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Vatican - Swiss Guard (Part I)

Last modified: 2009-08-01 by dov gutterman
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Basic Pattern
image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 7 June 2005

Part I (this page):

Part II (next page):

See also:


The Papal Swiss Guard was founded in 1506. It is today largely ceremonial, but like the Guards in London they are a fully operational modern military force. When in ceremonial 16th century uniform, they keep their firearms in guard boxes nearby. The Papal Guard are the only mercenary unit permitted under Swiss law since 1859, and are the last of a long tradition of a million mercenaries in the world's armies. The Guard today consists of 5 officers, 25 NCOs and 70 halberdiers.
You can see a photo of recruits swearing in on the Guards flag at <>. I don't know when the flag was instituted, or how it has evolved, but it represents the 18th century tradition of Swiss mercenary flags. It consists of a white cross "traversante" (extending to the edges, unlike the modern short Swiss cross) which conveniently divides the flag into brightly coloured quarters. The first and fourth quarters are identical and consist of the Pope's arms on a red field. Presumably these change on the Swiss Guards' flag with every new pope. The second and third quarters are also identical, consisting of five horizontal stripes -- blue-yellow-red-yellow-blue. (These are the colours of the Guards' Renaissance-style uniform, which incidentally dates from 1915, and was not designed by Michelangelo as the popular myth would have us believe.) The central device on the white cross is probably the arms of the colonel of the regiment, or those of the Pfyffer d'Altishofen family which made the colonelcy hereditary from 1652 to 1847. I'm not sure what the rules are for changing the central coat of arms.
The colour photo represents the annual swearing in of recruits on 6 May (and the Guard's principal ceremonial event). This is the anniversary of the 1527 sack of Rome when the 200-strong Guard defended Pope Clement VII against a Spanish-German army of 22,000. 147 were killed (including the Captain Kaspar Roist of Zurich), and the survivors took the Pope to Castel San Angelo where they held out for a month before negiotiating a surrender. Ironically Zurich was in the throws of the Reformation and had recalled the Captain and his fellow Zurichers. They decided to wait until the storm blew over, and paid for it with their lives.
T.F. Mills, 6 May 1998

The following is paraphrased and condensed from the article on the Swiss Guards in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

"From the time of the Middle Ages, Swiss pikemen fought as mercenaries in the armies of many European states under treaties with the various Swiss cantons.  Among the most famous of these were the Garde Suisse of the French monarchy.
Swiss soldiers served the armies of the Papacy from the late 1300s onward, but only during the reign of Julius II (1503-13) was action taken to establish an organized unit of Swiss Guards directly under the Pope.  In 1505, pursuant to a treaty was signed between Pope Julius II and the cantons of Zurich and Lucerne, Julius requested that the two cantons send 200 soldiers to Rome under the command of Peter von Hertenstein as condottiere and Caspar von Silenen as captain.  They arrived on January 21, 1506, and were taken into service with a papal blessing in St. Peter's Square.  That event is considered to be the date of establishment of the Vatican's corps of Swiss Guards, the "Cohors pedestris Helvetiorum a sacra custodia Pontificis."  This unit is the only modern survival of the Swiss mercenary tradition, as the Swiss Constitution of 1874 prohibits the enlistment of Swiss citizens in the forces of foreign powers with the exception of the Holy See.
Joe McMillan , 28 Febuary 2000

Quoting from The Banner of the Papal Swiss Guard by Walter Angst in The Flag Bulletin, 187, May-June 1999

