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The first ensign for the Christian church was the lavarum of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who saw, in a dream, the Cross of Our Lord in the sky and beneath it, the words 'En touto, Nika (in this, conquer). Constantine ordered the symbol of the Cross to be placed on the standards of the Empire - either as the finial (the metal piece at the tip of a flagpole), or emblazoned on the banners themselves. This took place at the time of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in the year 312. Constantine won the battle, and his interest in Christianity continued until, on his deathbed, he was baptized into the Church (he wanted to avoid committing sins after baptism). Constantine's interest in the Church meant that Christianity gained approval from the government, and thousands of persons began to join the Church. Some show the Greek words, 'En touto, nika' as well as the Cross on banners. Later, not replacing the cross, but added above it, were the abbreviations for the name "Jesus Christ," IC XC, and then in the corners of the cross, 1) IC 2) XC 3) NI 4) KA. At this time, most 'flags' were lavarums, or flags or banners attached to a bar which was suspended from the tip of a spear or flagpole. The lavarum, in contemporary usage, is also a plaque at the top of a pole, on which some symbol may be painted or carved. In the Eastern Christian Church, icons are often painted on lavarums, and carried in procession as a form of flag. Another early Christian symbol, abbreviating the name "Christ", was the letters X and P superimposed. This also was used as finials and on flags. These symbols were used throughout Christian history from that time forward.
Many Christian countries began to use the cross as their country's flag, and, in research on this question, I've found more than 1300 flags with crosses on them (in one form or another), and I'm sure there are more which I haven't found.
In the time of the Crusades, in an agreement in 1188, various countries were assigned symbols with crosses on them, with different colors to indicate the country of origin. Red on white for France, White on red for England, Yellow on white for Italy, a white cross on black for Brittany, green cross on white for Flanders. A black cross on white was used by the Teutonic Knights and the Germans. In about 1400, the colors of France and England were exchanged, and England's flag, to this day, is the red cross on white, the Saint George's Cross. (See Crusader Cross Flags 1188).
The whole point of the above is to show the importance of the symbol and sign of the cross for Christians.
The Eastern Christian Roman Empire, having been overrun by Moslem invaders, did not develop flags for itself until various independence movements began.
Still, there were no flags for the Church.
However, as time went by, the Orthodox Christian Churches did begin to use flags for themselves. The web page for "Flags of the World" "Greek Orthodox Church"
The page Ecum. Patriarchate of Constantinople and Autonomous Church of Greece has the following paragraph "In the Orthodox Church there are 15 independent church units (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Russia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, USA, Cyprus, Georgia), each with his own Patriarch or Archbishop. There is no subordination between these independent churches. The Church of Constantinople and his Patriarch (the Patriarch of Constantinople or Oecumenical Patriarch) has only a status of "first among equals", nothing more. This status means nothing more that the Patriarch is the president of all Orthodox conferences, but he has no kind of power over other church units. He is the leader of only his own church unit, the Church of Constantinople." This is accurate except that it should be noted that there are 15 independent (autocephalous) churches - and two independent (autonomous) Churches - Finland and Japan. One might also add that China was and the Ukraine is an autonomous church as well. It should also be noted that the list below is not in order.
Fr. John Udics, 8 May 2003
1. The Patriarchate of Constantinople uses a white flag with deep red - on the face, in a red circle with gold outlines, a double-headed eagle, with a crown on each head, and a crown over both, and the abbreviation "OIK" and "P" for 'Oecumenical Patriarchate', and in the right claw of the eagle, a cross, and in the left, an orb with a cross on its top. Below the eagle is an arc of wreathed branches - which may be of the same sort of tree. Below the tail, there is the outline of a closed book, atop of which are two keys, crossed. On either side of that, there are the letters "K" and "P" for "Constantinople." On the reverse of the flag, a deep red equal-armed cross, with the abbreviations 'Barth' in the first quarter, 'lms' in the second (for Bartholomeos) and in the third quarter P with T, R, and X superimposed to form one character, and in the fourth quarter, KPS (for Patriarch and Constantinople). There is a thin deep red circle around this, and the words "Oikoumenikon Patriarcheion" in gold, and in the base of the circle, a branch in deep red, and above it in small golden characters, the Greek numbers 'a' 'xsi' 'ts' 'a', indicating the date 1991. All this is surrounded by two thin deep red circles.
Note that the two keys, crossed, found on this flag and that of other patriarchates, indicates the Orthodox Christian belief that Christ gave "the keys of the Church" to all the apostles, and hence, to all bishops, and not only to Peter.
