Buy State Flags from Allstate FlagsBuy US flags from Five Star Flags
This page is part of © FOTW Flags Of The World website

Vatican City (Holy See)

Stato della Cittá del Vaticano, State of the City of Vatican, Santa Sede

Last modified: 2006-03-18 by dov gutterman
Keywords: vatican | holy see | pope | europe | keys |
Links: FOTW homepage | search | disclaimer and copyright | write us | mirrors

by Željko Heimer, 11 October 2004

Official Name: The Holy See (State of the Vatican City) - Santa Sede (Stato della Citta del Vaticano)
Capital: Vatican City
Location: Enclave of Rome (Italy)
Government Type: Ecclesiastical
Flag adopted: 8 June 1929 (Introduced in 1825)
Coat of Arms adopted: 7 June 1929
ISO Code: VA

See also:

Other sites:

  • Flag and Arms (in English)
  • Flag and Arms (in Italian)
  • History of the Flag (in Italian)
    Based on:
    - P. Ludovici, "L'origine e il significato storico del Vessillo di Sacra [ldv36]
    - Romana Chiesa", in "L'Illustrazione Vaticana", 7, 1936;
    - M. Belardo, "Le vicende del biancogiallo", in "L'Osservatore Romano", 30 March 1956 [bld56].
    The article itself being from: Mondo Vaticano - Passato e Presente a cura di Niccolò Del Re, 1995, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
    Santiago Dotor and Marcus Schmöger, 25 July 2002
  • Catalog of Papal Coats of Arms, reported by Kristian Söderberg, 26 April 2005
    Note: Trusting their filnames, Sixtus IV shows the arms of Julius II, Clement VI shows the arms of Gregory XI, Innocent XIII shows the arms of Innocent III, Pius II shows the arms of Pius III, and Clement VII, Leo XI and Pius IV all show the arms of Leo X.
    António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 April 2005


There seem to be a confusion between the Vatican City State, the minuscule state that exists only since 1929, and the Holy See (of Rome), which is the entity which is active in all international relationships except those of a clearly territorial nature, such as membership of UPU (Universal Postal Union), INTELSAT, CEPT and UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law).
No government would have much interest in relations with so tiny a state as Vatican City.  But 172 states maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and half of those that have accredited their ambassador to the Holy See find it worthwhile to have him or her resident in Rome, distinct from their ambassador to the Italian Republic.
The flag of the Vatican City State is as on your webpage, showing the arms with the silver key in the dexter position.  When what is represented is the Holy See, not Vatican City State, the keys are reversed.  Rather, when the state was set up in 1929, the keys in the arms of the Holy See, with the gold one in dexter position, were reversed to provide a distinctive symbol for the new entity.  In the personal arms of the popes, the keys are, of course, arranged as in the arms of the Holy See: the other arrangement would be equivalent to treating him as merely the head of that little state.  The arrangement for the Holy See is seen in the arms of Pope John Paul II on your webpage.
Rather than "the keys of paradise", as given on your page, the reference would be better expressed exactly as in Jesus' words to Peter in St Matthew's Gospel 16:19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven."
I doubt too the exactness of the description given of the papal flag in use before the Napoleonic occupation of Rome.  The flag used then was that of the city of Rome, which, if I rightly recall what is today displayed in Rome, is not "yellow and red" but gold (yellow) and purple, as it no doubt was also in 1848 and before 1808.
"nuntius" , 14 Febuary 2000

The Vatican has citizens (1500 persons), but there is nobody with only Vatican citizenship. For example, the Pope is citizen of both the Vatican and Poland. The other peculiarity is that the Vatican issues only diplomatic passports, so this is a country, where all the citizens are diplomats.
Maxval, 14 March 2001

I would suppose the Holy See could be considered to be part of the government of the Vatican City State, which does have a small territory.
Elias Granqvist, 15 March 2001

US Department of State's background notes on the Holy See explain the situation this way:
"The term "Holy See" refers to the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to direct the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. As the "central government" of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 166 nations, including the United States. Libya, Guyana, and Angola established diplomatic relations in 1997. Created in 1929 to administer properties belonging to the Holy See in Rome, the State of the Vatican City is recognized under international law and enters into international agreements. Unlike the Holy See, it does not receive or send diplomatic representatives."
Joe McMillan, 15 March 2001

I notice that the Vatican is listed as "Holy See" in a list of UN observers at the UN site. Is this used as an alternative name only, or does it imply something else- more of a supernational organization, the Catholic Church perhaps? It is listed as a "non-member state".
Nathan Lamm, 1 October 2002

