For Those in Peril on the Sea: 150 Years of the Hanseatic Cross

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The flag of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service was adopted on 23 May 1868. This NGO, one of Germany’s oldest, has been saving lives for 153 years. The Hanseatic Cross which is in the organisation’s flag and on its ships and boats combines Prussian and Hanseatic symbolism. 

Along Germany’s North Sea and Baltic Sea coastline, the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service presently organizes 180 employees and 800 volunteers. 24 hours a day and in all weather conditions, they man 54 stations and 60 search and rescue vessels. “We go out when others come in” is the motto of this important NGO.

The German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (in German, Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger, DGzRS) was established when several smaller organisations were amalgamated in 1865. Three years later, the North German Confederation – the Prussian-led predecessor of the second German Empire – decided on a flag for DGzRS vessels: a red Hanseatic Cross in a white field with a thin black border.

The Hanseatic Cross (in German, Hansekreuz) is similar to the Iron Cross used by the Prussian and the German military since the Napoleonic Wars, but it is red and white, the traditional colours of the Hanseatic League. Both the flag of the DGzRS and the national flag of the North German Federation (1866-1871) and the German Empire (1871-1918) combine the red and white of the Hanseatic cities and the black and white of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Since 1865 more than 84,000 persons have been rescued by the crews of the DGzRS. In 2015 the organisation celebrated its 150th birthday. Three years on, today marks the 150-year anniversary of the organisation’s iconic flag with the red-white Hansekreuz.

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The Banner of Stockholm

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May 18 is Saint Eric’s Day. The Swedish King Erik Jedvardsson, stabbed and beheaded on Ascension Thursday 1160, is the patron saint of Sweden and its capital city. In the 14th Century Saint Eric’s head first appeared on the seal of Stockholm. Today it features on the city’s blue-yellow flag.

The flag of Stockholm, capital of Sweden, is a heraldic banner of the city’s arms: In a blue field the golden head of Saint Eric en face crowned with a golden royal crown. The oldest known seal of the city with Saint Eric’s head is from 1376. In the 20th Century it became common for the City of Stockholm to use its armorial bearings in flag form. The city flag flies in front of the city hall, Stockholms stadshus, for example.

Wether or not Erik Jedvardsson was a particularly holy man we will never know. No contemporary sources from his lifetime have survived. However, after his violent death, legends were told about him and, in the following years where two rival dynasties fought for the Swedish crown, his family promoted Erik as a martyr of the faith and a crusader king.

Although never officially canonized by the Catholic Church, Saint Eric (in Swedish known as Erik den helige, or Erik IX) is recognized as the patron saint of Sweden and Stockholm. His remains are kept in a beautiful reliquary in Uppsala Cathedral, the archiepiscopal seat of the head of what is today the protestant Church of Sweden.

Saint Eric’s feast day, May 18, was celebrated in medieval times and also sometime after the protestant reformation of Sweden in the 16th Century. Today, May 18 is the name day for anyone named Erik. Name days play a role similar to birth days for Swedes. The tradition of celebrating a person’s name day is totally unknown in my home country of Denmark. 

Another difference between Sweden and Denmark is the use of heraldic banners as municipal flags. The flags of Sweden’s largest cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, are all banners with city arms. In comparison, Denmark’s capital city of Copenhagen has no city flag at all, and it seams to me that Danish municipal authorities are entirely unaware of the concept of heraldic banners.

So today, on Saint Eric’s Day, I salute the beautiful blue-yellow banner of Stockholm.

Papal Heraldic Expert Wanted To Change The Vatican Flag

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Archbishop Bruno Bernard Heim designed the coats of arms of four popes from John XXIII to John Paul II. For half a century he was the Catholic Church’s leading heraldic author and artist. In 1978 he presented an alternative design for the papal flag. His proposal was superior, he argued, both aesthetically and heraldically. 

The alternative papal flag proposed by Archbishop Heim differs from the official version in two ways: it is not square, but has an aspect ratio of 2:3, and it has the papal insignia in a red shield in the middle. The papal insignia are the crossed keys of Saint Peter crowned by the papal tiara.

The official papal flag is a square vertical bicolour of yellow and white with the papal insignia in the white field. This flag was first used in the Papal States in the 1800s. In 1929 the Vatican, a small area around Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, became the world’s smallest independant country when the Papacy signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy. Since then, the papal flag is the flag of both the Vatican City State and the Holy See as the governing body of the universal Catholic Church.

