Friday, October 5, 2007


Heraldry is used extensively in the Church for both persons (such as bishops) and institutions (such as parishes or diocese). Such coats of arms should not only adhere to the strict norms set by international custom and individual state law, but also to a sub-set of laws are that set by the Church. In fact up until 1960 there was an office within the Church called the Heraldry Commission of the Roman Curia that made sure these norms were adhered to. The results of the abolition of this office prompted Archbishop B. B. Heim to write “the choice of prelatial arms is often a disastrous defiance of the rules of heraldry, if only as a breach of good taste” (The Church Visible by James-Charles Noonan, Jr.).

Clergy may use his family’s coat of arms provided that they are in keeping with the dignity a Church vocation. Weapons of war, armor, and the like are never used and if they are in one’s family coat of arms it should be modified. Supporters are not in keeping with ecclesial crests (such as wild beasts or beautiful women as seen in the crest to the right). In place of the helmet that sits above many crests, a hat that corresponds to the clergyman’s rank is used. The pope will have the three-fold tiara and the two crossed keys behind the crest (one silver, one gold). All other clergy will have a fiocchi, a broad-rimmed hat with tassels. The color of the hat and the number of tassels will tell the viewer the position that the bearer of the arms holds.

A cardinal’s hat is red and has 30 tassels. There is a tradition whereby when a cardinal dies his hat is hung by a string in the sanctuary of the cathedral. There is a tongue in cheack legend that say when the string breaks and the hat falls to the floor the cardinal has finally sprung from purgatory and entered the glories of heaven. So it is advised never to use high gauge wire.

Patriarch’s hats with 30 tassels, archbishop’s hats with 20 tassels, and bishop’s hats with 12 tassels are all green, the symbolic color for their office before the more modern color came into use. They would have either a crosier or a processional cross behind their shield. A priest has a black fiocchi and is allowed either two or four black tassels to hang at the side.

Popes generally have either the real or probable coat of arms or, more recently, have the ones that they chose when they became an archbishop. For all the motto appear in Latin in a banner below the arms.

Next week: Some examples of Church heraldry.

1 comment:

uncle jim said...

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