"only unmarried Swiss males of the Catholic faith - historically, mainly from the four original Swiss cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Luzern) and Valais - are eligible for serviece.  Moreover, they must all be between 19 and 30 years of age, at least 174 cm tall and must have fulfilled their basic military training in the Swiss Army.  They are privately contracted for this special Foreign Service for at least two years.  No official is openly involved in the process, but usually the discreet services of some parish priests are used.  Guard duty includes the bodyguard for the pontiff, the watch at the entrances to the city, the ceremonial honor guard, security at many religious and diplomatic functions, as well as information, surveillance, and similar service. The commander of the Swiss Guard is always a colonel.  He belongs to the "pontifical family," holding the rank of a "Chamberlain of His Holiness." The pope alone appoints the commander.  At present, the colonel commands a lieutenant colonel, a guard chaplain, a major, a captain, a master sergeant, four sergeants, 10 corporals, 10 vice-corporals, and 70 halberdiers. This makes up the Guard of 100 men, although in 1971 this force had dwindled to only 40 members.  By law the Guard can be composed of at most 100 volunteers; hence it is called Hundertschweizer - (one hundred Swiss.)
"Unlike the regiments of the former military Foreigh Service (which remained at times under the laws of the Swiss Confederation), the Swiss Guard is under the pope who, throughthe secretary of state of the Vatican, exercises far-reaching jurisdiction over his 100 Swiss.  The Guards must live inside the walled city of the Vatican and they are considered citizens of the Vatican State during their years of active service.  Since the Second Vatican Council, their famed steel breast-armor is normally worn only on one special ceremonial occassion - the yearly swearing-in ceremony of new Guards, which takes place on 6 May."

The Flag Bulletin shows also the current flag of the Swiss guard, divided into Four quarters by the Swiss cross.  This flag changes with every pope and with the commander of the Swiss Guard.  Therefore, the arms of Pope John Paul II in the first quarter on a red background, horizontal stripes of blue, yellow, red, yellow and blue in the second quarter, horizontal stripes of red, yellow, blue, yellow and red in the third quarter and the arms of Pope Julius II are in the fourth quarter on a red background and centered on the cross the arms of the current commander withing a green wreath.
Angst quotes 189 Swiss Guards who were at the 1527 sacking of Rome, of which 147 perished.  When the Germans invaded Rome in 1944, the Swiss Guard stationed themselves in military grey uniform, behind machine guns and mortars just in case.
Phil Nelson , 29 Febuary 2000

Above is an image of the Swiss Guard flag, .  The flag is 2 meters square or a bit larger.  The gray area on the center inside the wreath is where the commander's arms are shown, placed on a background of the colors of his native canton.
Joe McMillan, 29 Febuary 2000

Looking at the Swiss Guards flag as illustrated above, and comparing it with the text, I see that according to the text the arms in the first and fourth quarters are the same. However, in your illustration, the arms in the first quarter are those of John Paul II, while those in the fourth quarter show a tree. Also, there is mention of a coat of arms in the centre (which is shown in the photograph of guardsmen swearing allegiance), but there's just a grey centre to the wreath in the illustration.
Mike Oettle, 19 December 2001

The difference with the photo, as far as I can tell, is in the Coat of Arms on the center of the cross and the size of the achievements in the first and fourth quarters.  The Coat of Arms in the fourth quarter is not visible in the photo at the link, except for the tiara and keys, and is therefore not inconsistent with the image.  As to the gray area on the center, note what Phil Nelson wrote above:  "This flag changes with every pope and with the commander of the Swiss Guard ... centered on the cross the arms of the current commander withing a green wreath" and my note:  "The gray area on the center inside the wreath is where the commander's arms are shown, placed on a background of the colors of his native canton." 
The arms of Pope John Paul II in the first quarter on a red background ... and the arms of Pope Julius II are in the fourth quarter on a red background."
Joe McMillan, 19 December 2001

Recently I ran across a website with some excellent photos of Swiss Guard flags, including the most recent, at <>. A PDF of the definitive Swiss Guard history, which contains information on the history of the Guards' flags, is also available there through a link: Paul Krieg, "Die Schweizergarde in Rom," p. 446-449.  He states that the current Guards' flag design dates from the tenure of commander Jules Repond (1910- 1921).
Rev. William M. Becker, 20 April 2005

This design exists since the early 20th cent. Above is a tamplate with voided papal and commander arms, plus the Pope Julius II's arms on the lower fly.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 7 June 2005

Considering only those Colonels after 1905 (when the current Vatican Swiss Guard flag pattern was designed) and the popes from the same period, we can list all flags that (theoretically) existed:.

