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Vatican City (Holy See) - Part I

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

Last modified: 2008-08-09 by dov gutterman
Keywords: vatican | holy see | pope | keys | catholic |
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by }eljko 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

Part I (this page):

Part II (next page):

See also:

Other sites:


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 on Arms of John Paul II.
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 (1990) states that 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 (1975): '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.
}eljko Heimer
, 16 May 1996

According to 'Pavillons nationaux et marques distinctives' [Payrat (2000)] - 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.
}eljko 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).
}eljko 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.
}eljko Heimer, 11 October 2004

On 14 July 2008, the Catholic News Agency (CNA) summarized an article published a week earlier in "LOsservatore Romano" by the historian Claudio Ceresa, as follows:
"[...] In an article entitled, Two centuries of yellow and white as the papal colors, Ceresa explained that in order to understand why the colors were chosen, one must consider the occupation of the city by Napoleonic troops in February of 1808.
The commander of the French forces, General Miollis, posted notices on the walls informing that the Popes army would be incorporated into the imperial forces. Those officials who remained loyal to Pius VII were to be arrested and deported, Ceresa explained.  Reaction was minimal because it was reported that the Pontiff was aware and did not resist. Only a small group of loyalists were deported to a prison in Mantova.
In order to underscore the unification, and probably to increase the situation of uncertainty as well, Ceresa continued, the papal soldiers were allowed to continue using the distinctive yellow-red colors on their hats.
Ceresa afterwards noted that the Pope did not want the Vatican State to be subject to Napoleon, and therefore on March 13, 1808 he forcefully protested.  He ordered, among other things, that the units that were still loyal to him substitute the Roman insignia colors with white and yellow.
Abbot Luca Antonio Benedetalla wrote in his diary on the same date that in order not to confuse the Roman soldiers who were under French command with the few that remained in his service, the Pope ordered the new yellow and white insignia. The noble guard and the Swiss have adopted it. They like it, he wrote.
Ceresa explained that three days later, on March 16, 1808, Pius VII sent the order in writing to the diplomatic corps, the document is considered to be the act creating the colors of the current flag of Vatican City.
Ivan Sache, 17 July 2008

Construction Sheet

image by }eljko Heimer, 11 October 2004

2:3 Variant

image by }eljko 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.
}eljko 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.
}eljko Heimer, 25 December 2003

All of the flags I saw on the street and on television during the recent papal visit (including in front of the White House in Washington DC), were of the unofficial 2:3 variation.
Roger Moyer, 5 May 2008

As explained here, nothing in the official description of the flag requires it to be square, that the version illustrated in the law is the one that is carried as an infantry color and actually is square, but that flags hoisted in Vatican City are generally not square but rather 2:3.
Joe McMillan, 14 May 2008

I beg to disagree. Below is the legislation that both established and confirmed the flag - the Acts of 1929 and 2001 state in Article 20 that:  
"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."  
I then go on go give the details of Model A both of which (I now have copies of) show a flag in proportions of 1:1.
Neither of these Laws relate to a military colour but to the "flag of the City of the Vatican", so I would suggest that 1:1 are indeed the 'official' proportions and our comments thus justified by written source.
However, we have a first hand account (and my own notes taken verbatum from those of William Crampton) that flags with proportions of 2:3 are in use by the Vatican City State, so such flags are known to be in use as a variant.
Christopher Southworth, 15 May 2008

As it happens, we have the image from the constitution, courtesy of Fr. Becker. As can be seen, nothing on the graphic indicates dimensions. Obviously, since there is a drawing, ratio-hungry vexillologists instinctively interpret that as the one and only correct ratio.  But by that logic they would also have to conclude that the flag must always be displayed with a spearhead finial, a spiral-striped pole, and a yellow-and-white cravat attached above the upper hoist!
It seems to me that if neither the text nor the picture specify a ratio, whether explicitly or implicitly, then we must conclude that there is no official ratio.
Joe McMillan, 15 May 2008

I must still beg to disagree. To me a flag defined by illustation remains defined - and the wording of both Legal instruments specifically state that it is so - regardless of whether that illustration actually contains figures or it does not.
The point  with regard to the cravat, finial and pole is (none-the-less) was cogently argued and well taken, but may I suggest that these are designed to show the flag in in its highest degree of ceremonial presentation (similarly to those flags of US states which are defined as having a fringe which is never used in general practice)?
Christopher Southworth, 16 May 2008


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

Precedence of the Holy See Flag

An interesting question arose about the precedence of Holy See flag when displayed with other national flags. Normally, national flags are displayed in the alphabetical order of their nations' names. As I understand it, the Holy See is not a nation such, but is legally equivalent to one for diplomatic and legal purposes.
Should the Holy See flag be with the "H"s in the precedence, or at the end?
Would the answer depend on the context (secular vs. religious)?
Peter Ansoff, 17 June 2006

