Aspects of Church Heraldry
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Summary of a Presentation
made on Wednesday 14 September 2005
at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society

Friends, members and supporters of heraldry were privileged to attend an excellent and highly informed address entitled Aspects of Heraldry in the Catholic Church given by the Rev. Guy Selvester at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society (the G&B) on 14 September 2005. The talk was co-sponsored by the G&B’s Committee on Heraldry and the College Arms Foundation, Inc. As the reverend lecturer said himself, it is a huge challenge to describe 800 years of church heraldry in about 45 minutes. Nonetheless he managed to present a masterful overview of a very visible, although not always well-understood, tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Fr. Selvester stated at the outset that his views on heraldry have been influenced by his mentor, Dr. Geza Grosschmid, a professor of economics at Duquesne University who was also a member of the Academie Internationale d’Heraldique as well as a friend and collaborator of the late Archbishop Bruno Heim, a church prelate who is considered one of the great 20th century authorities on church heraldry.

A perusal of the United States Catholic Directory, published by P.J. Kennedy & Sons, which also shows the arms of the dioceses, reveals two facts. One is that every diocese and diocesan bishop has a coat or arms; another is that the design standards are uneven. This is directly attributable to the fact that there is no Church regulatory heraldic authority to establish guidelines and maintain standards. As a result, contemporary church heraldry varies widely in quality. Fr. Selvester noted that there was formerly a Church heraldic office for the Papal States, before the unification of Italy by the House of Savoy reduced the Church’s geographical dominion to the present-day Vatican City.

With no official guidance, modern Church heraldry for the most part reflects the personal tastes and choices of the persons using it. Frequently, they have no experience in the subject. That does not mean that there are no experts who can offer advice; only that the experts have no authority other than a moral one.

Archbishop Heim, for example, was both highly respected as a Church heraldist as well as an admired artist with a distinctive, modern style. He was often consulted and designed many excellent coats of arms, yet he was not officially a church herald. His influence was partly due to his close association with Pope John XXIII, whose private secretary he was in the days when he was Papal Nuncio to France. Paradoxically enough, however, it was Heim who persuaded Pope John not to establish a Church heraldic office on the grounds that it is “impossible to legislate good taste.” Or, put another way, de gustibus non est disputandem (“In matters of taste there can be no dispute”).

Before embarking on his topic, Fr. Selvester iterated some definitions. Heraldry is the art, practice and science of recording genealogies, blazoning arms or armorial ensigns and also devising coats of arms. (John A. Nainfa, Costumes of Prelates of the Catholic Church.)

Heraldry is a science, insofar as it does lay down correct principles and draws conclusions which properly flow from them. It is also an art: a medium for creative expression and ingenuity, which is constantly evolving and changing. It is alive.

“Whether [heraldry] is a noble science or merely the ‘science of the fools with long memories’ remains in question. However, it is guided by positive rules which cannot be violated with impunity. As long as it is employed at all it can only be done after some due attention has been paid to the requirements which, while seeming arbitrary, have the sanction of being observed for centuries. It is insufficient reason to violate these rules because they are deemed obsolete or absurd. For if heraldry is to be introduced at all it must be rightly done. (F.E. Hulme: The History, Principles and Practice of Heraldry)

The first step to a bishop assuming arms is, of course, becoming a bishop. The Papal Nuncio will call him and inform him of his appointment. It is possible to serve the Church as a cleric and not need a coat of arms. However, bishops commonly use them and it would be unusual if one did not. Typically, the new bishop will impale his arms with those of his diocese. This is common practice in the English speaking world; though Fr. Selvester noted that, in Switzerland and Germany, quartering is the norm.(See the first illustration below)

As noted above, the new bishop can design his own arms. It seems to be established practice to combine personal references (perhaps ethnic origin, or previous jobs, or interests) with statements of faith. There is nothing wrong with this approach. However, in the absence of any heraldic design authority, the result is often “busy”: the shield is over-crowded with charges. When these arms are impaled, the result can be opposite of clear and simple.

Good design is best expressed through good artwork. Heraldry is a visual discipline and subject to interpretation by artists. Different artists may interpret the same blazon very differently, and some will do so better than others because they have the training and skill to create a successful composition.

Heraldry first appeared in Europe in the 12th Century. Arms were borne originally by monarchs, great nobles and knights essentially the noble and warrior classes. However, the practice of using arms was widely imitated, and not only by individuals. Heim states that the Church began to use arms in the mid-13th Century for the purpose of identification.

In the early days of heraldry, before the establishment of heraldic regulatory authorities, arms were assumed. The assumption of arms implied no virtue or qualification but was merely a mark of identification. The adopted armorial compositions had to be distinctive, rather than symbolic, to be effective. Also, Fr. Selvester stated that the designs did not necessarily contain a meaning that could be “read” like some code or arcane language.

