the
typical symbol of the power that Christ gave to St Peter and his
Successors. Thus, it is only right that they appear in every Papal coat
In secular heraldry there is always some form of headpiece above the
shield, usually a crown. In ecclesiastical heraldry it is also common
for a headpiece to be shown, but obviously of an ecclesiastical kind.
The Supreme Pontiff's arms have featured a "tiara" since ancient
times. At the beginning this was a sort of closed "tocque". In 1130 a
crown was added, symbol of the Church's sovereignty over the States.
Boniface VIII, in 1301, added a second crown, at the time of the
confrontation with Philip the Fair, King of France, to show that his
spiritual authority was superior to any civic authority.
It was Benedict XII in 1342 who added a third crown to symbolize the
Pope's moral authority over all secular monarchs, and reaffirmed the
possession of Avignon.
With time, although it lost its temporal meaning, the silver tiara
with three gold crowns came to represent the three powers of the Supreme
Pontiff: Sacred Orders, Jurisdiction and Magisterium.
In past centuries, Popes wore the tiara at solemn official
celebrations and especially on the day of the "coronation" at the
beginning of their Pontificate. Paul VI used for this purpose a precious
tiara which the Archdiocese of Milan had presented to him, just as it
had given one to Pius XI; but afterwards, Paul VI donated it to a
charity and introduced the current use of a simple "mitre", although
these mitres were sometimes embellished with ornaments or gems. But he
left the "tiara" and the crossed keys as the emblem of the Apostolic
Today, the ceremony that begins a Pontificate is no longer called a
"coronation". The Pope's full jurisdiction begins the moment he accepts
his election by the Cardinals in the Conclave and not with coronation as
for secular monarchs. This ceremony, therefore, is simply called the
solemn inauguration of his Petrine Ministry, as it was for Benedict XVI
on 24 April.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI decided not to include the tiara in his
official personal coat of arms. He replaced it with a simple mitre which
is not, therefore, surmounted by a small globe and cross as was the
The Papal mitre shown in his arms, to recall the symbolism of the
tiara, is silver and bears three bands of gold (the three powers:
Orders, Jurisdiction and Magisterium), joined at the centre to show
their unity in the same person.
On the other hand, there is also a completely new symbol in the arms
of Pope Benedict XVI: the "pallium". It is not part of the tradition, at
least in recent years, for the Supreme Pontiffs to include it in their
Yet the pallium is the typical liturgical insignia of the Supreme
Pontiff and frequently appears in ancient portrayals of Popes. It stands
for the Pope's responsibility as Pastor of the flock entrusted to him by
In early centuries the Popes used a real lambskin draped over their
shoulders. This was later replaced by a stole of white wool woven with
the pure wool of lambs reared specially for the purpose. It was
decorated with several crosses that were generally black in the early
centuries, or occasionally red. Already by the fourth century the
pallium had become a liturgical symbol proper to and characteristic of
The Pope's conferral of the pallium upon Metropolitan Archbishops
began in the sixth century. Their obligation to postulate the pallium
after their appointment is attested as far back as the ninth century.
In the famous long iconographic series of medallions in St Paul's
Basilica that portrays all the Popes of history (the earliest portrayals
are idealized), many Supreme Pontiffs are shown wearing the pallium,
especially those between the fifth and, 14th centuries.
The pallium is therefore not only the symbol of Papal' jurisdiction,
but also the explicit and brotherly sign of sharing this jurisdiction
with the Metropolitan Archbishops, and through them, with their
suffragan Bishops. It is thus the visible sign of collegiality and
No motto in the coat of arms
In heraldry in general, both civic and ecclesiastical (particularly
for lower ranks), it is customary to place a ribbon or cartouche below
the shield, bearing a motto or a heraldic device. It expresses in a few
words an ideal or a programme of life.
In his Episcopal arms, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had chosen the motto
"Cooperatores Veritatis". This remains his aspiration or personal
programme but does not appear in his Papal arms, in accordance with the
tradition common to the Supreme Pontiffs' arms in recent centuries.
We all remember that John Paul II would often quote his motto,' "Totus
Tuus", although it did not feature in his Papal arms. The absence of a
motto in the Pope's arms implies openness without exclusion to all
ideals that may derive from faith, hope and charity.