My understanding differs; it is a nation, the vestige of the old Papal States, and has ambassadors to and from it, as do Monaco, San Marino, and similar micro-states. In a display of national flags, I would alphabetize it under V (in English).
In a religious display, as in most Catholic churches, it stands junior to the US flag to the "sinister" of the altar/stage, as the Israeli does in some synagogues. Catholic churches as a rule do not display other flags.
Al Kirsch, 17 June 2006

An interesting parallel exists for the United Kingdom: foreign Ambassadors are accredited not to the UK, but to "The Court of St. James's"; that is, the 'seat' of sovereignty of Her Britannic Majesty. Nonetheless these ambassadors are, to all intents and purposes, equivalent to High Commissioners (from former British colonies), who are indeed accredited to the UK.
Now to the Vatican: foreign ambassadors are likewise accredited not to the Vatican City State, but to the Holy See (in Latin: Sancta Sedes), the 'seat' (Sedes) of sovereignty of His Holiness the Pope.
Just as the Union Jack is accorded the alphabetical precedence of the United Kingdom, not the Court of St. James's (however sovereign this entity might be), it makes sense to give the Vatican flag the alphabetical precedence of the Vatican City State, not the Holy See.
Miles Li, 17 June 2006

I was always under the impression that the official name of the political entity was 'Vatican City State' and that its flag should therefore be flown under the letter V. The term 'Holy See', as I understand it, is an ecclesiastical definition rather than a political one, and that therefore while it may be proper and indeed expected for political entities which are or have been traditionally Roman Catholic either in their religious identity or in the religious composition of the majority of their populations, or where the Roman Catholic Church has enjoyed a special legal position, then it would be proper for such a country to fly the Vatican flag under the letter 'H' if indeed English was the official language (although I cannot think of such a country in which English is the official language except possibly the Republic of Ireland, where it is 'an' rather than 'the' official language), where the above would be applicable. Indeed, most countries in which the Roman Catholic Church has previously enjoyed or still enjoys a special legal status or in which the majority of the population are Roman Catholics, the term 'Holy See' would be given in its Latin form, 'Sancta Sedes', and its flag would therefore be displayed unmder the leter S.
Ron Lahav, 17 June 2006

The international legal entity is the Holy See. However, the flag is not technically the flag of the Holy See but that of the State of Vatican City--the legal instrument defining it is the fundamental law of the State of Vatican City, the text of which says "The flag of the City of the Vatican consists of two fields divided vertically.... etc."
I would say that when this flag is displayed with other national flags, it should be alphabetized (assuming it's in an English- speaking country) between Vanuatu and Venezuela.  I'm not sure what other context would call for its appropriate display with other non- host-country national flags.
Joe McMillan, 17 June 2006

An ambassador is never acredited to another *country* or from another country, even if he/she for all intents and purposes is ambassador to that country, but to the *head of state* of that country from the head of state of his own country. Hence, e.g., in Sweden, H.M. the King still formally sends out to and recieves the ambassadors from foreign lands, even if he has no real political role according to the Swedish constitution of 1974. This is his duty as head of state according to international law.
Elias Granqvist, 17 June 2006

The only precedent that I can offer is the U.S. State Department lobby which I visited some years ago.  There the flags of nations with whom the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations, are displayed in alphabetical order.  At that time, the Vatican flag appeared under "H" for Holy See, not "V" for Vatican City.  The Vatican flag is not displayed at the U.N. in New York, because the Holy See is not a voting member, but rather a permanent observer with certain member privileges.
Rev. Dr. William M. Becker, Pastor, 17 June 2006

If you look at membership/observer lists of various international organizations, Vatican City is always listed as Holy See (IAEA, WIPO, WTO, ILO). The only exceptions are the Universal Postal Union and the ITU where it is listed as Vatican City.
Vatican City is not a member of the United Nations. The membership was offered to the pope in 1945 and 1946, but he refused because the state/church wanted te be as neutral as possible. The Holy See is however an observer (as territorial entity) and is allowed to participate in all conferences and meetings.
Maxim van Ooijen, 17 June 2006

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, doesn't have an air force. As far as I know it doesn't even have planes. However, when the pope is taking a flight, his arms appear next to the front door of the plane. See: <>, <> and <>. It seems 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

The pope travel only in "Catholic" airlines. When he visit a "Chatolic" state he uses the local flag carrier airline to his flight. If there are more then one flag-cattier, he don't insult anybody and used all of them.
In his visit to Mexico, the pope JP II used Mexicana on one way and Aero-Mexico on the other
It seems that the pope emblem is not removed afterwards and the plane still carry it as a token and to show that this is a "papal plane".
When visiting a non-Catholic state, the pope use Alitalia planes.
Dov Gutterman, 4 July 2007


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 April 2005

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

Such vertical bicolours (and also longitudinal bicolours of vertically hanging banners) are not an unusual sight on churches at least in central Europe, I guess from the Baltic to the Adriatic sea. 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.
}eljko Heimer, 24 April 2005

For continuation see Part II

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