António Martins-Tuválkin and Jens Pattke, 9 June 2005 and Ivan Sache, 1 December 2008

It is possible that Estermann was not represented by a flag with his Coat of Arms since he served as commander for less than one day. He was appointed 4 May 1998, and murdered by one of his men a few hours later New recruits were to be sworn in on 6 May 1998 in the famous flag ceremony (the anniversary of the sack of Rome in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards died protecting Pope Clement VII), and Estermann had been acting commander since October 1997 when his predecessor resigned, so it is also possible that a new flag was ready for 6 May, or even unveiled on 4 May.
T.F. Mills, 9 June 2005

I believe there is an error in António Martins-Tuválkin contribution in Swiss Guard flag pages regarding the first version of their current flag design.
António Martins-Tuválkin states that Pope Pius X opposed the new (current) design sponsored by Commander Jules Repond, and would not authorize it. But according to my sources, that is not correct. The current version of the Swiss Guard flag was approved in the last year of the pontificate of Pius X, namely on November 1, 1913, by the Secretariat of State. It was designed by Robert Durrer, a Swiss archivist, and sponsored by Commander Jules Repond.  The flag was produced by a Swiss convent, and was blessed by Pius X on May 5, 1914, in time for use at the traditional swearing-in of new recruits the next day. Pius died a few months later. (Cf. Robert Walpen, La Guardia Svizzera Pontificia. Acriter et fideliter. Coraggio e fedeltà.  Second Edition. Locarno, Switzerland: Armando Dadò, 2005, p. 112-114.  Walpen reproduces Durrer's original sketch of the flag, and the note authorizing its use from the Secretariat of State.)
Here is an actual photo of this first version of the current Swiss Guard flag, from the pontificate of Pius X.  It was published in: "Die neue Fahne der Schweizergarde," Archives Héraldiques Suisses / Schweizerisches Archiv für Heraldik, vol. 28, no. 4 (Zürich: Imprimérie Schulthess & Co., 1914), p. 205-206 & Plate 5.
Also, here is a photo of the Swiss Guards flag from the reign of Benedict XV, who followed Pius X, appeared in L'Illustrazione Vaticana, no. 11/1932 (attached).  Benedict's arms were simply painted over those of Pius X, which was a common practice in past centuries.  (cf. Vincenz Oertle.  "'& aux couleurs du pape régnant' Die Fahne der Päpstlichen Schweizergarde," Zeitschrift für Heereskunde, number 419 [January/March 2006], p. 1-6.)
The photos of the Repond/Durrer design used under Pius X and Benedict XVI were previously posted at <>; but that site is currently offline for some reason.
Rev. William M. Becker, STD, 13 July 2007

National Bank of Austria listing some commemorative Euro issues. One of the coins is "EUR 2 VATICAN 2008" with the following quote:
"Feature: 5th centenary of the Swiss Pontifical Guard
Description: The coin features a Swiss guard taking the solemn oath on the Swiss Guard flag. The inscription "GUARDIA SVIZZERA PONTIFICIA" surrounds the guard, forming a semi-circle which is complemented under the flag by the name of the issuing state "CITTÁ DEL VATICANO". The year 1506 appears on the left side, above the signature of the engraver "O. ROSSI" along the pole of the flag. The year 2006 appears on the upper right side, above the mint mark "R". The twelve stars of the European flag are depicted on the outer ring.
Issuing volume: a maximum of 100,000 coins
Issuing date: November 2006
Edge lettering: 2* repeated six times, alternately upright and inverted."
Jan Mertens, 17 August 2008