Dioceses, cathedrals, churches, abbeys and other religious organizations displayed arms, particularly in seals. In addition, members of the clergy used personal arms even though, in theory, they would never be combatants and thus, again in theory, would not need to be easily recognizable on a battlefield. As non-combatants the clergy replaced some of the more martial elements in heraldry with objects they used in the exercising of their office.

The principal vehicle for heraldry coming into the Church was the seal. In the Middle Ages, as they became more involved in civil administration, a greater use of seals by bishops occurs. Heraldry became increasingly important to the Church as it was a means to distinctly mark more than documents.Episcopal seals were originally oval, or in a “vesica”, to differentiate them from the round secular seals, and usually depicted figures of saints or even portraits of the bishop himself. (see the second illustration below)

Anything could be marked as belonging to a bishop, abbey or prelate via heraldic symbols. Buildings and property were marked as were servants and officials with heraldic badges. The heraldic emblem often evolved into symbols of office and authority.helm, mantle, torse and crest (as well as supporters and symbols of secular honors and dignities) disappeared and were replaced by the mitre, cross, crozier and galero, an ecclesiastical hat of which the color and the number of tassels denote the ecclesiastic rank
of the armiger.

There was no heraldic uniformity or commonality until the 17th Century when a heraldist named Pierre Palliot created a system for ecclesiastical hats. He drew from the writings of Fr. Matthew Compain, S.J. (who managed in the space of one lifetime to be both an artist and a Jesuit!); but a coherent system as we know it today for all the ranks of clergy did not emerge until 1905 with the directive Inter Multiplices of Pope St. Pius X.

A system of emblems was developed to indicate the status of church officials. Croziers a symbol of pastoral jurisdiction were frequently, though not always, displayed with their arms of abbeys. Croziers were used by abbots and abbesses, as well as bishops and cardinals (whether or not they were bishops). Abbatial croziers are turned inward (to dexter) and veiled with a sudarium, or shroud, since gloves were forbidden to abbots. The use of the veil by abbots was decreed by Pope Alexander VII in 1659. Archabbots and territorial abbots also use abbatial croziers in their arms.

Bishops replaced the headgear of knights and noblemen with their own headgear: mitres. The mitre, which, according to Heim, derived from the camelaucum, an ancient form of head dress also known as a Phrygian bonnet, came into use in the 10th Century; and was originally utilized exclusively by the popes. In the 11th Century, pontiffs granted to some bishops permission to use it, although it did not signify episcopal rank; and abbots too were given mitres, when Pope Alexander II gave it to Elgensinus, Abbot of St. Augustine’s at Canterbury. Eventually all bishops adopted the mitre both in practice and in heraldry, with the tacit consent, if not the explicit permission, of the popes.

The practice also evolved for abbots, abbeys, dioceses and bishops to display their arms with mitre, cross and crozier. The galero, mentioned above, was originally a Roman custom and was almost never seen outside of Italy. By the 16th Century Catholic bishops adopted it and its use became widespread. By the 19th Century the use of the mitre alone was waning and the galero was seen as more “Catholic”.

The galero was used by bishops with the mitre, cross and crozier until the 1969 instruction Ut Sive of Pope Paul VI suppressed the use of mitres in the arms of persons. However, they were retained in corporate arms. The cross is the supreme mark of episcopal dignity and its use is restricted to bishops alone. (Non-episcopal cardinals may not display a cross in their arms.) As with many other church symbols, the cross has evolved. Originally, a simple cross (termed a “Latin cross”) was carried before the popes in liturgical or ceremonial processions. Subsequently, the cross was utilized by papal legates in processions to indicate that they represented the pope. A processional cross (or “crucifix”) is not the same thing as a heraldic cross. Patriarchs adopted a double-bar cross (the “patriarchal cross”) in the 15th century, followed by Catholic archbishops in the 17th century. Bishops retain the use of the simple Latin cross.