Holy See is the center of the catholic church, while Vatican City State is the territorial unit where Holy See is placed. (the situation is much more complicated, as Holy See not *the* state is a subject of diplomatic recognition. See web page of the Holy See's observer mission to UN.) The HS is not a member of UN (and does not want to become a member). Again - see the web page: <>.
Jan Zrzavy, 1 October 2002

"In the period between the annexation of the Papal State by Italy in 1870 and the restoration of its temporal sovereignty in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Holy Sea concluded treaties (in the form of concordats) and entertained diplomatic relations with the great majority of States.  It was to that extent a subject of international law without being a State in the accepted sense of the term." (International Law; Collected Papers of Hersch Lauterpacht).
David Prothero, 29 December 2002

Vatican has 44 hectares of area + 13 other dependencies of which Castel Gandolfo who has 7 km2, if I remember well. The Holy See of whom Vatican is the head territory (Vatican is not strictly equal to Holy See), is the remnant of the Church States.
Jean-Marc Merklin, 28 December 2002

The Flag

Crampton [cra90] states the yellow and white used today date from 1808. Before that yellow and red were used. However, I'm reading Trevelyan's Garibaldi and the Defence of the Roman Republic at the moment and that source clearly describes the Papal colours in 1848 as still being yellow and red.
Roy Stilling
, 13 May 1996

From Smith's [smi75]: 'In the whole middle age red was the colour of Catholic Church, and gold was used for the crossed papal keys. Napoleon mixed his army with papal, so pope Pius VII decided new colours should be found.'
Pius VII choose gold and silver, and those were accepted in 1825. The flag was used until 1870, when the state was integrated into Italy. When the City of Vatican was formed as separate state, it took the same flag in 1929.
Željko Heimer
, 16 May 1996

According to 'Pavillons nationaux et marques distinctives' [pay00] - State Flag (CSW/--- (1:1)) - Vertically divided yellow-white with the keys emblem in the middle of the last. The image above matches very well to the 2000 Album issue, here the construction sheet is given as (1+2+1):(2+2), i.e. the hight of the keys emblem is half the flag hoist. There are minor differences in keys emblem, but they are of no significance, I believe - every representation of the keys is somewhat differently stylized, and I do not believe that there exists a preffered or official one.
The 2003 correction have the emblem set to larger then half the hoist (8/23), or if you prefer the "rational" expression (15+16+15):(23+23). Here the keys are again somewhat differently stylzed then in 2000 issue, notable, they include a cross thoughout the key rings, otherwise very much the same. I don't know what was reason for the change, possibly some document from Vatican was received by Armand lately.
Željko Heimer, 14 August 2003

The corr. 3. gives a new construction details of the VA flag (even though the image there does not follow it). The size of the emblem in the white field is just a bit larger then one third of the height, so (15+16+15):(23+23).
Željko Heimer, 25 December 2003

According to the Legislation, Album 2000 original issue is correct and the Corr. 3 is not. I should have pointed out, the 2:3 is an unofficial variant (to match the official one), and as such surely would come in many versions. The 1:1 is the only official one.
Željko Heimer, 11 October 2004

Construction Sheet

by Željko Heimer, 11 October 2004

Unofficial (2:3) Variant

by Željko Heimer, 11 October 2004

The 2:3 unofficial variant (C--/-- (2:3)) is certainly used sometimes in "civil use", i.e. when it serves mere ornamental purpose more then statehood one. The 2000 issue give here also construction details (1+2+1):(3+3), but this surely must be orientational - the flag is unofficial anyway. The 2003 issue removes this construction details. See: Non-Square Flags.
Željko Heimer, 14 August 2003

The unofficial variant in 2:3 is also shown, in corr. 3 without the construction details (in original 2000 issue it had details, but these are now removed, presumably no sence in determining construction details for an unofficial flag). The details were in effect so that the height of the emblem is half the flag height.
Željko Heimer, 25 December 2003