Guard Commandants

Here is the list of Commandants with their canton of origin
1. von Silenen, Kaspar UR (1506-1517)
2. Röist, Markus ZH (1518-1524)
3. Röist, Kaspar ZH (1518-1527)
vacant (1527-1548)
4. von Meggen, Jost LU (1548-1559)
5. von Silenen, Kaspar Leo LU (1559-1564)
6. Segesser von Brunegg, Jost LU (1566-1592)
7. Segesser von Brunegg, Stephan Alexander LU (1592-1629)
8. Flekenstein, Nikolaus LU (1629-1640)
9. Flekenstein, Jost LU (1640-1652)
10. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Johann Rudolf LU (1652-1657)
11. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Ludwig LU (1658-1686)
12. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Franz LU (1686-1696)
13. Mayr von Baldegg, Johann Kaspar LU (1696-1704)
vacant (1704-1712)
14. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Johann Konrad LU (1712-1727)
15. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Franz Ludwig LU (1727-1754)
16. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Jost Ignaz LU (1754-1782)
17. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Franz Alois LU (1783-1798)
vacant (1798-1800)
18. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Karl Leodegar LU (1800-1834)
19. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Martin LU (1835-1847)
20. Meyer von Schauensee, Franz Xaver Leopold LU (1848-1860)
21. von Sonnenberg, Alfred LU (1860-1878)
22. de Courten, Louis-Martin VS (1878-1901)
23. Meyer von Schauensee, Leopold LU (1901-1910)
24. Repond, Jules FR (1910-1921)
25. Hirschbühl, Alois GR (1921-1935)
26. von Sury dAspremont, Georg SO (1935-1942)
27. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Heinrich LU (1942-1957)
28. Nünlist, Robert LU (1957-1972)
29. Pfyffer von Altishofen, Franz LU (1972-1982)
30. Buchs-Binz, Roland FR (1982-1997)
31. Estermann, Alois LU (1998-1998)
32. Segmüller, Pius SG (1998-2002)
33. Mäder, Elmar Theodor SG (2002-2008)
34. Anrig, Daniel Rudolf (2008-)
T.F. Mills, 8 June 2005 and Ivan Sache, 1 December 2008

Swiss Guard Colors for Benedict XVI

Swiss Guard Colors for Benedict XVI
image by Luis Miguel Arias Perez, 7 December 2008

Detail (Arms of Guard Commandant Daniel Rudolf Anrig)
image by Luis Miguel Arias Perez, 7 December 2008

Following the resignation of Elmar Mäder, a new commandant of the Swiss Guard has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI.
The new commandant, Daniel Rudolf Anrig (aged 36 and up to now the head of the canton's police of Glarus), took up his post on 1 December 2008, and the new colours of the Swiss Guard were blessed during the ceremony.
The new colours differ from the old ones by the central emblem, which bears the coat of arms of Daniel Anrig instead of the coat of arms of Elmar Mäder.
The colours can be seen on a photo (EPA agency) published on the "Mail Online" website.
Since Anrig, like Mäder, being from Sankt Gallen, the green and white circular background of the shield was not changed.
Ivan Sache, 1 December 2008

About the new commandant see here. Blessing of the flag ceremony, with pictures of the flag (in French) at <>.
Luis Miguel Arias Perez, 7 December 2008

Previous colors (2005-2008)

Previous Swiss Guard Colors for Benedict XVI
image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 9 May 2005

Previous Detail (Arms of Guard Commandant Elmar Theodor Mäder)
image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 25 April 2005

Here is the new Swiss Guard flag from <>.
Zachary Harden, 6 May 2005

The image is simply shown the expected new version of the Papal Guard flag: I.e., identical to the previous Swiss Guard Colors for John Paul II but with Benedict XVI's arms replacing John Paul II's. Note that the side areas of the shield are both or, and the central one is gules, whereas previously sent images shown different color patterns. The photo shown clearly the same central Coat of Arms too.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 9 May 2005

My father recently bought a book about the Swiss Guard: Antonio Serrano Die Schweizergarde des Papstes. (2005) Dachau (Bayerland).
The current colours are shown several times in this book (on the cover, p. 42, p. 146, p. 148, p. 152). A detailed photo is shown on p. 141.
Marcus Schmöger, 27 May 2006

See also: Vatican (Holy See) - Personal Flag and Arms of Benedict XVI

For continuation see Part II