2. The Patriarchate of Alexandria uses a white lavarum with an equal armed white cross, "Maltese" style but with rounded ends, outlined in gold, surrounded by a thin gold circle. Superimposed is a winged lion holding an open book, facing the viewer, and on a rectangular base, outlined in black. Surrounding this is a motto on a scroll outlined in gold, the words being "Patriarcheion Alexandreias," in Greek, in black. Around this is a wreath of two branches (different branches) and above it all, a crown, the branches and crown being gold outline. The obverse is a white equal armed cross "Maltese" style but with rounded ends, outlined in a double gold outline, and the outline of the winged lion holding an open book, on a rectangular base, outlined in black. The Cross and Lion on the Reverse are larger than they are on the face.
3. The Patriarchate of Antioch uses a white lavarum with the outlines of Saints Peter and Paul holding up a church building. Below it is two keys crossed and tied with a little ribbon, above which is a small cross, equal armed. In an oval form, this is surrounded by the words, "Patriarcheion Antiocheias" in Greek. Centered between these two words and above the church, is a dove displayed, flying head downward, and surrounded by rays. All this is in outline form, black on white.
4. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem uses a lavarum of white with a church building with two towers with two onion-shaped domes, each with a cross atop it. Above and to the right (on the left as we view it) of the Church is a dove, flying with a twig in its beak, and to the left, a sun with rays. To the right of the Church is a palm tree, and below the church are two keys, crossed. This is all on a mantle with a crown above it, a cross on the top of the crown. Behind the mantling is, crossed per saltire, a Bishop's staff (in the style of the Greek Church) and a staff with the cross on it's top. Below the mantling are the words "Patriarcheion Ierosolimion" The church and keys are outlines of black, while everything else is an outline of deep gold.
4 (bis). The Patriarch of Jerusalem uses the above, without the words beneath, and on either side of the arms, at the top, are the outline in black of a crescent moon facing center, and a sun with rays. Surrounding this are on the right, the letters DI and below that OD and on the left OR and below that OS (Diodoros) and below that, on the right again, PT and on the left XS (Patriarch) and on the right IRS and on the left LMN (of Jerusalem). In base is the date 1981. All this is in gold. And it's all surrounded by a thin octagon of red, and then a thicker outline of that.
5. Russia's first flag was the face of Christ embroidered on a white flag - similar to the so-called 'Veronica's Veil' but without the crown of thorns. The Patriarch of Moscow has his own flag, of green, with his initials, e. g. P A for Patriarch Alexis. However, the church does not have a flag of its own.
6. The Orthodox Church of Serbia - the Patriarchate of Beograd, uses the Serbian flag, on which is superimposed a cross with the letters SSSS ('C' in Cyrillic) or a stylized BBBB, in gold. The letters in the first and third quarters face the staff, while those in the second and fourth quarters face the fly. For an explanation of this, see the page of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
7. The Orthodox Church of Greece uses the Byzantine symbol of a double headed eagle on a gold lavarum or flag. The eagle holds in its right claw a scepter, and in the left claw, an unsheathed sword. The heads of the eagles support one royal crown, with a cross atop it. All this is in outline form, outlined in black. Surrounding this are the words "Ekklisia tis Ellados Iera Archiepiskopi Athinon" in black lettering. The flag also sometimes appears without the words. It is frequently used in the United States by Greek Orthodox Churches (see editorial note).
8. The Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem uses a flag which is a red cross on white defaced with the Greek letters Tau and Phi superimposed, in gold letters. An alternative of this is a white cross on red, defaced with the Greek letters Tau and Phi superimposed (abbreviation for 'taphos' or 'Sepulchre'), in red letters [see same page].
9. The various monasteries on Mount Athos frequently fly the old continental Greek flag, of a white cross on blue, One particular monastery, opposed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate's 'liberalism', 'ecumenism' and 'modernism', sometimes uses the white cross on blue with the words "Eleutheria I THanatos" ('Freedom or Death') added.
10. The Orthodox Church in Japan uses the early Christian symbol, the Chi Rho (X and P) superimposed. As many "mon" or "seals" represent various clans in Japan, and now corporations, this is not surprising. The seal is usually red and arranged in a circle or centered in what would be a circle, to take the place of the red sun in the Japanese flag (on white). So the Orthodox Church in Japan uses the letters X and P with an additional horizontal bar, fit into a circle - in red on white, as their flag.
11. Since there is no unity in the Orthodox Christian diaspora, and since there is a movement for administrative unification of the various emigrant Churches in the United States, and since I'm a member of NAVA and would like to see administrative unity of the Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, I designed a flag for Orthodox Christians in this hemisphere, or at least, on this continent. It was accepted as the flag of the Brotherhood of Orthodox Christians of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. It was submitted to the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, but we have not heard their reaction to the flag proposal.
by Fr. John Udics
The flag was designed with the thought of the Fort Mifflin flag (American revolutionary war) in the back of my head. So the flag is based on the width of stripes in the flag of the USA, 1/13 of the height of the flag. After designing it, I realized that it could be interpreted as the superimposition of the flags of two major Orthodox Christian milieu - the Byzantine and the Slavic - a white cross on a blue field as used in Greece and a white cross on a red field as used in Russia. Describing it, one could say that there is a white cross at the center, with a red cross behind it, and behind that another white cross with a blue cross behind it, all on a white field. It's easier to show it than it is to explain it.