The current (second) Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the State of the City of Vatican was published in "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" on 26 November 2000, and came into force on 22 February 2001.  The wording of Article 20 of this last is, however, identical to that of Article 19 in the first Constitution (the so-called Treaty of Lateran) dated 7 June 1929, and both read as follows:
"Article 20:
1. The flag of the City of the Vatican consists of two fields divided vertically, yellow field on the staff side and a white field on the other side, which bears the tiara and the keys, the whole following the model A annexed to the present law.
2. The shield shows the tiara with the keys, according to the model B annexed to the present law.
3. The seal bears in the centre the tiara and the keys, and on the circumference the words "Città del Vaticano"' [State of Vatican City], according to the model C annexed to the present law.  
Annex A - Official flag of the State of  Vatican City: Cloth divided per pale of yellow and white, the white charged amid with the crossed Keys surmounted by the Tiara.  Flagpole coated of gold, topped by a spearhead decorated by a cocarde in the same colours as the flag and gold fringed."  
And the illustration shows a square flag on a staff with a spearpoint finial (but no fringe) as did that in the 1929 Constitution.
According to both Annex A to the "Acta Apostolicae Sedis Supplemento per le Leggi e Dispozioni dello Sato dello Cita del Vaticano" - the so-called Treaty of Lateran - of 7 June 1929, and to Annex A of the recent Constititution, the arms are illustrated at exactly one-half of flag width as opposed to the one-third we show on fotw.  Interestingly enough, the apostolic arms as used on the flag show a height to width ration of 10:7. The "fringe" which I said did not appear on the flag, refers to a fringed cravat which does appear on both illustrations.
Christopher Southworth, 10 October 2004

Car Flag (?)

by Marcus Schmöger, 20 August 2002

The yellow-white pennant used on motor vehicles carrying John Paul II bears his personal arms on the white stripe (i.e., his personal shield-of-arms supported by the tiara-keys emblem, See: The Car Pennant of Pope Paul VI), not the simplified tiara-keys emblem.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

Aircraft Marking

The Holy See, naturally, don't have air force. In fact, as far as I know, it don't have planes. However, when the pope is taking a flight, his armes appear next to the front door of the plane. See: <>, <> and <>. It ssems that those arms are left on the plane afterwards as a declaration "The Pope flew in this plane" as seen on the out-of-service ex-Viasa plane at <>.
Dov Gutterman, 28 June 2004


Non-Square Flags

The (larger) Vatican flags seen displayed over Jordan and Israel during the Pope visit , appeared to be 1:2 rather than 1:1. Some of them as banners.
Santiago Dotor , Jorge Candeias and Dov Gutterman , 21 March 2000

I see vatican flags in 1:2 ratios constantly.  This has to do with the fact that I went to Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools, my sister went to a Catholic Primary School, and so is my brother.  Overall, the three of us have attended (or are attending) 4 different schools.  The reason for the Vatican's flag is that, as a Catholic school, our teaching falls under the "jurisdiction" of the Vatican.  And since Canada has the law about all flags being the same size as the Canadian flag, the Vatican's flag is stretched to be 1:2.
Georges G. Kovari, 25 Febuary 2002

In the States the Vatican flag is seen in 2:3 and 3:5, being made to fit with the standard sizes manufactured by US flag makers. In our church the US and Vatican flags are 4 foot by 6 feet, i.e. 2:3.
Devereaux Cannon, 25 Febuary 2002

Flag with Horizontal Stripes

by António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 Aoril 2005

In a Vatican flag-waving crowd Reuters photo, a horizontal bicolor of yellow over white.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 Aoril 2005

Such vertical bicolours (and also longitudinal bicolours of vertically hanging banners) are not unusual sight on churches at least in Central Europe, I guess from Baltic to Adriatic. This especially where the horizontal bi- (and tri) colours are national flags, making probably a better visual effect then if the proper VA flag would be used.
Željko Heimer, 24 Aoril 2005

Rank Flags (?)

While driving I passed over a car with diplomatic plates which carried interesting car flag. It was the VA flag but instead the expected keys there was an ornamated red double cross on the center (verticl hand of the cross on the
centerline between two colours).
Eli Gutterman, 15 Febuary 2001

The double cross is symbolic for a bishop, maybe there is some connection. IMHO - the yellow and white flag clearly indicate the Romancatholic connection - it may be an ususual flag used by Vatican mission, though it is not quite likely, I guess. I suspect that the flag may beling to some of the orders or like organizations that may possibly have diplomatic status in Israel for some historical reasons (or whatever reason, for that matter), just like the Maltese Order have in many countires allover the world.
Željko Heimer, 15 Febuary 2001

Could the vatican use some sort of "rank" flag ? The VA flag with the key as a car flag might be reserved for the pope.
Marc , 15 Febuary 2001