The highest rank in the Church under that of Pope is the rank of cardinal, for which several heraldic conventions have been created over the centuries. The cardinal’s red hat was granted by Pope Innocent IV (reigned 1243-1254) to the cardinals at the Council of Lyons. It was the first hat to receive a special color; and it bore tassels. (The number of tassels was not prescribed at first and was only set at 30 in 1832.) The red hat was used heraldically almost immediately, as suggested by 13th century tombs, to the point (says Heim) where the mitre begins to disappear from cardinals’ arms. After the cardinals, the prothonotaries apostolic started to use the galero, and then other, lesser Roman prelates. Although it continues in heraldic use, Pope Paul VI (reigned 1962-1978) ceased to confer them upon new cardinals. Red galeros may still be seen hanging in cathedrals today as a result of an old tradition of hanging the galero of deceased cardinals in their cathedrals until they decay. Pope Innocent X prohibited the use by cardinals of secular heraldic privileges (such as coronets, supporters and decorations) in the bull Militantes Ecclesiae (1644). This prohibition was extended to patriarchs, archbishops and bishops by Pope Benedict XV in 1915. However, all may if entitled display the emblems of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and/or the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

Certain ancient emblems appertain solely to the supreme head of the church, the pope. The accession of Pope Benedict XVI, and the promulgation of his papal coat of arms which appears to change one of the most famous and distinctive of those the papal tiara has ignited a controversy among church heraldists.

The origins of the papal tiara, or triple crown, go back many centuries, to the camelaucum, or Phrygian cap, which was conferred upon Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314-335) as a sign of the freedom of the Church. By the 7th Century the camelaucum is particular to the pope.

Starting after the 9th Century a crown is added to the cap to denote the Church’s temporal power. Boniface VIII (reigned 1294-1303) added a second crown, to symbolize the Church’s spiritual power. A third crown appears by 1315. The tiara is neither a religious nor a spiritual emblem. It is no longer physically used although again it continues heraldically,

The final symbolic element utilized the popes as head of the Catholic Church is the pallium, a white vestment that rests on the shoulders with pendants hanging at its front and back. It symbolizes the pope’s supreme pastoral authority and Pope Benedict is giving new emphasis to it in his coat of arms. It has not been customary to depict it in papal arms; although it has been forbidden either.

This is the time to underscore the main facts of papal heraldry. The pope has no “arms of office.” The rules have never been fixed by law but, instead, have been defined by custom and precedent. Where papal heraldry has deviated from precedent, the differences have been attributed to errors of execution by artists or mistakes by low-level functionaries. These basic facts have never changed in five centuries until now. Several weeks after his accession, the Vatican revealed the arms of Pope Benedict XVI. The design caused consternation among heraldists for some of its changes of the traditional papal heraldry. The main one is the replacement of the tiara with something resembling a bishop’s mitre with three golden stripes which are presumably intended to suggest or make reference to the traditional tiara. Another change is the appearance of the pallium under the shield after a long absence. 

The crossed keys are another well-known emblem of the popes. They symbolize the power to bind and loose given to the Church in Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, the keys (which, of course, do not actually exist and never did) symbolize the Church itself: when a pope dies, the keys are used emblematically by the papal camerlengo (or chamberlain) who guards the Church during the period of sede vacante (literally “empty chair”).

More generally, the rendering was thought to be singularly lacking in vibrancy. The world was informed that the Pope wished for a “simpler” design that displays the symbols of his office in use today. The tiara is no longer in use and has been replaced with something else, a sort of hybrid tiara-mitre which does not exist either (at least, not yet). Why not revert to the original camelaucum instead? At the same time, since bishops no longer use heraldic mitres, the new hybrid effectively is unique in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, if the aim is to eliminate objects that do not exist, one might well ask why the keys remain.

The paucity of artistic quality is plain to see when the original Vatican-issued rendering is contrasted with renderings by noted artists, such as Michael McCarthy, Ikkon-Andre Yamashita and Marco Foppoli. (see Foppoli's version of the arms in the third illustration below) These show more clearly than words the critical role the artist plays in transforming heraldic concepts into visual reality.

Arguments can be made for and against the changes. On the “pro” side, they reinforce the fact that heraldry is a living art form, open to new ideas for a new time. The new mitre is distinctive to the Pope today. On the “con” side, the new design disregards tradition and contradicts the rules laid down in Ut Sive. The pallium does not fit easily into the arms. Lastly, heraldic symbols do not have to be real: the keys of St. Peter are not, nor are galeros. However, the tiara and keys remain a symbol of the Holy See, the Catholic Church and the Vatican City State. It will take time to change that and, Fr. Selvester suggested, it may never happen. “Only time will tell.”

Elvins, Mark T., Cardinals and Heraldry (London, 1988).

Galbreath, Donald L., Papal Heraldry (Cambridge, 1930)

Heim, Bruno B., Heraldry in the Catholic Church: It's Origins, Customs and Laws (Gerrards Cross, 1978, 1981)

Martin, Jacques, Heraldry in the Vatican (Gerrards Cross, 1987)

Nainfa, John A., Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church (Baltimore, 1926)

Woodward, John, A Treatise on Ecclesiastical Heraldry (Edinburgh & London, 1894)


Arms of Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, NJ


Medieval Episcopal Portrait Seal in "Vesica" Shape


Arms of Pope Benedict XVI Rendered by Marco Foppoli