Also, if desired, the flag can be used in Mexico, changing the blue cross to green, and in Canada, changing the blue cross to red. In the first quarter of the flag, various symbols can be added to indicate a diocese or ethnic diocese, or even to indicate a particular jurisdiction. For example, the SCOBA (Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America) uses the Chi-Rho symbol on its letterhead - and it could be used in the proposed flag for North American Orthodox Christians either in the center, or in the first quarter of the flag (or canton - though it's kind of small for a canton).
Illustrations of the flags of the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Greece are found in the publication "Ellenikes Simaies. Simata - Emvlimata" Elias Kokkonis. Athens. 1997.
Fr. John Udics, 8 May 2003
Some comments (basically from my article Schmöger (2002) on vexillum and labarum):
John wrote, "The first ensign for the Christian Church was the lavarum of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who saw, in a dream, the Cross of Our Lord in the sky and beneath it, the words 'En touto, Nika (in this, conquer)."
The name of the flag was "labarum", not "lavarum", however it would be pronounced like "lavarum" in modern Greek. The labarum was a purely military/emperor flag, and definitely not a flag for the church.
John also wrote, "Constantine ordered the symbol of the Cross to be placed on the standards of the Empire - either as the finial (the metal piece at the tip of a flagpole), or emblazoned on the banners themselves. This took place at the time of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in the year 312."
The whole story of the battle at the Milvian Bridge, and the origin of the "labarum" is somewhat difficult, as our main sources (Eusebius' Vita Constantini and Lactantius' De mortibus persecutorum) differ widely. Furthermore the text of Eusebius was written almost 30 years after the battle.
The usual story follows Eusebius, though: Constantine (the Great) had a vision, seeing the "victorial sign of the cross upon the sun, made from light, and on this the inscription "with this conquer" (touto nika)". After a dream (Christ explaining the vision), Constantine ordered the special flag with the cross (labarum) to be made.
The older story by Lactantius tells us, that he ordered the sign to be written on the shields as a transversal letter X with a bended tip.
Most probably the prototypic labarum (as we know it, or as we think we know it) was made as a flag proper several years after the battle at the Milvian bridge. How the original labarum looked like, is not really clear, either. Most reconstructions (e.g. in Smith (1975)) agree on the following components:
1. a flag of the vexillum-type (i.e. a square piece of cloth hanging from a crossbar, the crossbar attached to a spear)
2. the monogram of Christ (X and P superimposed), either as top of the flagstaff, or on the flag cloth proper
3. images of the emperor (Constantine) and (later?) his sons, either on the cloth or as disks on the staff. Th first image of the labarum that we have is on a coin from 327. There we see a flag cloth with three disks on it, and on the top of the flag the "XP". All sources agree that there was no cross in a strict sense on the labarum (be it a Greek cross or a Tau cross etc), the only cross-like symbol being the "X" (a saltire) in the Christus monogram.
John wrote, "Constantine won the battle, and his interest in Christianity continued until, on his deathbed, he was baptized into the Church (he wanted to avoid committing sins after baptism). Constantine's interest in the Church meant that Christianity gained approval from the government, and thousands of persons began to join the Church."
Nowadays it is assumed that neither Constantine was really a Christian (most of his politics was not really "love each other") nor the labarum carried proper Christian symbolics. The "XP" monogram was rather a symbol for the synthesis of Christian and pagan ideas, especially of the cult of the "Sol invictus" (invincible sun), Constantine's family was adhering to.
John wrote,"Some show the Greek words, 'En touto, nika' as well as the Cross on banners. Later, not replacing the cross, but added above it, were the abbreviations for the name "Jesus Christ," IC XC, and then in the corners of the cross, 1) IC 2) XC 3) NI 4) KA. At this time, most 'flags' were lavarums, or flags or banners attached to a bar which was suspended from the tip of a spear or flagpole."
We do not know much about the flags of this era (let's say 300-600 AD). Most of the flags, especially religious flags proper, are conjectural. The type of flag called "labarum" here, was known for centuries as "vexillum" already. I'm absolutely unsure, when real "church banners" came into existence. Bock (1871) claims that church banners have been put to use only in the second half of the Middle Ages.
Lastly John noted, "The Eastern Christian Roman Empire, having been overrun by Moslem invaders, did not develop flags for itself until various independence movements began."