Here is a brief synopsis of Roman Episcopal Heraldry.  That crest that you mentioned is an Episcopal coat of arms, which means it is the arms of a bishop. Any shield that has a double cross behind it is the crest of an archbishop.  A single cross in the backdrop is the cross of a regular bishop.  On the bishops coat of arms, You also would have seen an elaborate arrangement of tassels on either side, rather then the keys of St. Peter, as in the papal coat of arms.  These tassels come in three different forms.  Twelve green tassels signifies the rank of bishop, 20 green tassels signifies the rank of archbishop, and 30 red tassels signifies the rank of Archbishop/Cardinal Priest. All bishops, other than the archbishop of Rome (pope), have a shield in the center which is split in two halves.  The left half, is the arms of his Diocese, and the right is his personal arms.  The scroll below the shield is the bishops personal motto. You may also see plain shields that have no tassels but have a mitre on them.  These shields are the arms of the actual diocese. 
I. Jasionowski, 17 March 2002

Jasionowski's paragraph muddled the terminology of "crest" and "coat of arms" and was also somewhat confusing about other accoutrements.  The following is from Carl Alexander von Volborth's Heraldry:  Customs, Rules, and Styles:
First, nowhere should the term "crest" appear.  Roman Catholic episcopal CoAs don't have crests.
Second, the crosses mentioned are the episcopal crosses carried in procession--a metal cross mounted on a staff.  The staff is behind the shield, the cross appearing above it and below the hat that indicates the prelate's rank.
Pope:  crossed keys behind shield, tiara above.
Cardinal:  red hat above shield with 15 tassels hanging down on either side.  (Note that most cardinals are also patriarchs, archbishops or bishops and if so have the appropriate episcopal cross behind the shield, as listed below.
Patriarch (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 15 tassels on each side; double-barred cross.
Archbishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 10 tassels on each side; double barred cross.
Bishop (who is not also a cardinal):  green hat with 6 tassels on each side; single barred cross.
Abbot and provost with mitre and crozier:  black hat with 6 tassels on each side; veiled crozier (pastoral staff) behind shield.
Abbot and prelate nullius:  green hat with six tassels on each side; veiled crozier behind shield.
Prelate di fiocchetto (senior official of curia):  violet hat with red cords with 10 red tassels on each side; nothing behind shield.
Protonotary apostolic:  violet hat with red cords and six red tassels on each side.
Prelate of honor:  violet hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Chaplain to the pope:  black hat with violet cords and six violet tassels on each side.
Canon:  black hat with three black tassels on each side
Dean and minor superiores:  black hat with two black tassels on each side, one above the other.
Priest:  black hat with one black tassel on each side.
Anglican bishops and other clergy use a different arrangement.
Joe McMillan, 5 May 2002

Flags used by Roman Catholic Dioceses

As for flags used by Roman Catholic dioceses, there are no official guidelines. I suspect that (almost) every diocese has a coat-of-arms, but very few use a distinctive flag. Those that do are at liberty to design them as they please. In my diocese, we fly an "armorial banner" of the diocesan arms at key diocesan sites. It is red, with a white St. George cross, and charged in the middle with a blue lozenge bearing a white mystical rose. Here in the US the Vatican flag is commonly used by Catholic parishes and institutions as a symbol of ecclesial communion with the pope. By the way, a very good resource for ecclesiastical heraldry is Bruno Bernard Heim's book, Heraldry in the Catholic Church.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 30 June 2004

Vatican Flag Myths

I have composed articles for the Flag Bulletin on Vatican Flags (no. 119) and 19th-century Papal States Flags (pending), and previously lived in Rome in extraterritorial Vatican zones. Here are some myths about Vatican flags that I have encountered over the years, inviting correction. Illustrations are below.

Myth #1: "The Vatican flag is officially square." - Not exactly.
Its infantry color should be square, but it is not clear that all other flags should be. An illustration in the Vatican constitution shows its "official flag" as a square infantry color, with a special lance, finial, and cravat (Constitution, 2001, annex A). As such it is carried by the Swiss Guard (Color, Swiss Guard Barracks, 1984 and Color, St. Peter’s Square). Square infantry colors were the custom of the Papal States and the Italian peninsula generally, although rectangular flags prevailed for other state purposes. The current Vatican flag served as the Papal States civil ensign from 1825-1870 and was rectangular. Hence it is not clear whether the constitution requires all Vatican flags to be square, and in practice those flown on Vatican buildings are not. Since most are manufactured in Italy, they follow the Italian proportions of 2:3. The size of the tiara-keys emblem depends on the flag's size and/or manufacturer; and the shade of the yellow stripe depends on the flag-maker and/or fabric. Most use golden-yellow, but linen flags use lemon-yellow.

Myth #2: "The Vatican never flies its flag, except overseas for diplomatic purposes." - False.
It only flies from local Vatican buildings, however, on annual holidays specified by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, including Catholic holy days, papal anniversaries, and special state occasions. In fact the Vatican phones its various buildings to remind them to fly the flag, although some are more regular in its display than others. Below are photos of the flag flying at the St. Anne’s Gate (Vatican's public entrance) , St. Damasus Courtyard (diplomatic entrance) , and an extraterritorial children's hospital (Bambino Gesu Hospital, Rome, extraterritorial zone of the Holy See).

Myth #3: "A plain yellow-white flag is proper for extraterritorial properties of the Holy See in Rome." - False.
Such properties should use the regular Vatican flag, as clarified by the governor of Vatican City State (letter to the author, 25 February 1993). These properties enjoy various degrees of extraterritorial privileges according to the 1929 Lateran pacts and successive agreements. They include Catholic shrines, church offices, and other properties. Occasionally, however, a plain bicolor is seen -- probably for reasons of economy.

Myth #4: "There is a special flag to represent the Holy See apart from the Vatican City flag." - False.
Smith's Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (1975) mistakenly showed such a flag (p. 223) which was employed to welcome Paul VI at Amman airport in 1964 (National Geographic, December 1964, p. 825). It bore the tiara-keys emblem in stylized fashion in the center of the flag, and was almost certainly an erroneous model of the Vatican flag. Indeed all other papal journeys have employed the usual Vatican flag, including the pilgrimage of John Paul II to Jordan in 2000. Moreover, papal diplomats, accredited in the name of the Holy See, are expected by the Secretariat of State to fly the regular Vatican City flag despite the technically distinct sovereignties involved (Vatican flag at the Apostolic Nunciature (Embassy) in Bogota, Colombia). Since the tiny Vatican state is viewed by papal officials as the sign and guarantee of the Holy See's independence in international affairs, its state flag logically serves both entities, and is commonly referred to as "the papal flag" ("la bandiera pontificia").

Myth #5: "On the flag, the keys are juxtaposed with the gold key on the dexter when representing the Holy See, and on the sinister when representing Vatican City." - False.
No symbolic difference attaches to the juxtaposition, as can be seen from the Vatican website, which shows the coats-of-arms of both entities with the gold key handle on the dexter. It is true, however, that all papal coats-of-arms since the creation of Vatican City in 1929 have placed the gold key handle on the sinister, while the constitutional illustrations of the flag and arms of Vatican City have always placed it on the dexter. The difference is merely a matter of custom, however, and the flag is not manufactured in "different versions" for the two entities. In actual flags, moreover, liberty prevails in the juxtaposition of the gold and silver keys.

Myth #6: "The current Vatican flag was the flag of the Papal States." - Not exactly.
It was the Papal States civil ensign from 1825-1870, and no doubt gained international familiarity as such, but other flags served other functions in the same era. The customs ensign was a yellow-white vertical bicolor with the cardinal chamberlain's umbrella-and-keys on the white stripe. Plain yellow-white bicolors (horizontal or vertical) served as unofficial civil flags. A white flag charged with the arms of the reigning pope was the war flag for forts and garrisons. The tiny papal navy flew a white ensign with a small tiara-keys emblem between the figures of Ss. Peter and Paul (Papal States War Ensign, Vatican Museums, ca. 1984). The Infantry color changed with successive popes; from 1860 it was a plain, square vertical bicolor of yellow-white. There appears to have been no state flag for unarmed government buildings. In 1929 Vatican City resurrected the pre-1870 civil ensign as its state flag, probably because it contained the official papal colors (yellow-white) and the tiara-keys emblem as an unvarying symbol of the papacy (unlike the personal arms of each pontiff).

Myth #7: "The yellow-white papal colors come from the medieval crusader banners of Godfrey of Bouillin." - False.
The most likely origin of the papal colors are the keys of St. Peter, which in the modern era have usually been rendered in gold and silver - heraldic tinctures which equate with the colors yellow and white. The colors were first adopted for the papal cockade in 1808, when Napoleon's occupying army forcibly incorporated the papal army into his own, and papal loyalists desired a symbol of resistance. The colors next appeared in civil and state ensigns (1825) and in infantry colors (ca. 1835).
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 23 June 2004

Concering Myth #1, I do not have a copy of Annex A to the Constitution of 2001, however, I do have a copy of Annex A to the "Acta Apostolicae...etc" of 7 June 1929 which established the flag of the Vatican City State. This shows a square flag with the finial and fringed cravat as described by Fr Becker, however, the size of the Apostolic arms is illustrated at exactly one-half the width of the flag as opposed to the one-third on the Construction Sheet.
Interestingly enough, these arms show a height to width ratio of 10:7.
Christopher Southworth, 6 August 2004