Of course the Byzantine empire used flags of different kinds, military banners (the bandon) as well as naval flags (see for instance two articles on a surviving Byzantine naval flag: Serra (1919) and Martinelli (1996)).
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 17 May 2003
Ukrainians in Canada developed a flag about 25 years ago, which had (predictably) Ukrainian patterns, and a cross, but it did not "catch on." For the past 20 years, the Maple Leaf with the line icon of Christ the Life-giver has been used by some parishes that identify themselves as Canadian Orthodox - regardless of jurisdiction. The emblem was originally the corporate seal of our monastery..." Archbishop Lazar
"There had been an Old Calendarist one with the Xi Rho symbol put forth at a meeting in Astoria New York about 15 years ago, and it was quite attractive. The only other one I had seen was a white field with a Greek/Serbian (trefoil) cross superimposed with a Russian cross; the trefoil in gold and the Russian cross in red. It was also very attractive." Archbishop Lazar.
Fr. John Udics, 4 June 2003
Editorial note: Due to the ambiguity of the designation "Greek Orthodox" there have been misdirections and misunderstandings concerning the Byzantine imperial flag (black Paleologan eagle on yellow) which we display on Patriarchate of Constantinople and Autonomous Church of Greece. Note that this flag doesn't have official status as the flag of the autocephalous Church of Greece, of any other Orthodox church, or of Orthodox Christianity as a whole. Its shape is neither determined, there are different formats in use. Its neither the flag of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is described on this page under point 1 (red eagle on white). The information below should serve to differentiate between different groups within Greek and worldwide Orthodoxy and should also make easier the assignment of their respective flags.
"Greek Orthodox" is not a unique identifier which can unambiguously identify a single church- it can mean:
1- The Church of Constantinople (including dioceses in the Greek diaspora, and in areas added to Greece post-1912),
or 2- The autocephalous Church of Greece,
or 3- The autocephalous Church of Cyprus,
or 4- All three Orthodox churches, 1, 2, & 3 above, serving ethnic Greek congregations,
or 5- in some contexts Orthodox churches serving predominately non-Greek communities in the Middle East, but historically under Greek influence, and often with Greek hierarchies, for example "Greek Orthodox" churches of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan or Egypt (the Orthodox churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and St. Catherine's at Sinai),
or 6 - sometimes any Orthodox Christian.
Unofficial usage of the Byzantine flag with the black double-headed eagle on gold has been reported from individual parishes in each of the first three categories above, i.e. the ones with ethnic Greek populations, not surprisingly. But does anybody know of instances where churches or parishes in categories 5 and 6 have used the flag?
Ned Smith, John Udics, 13,15 February 2006
Legitimate Orthodox churches which are independent from Constantinople do not call themselves Greek Orthodox, but by the adjective referring to their administrations (Bulgarian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Japanese Orthodox, Chinese or Korean or Mexican or Canadian or Czech or Slovak or Polish or American Orthodox), and pointedly NOT call themselves Greek. They may be identified as "Greek Orthodox" by others (including Greeks), but would not call themselves "Greek Orthodox", nor would they use the (former) Byzantine (Imperial) flag (to identify or signify themselves).
[If there are churches independent from Constantinople but nevertheless call themselves "Greek Orthodox", they could be] a sub-category of 1 or 2, identifying them as Greeks, but of "independent administration" (i.e. vagantes).
There was an attempt to encourage the 'umbrella' name "Eastern Orthodox" for all Orthodox Christians. "EO" was even used on dog-tags by the US military (and may still be, for all I know). My point is that some persons use the term "Greek Orthodox" to indicate "Eastern Orthodox" - but non-Greek Eastern Orthodox do not identify themselves with the "Greek" Byzantine Church.
John Udics, 16 February 2006
image by Ben Cahoon, 23 February 2009
At the beginning of the present century the logo of the Greek Orthodox Diocese redesigned its logo and issued instructions for the development of a new Archdiocesan flag. Clicking on this link and then scrolling down will bring one to the archdiocesan statement that the new flag should be sent to every church in the Archdiocese by November 2003: http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/logo/history
A further explanation is provided in the second link, which states that the Archdiocesan flag would carry the new archdiocesan logo. However, there is no mention of the field upon which this logo is to be displayed: http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/logo.
Ron Lahav, 12 January 2009
I searched some; in photos all churches seem to fly only the US and Greek flags, also the practice at the nearby Greek Orthodox church in Irvine. However this photo http://www.photos.goarch.org/main.php?g2_itemId=1799 would seem to suggest that the flag is the logo on white; and then I came across this http://www.kimisis.com/gallery/view_photo.php?set_albumName=album07&id=DSCN3338, confirming that theory. In that photo, the flags include US, Greece, Cyprus, a yellow UFE, and the archdiocese; the latter is amazingly enough upside-down (!).
Eugene Ipavec, 12 January 2009