Bruno Bernard Heim (1911-2003) was born i Switzerland and became a Doctor of Philosophy and a Doctor of Canon Law. In 1938 he was ordained a priest and in 1947 he started a 38-year career as a papal diplomat. From 1973 til 1985 he served as Apostolic Delegate and Apostolic Pro-Nuncio of the Holy See in the UK.

Archbishop Heim criticized the papal flag in his book on ecclesiastical heraldry, Heraldry in the Catholic Church – Its Origin, Customs and Laws, published in 1978.

As an expert on heraldry it is not surprising that he used heraldic terminology and made reference to the so-called rule of tincture (metal should not be put on metal, colour should not be put on colour). In heraldry, gold/yellow and silver/white are categorized as metals, not as colours. Heim was unhappy with the fact that the gold and silver keys are in the white (or silver) field of the flag:

“Whoever did this first must have been totally lacking in heraldic and aesthetic feeling. On a coloured ground, the gold and silver papal insignia stand out as they should; on a white background the silver is lost.”

In the book Archbishop Heim described how the papal flag ought to be:

“The Papal Flag is gold and silver, gold being next to the staff on the heraldic right (dexter). The emblems of the Papacy being also gold and silver, the obvious and correct thing to do from the heraldic and aesthetic point of view, and for the sake of clarity, (so absolutely essential in heraldry), is to put the arms of the Papacy, the red shield with the tiara and keys, in the middle of the flag.”

Was he right? It is worth pointing out that a flag design should not be judged on its adherence to heraldic rules per se. The vexillologist knows that designing a good flag cannot be as tightly bound by rules as in the art of heraldry. He or she is also aware that the liberty to style and restyle afforded to heraldic artists would never work in the world of flags; usually the shape, design and colouring of a national flag is strictly defined and should not be changed by individual graphic artists and flag makers.

One of the reasons why Heim’s alternative papal flag remained a proposal, I think, is because the official version of the yellow-white bicolour is sufficiently distinct from other national flags and easily recognizable in different kinds of use. Thus, there is no pressing need for a new papal flag with the arms of the Papacy in the middle.

New Swiss Guard Recruits Swear To Serve And Protect The Pope

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On May 6 every year, new recruits in the Pontifical Swiss Guard take the oath of loyalty in the Vatican City State. Soldiers and officers with Swiss citizenship have protected the Pope for more than 500 years. The Guard’s banner reflect the history of this Swiss corps in the service of the Pope as head of state and head of the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Pontifical Swiss Guard consists of between 100 and 200 men, all recruited among Catholic, unmarried, Swiss citizens. Since the middle ages, soldiers from Switzerland have served with distinction in the armed forces of other nations. The most famous of such Swiss contingents in the service of foreign heads of state is the Pontifical Swiss Guard in Rome. 

Traditionally, May 6 is the day for the swearing-in because, in 1527, the Sack of Rome by the mutinous Spanish and Imperial troops of Emperor Charles V happened on that date. Of the 189 men strong Pontifical Swiss Guard 147 died in the close vicinity of Saint Peter’s Basilica defending Pope Clement VII’s escape to the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The solemn occasion of the swearing-in usually takes place in the Saint Damaso Courtyard at the centre of the Apostolic Palace. However, in case of bad weather, the ceremony has been held indoors in the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall. That happened in 2010 and 2013 for example.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard is dressed in 16th Century dress, plate armour, morion helmets and is armed with halberds and smallswords. The main part of the ceremony is when all new halberdiers of the Guard take the oath of loyalty, fidelity and obedience to the Pope and the Commanding Captain. 

One by one, the recruits are called forward. Each takes hold of the Guard’s banner with his left hand and confirms the oath which has been read by the Guard’s chaplain. At the same time, each raises his right hand pointing three fingers upwards as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The halberdiers take the oath in any of the official languages of Switzerland, most of them in German and French.

The banner of the Pontifical Swiss Guard

The banner of the Guard plays an important role when the halberdiers take the oath of loyalty to the Pope and the Commanding Captain. On it are the personal coats of arms of both. Thus, the banner must be redesigned and renewed every time there is a new pope as well as every time a new Swiss Guard officer is appointed as Commanding Captain.

The banner is a large, square standard; a white cross divides it in four quarters. In the first, on red, are the arms of the present pope, Francis, adopted in 2013. In the fourth, also on red, are the arms of Julius II. He was of the della Rovere family and when he became pope in 1503 he established the first constant corps of Swiss mercenaries at the papal court. Note the papal tiara in the arms of Pope Julius II and the bishop’s mitre in the arms of Pope Francis. 

In the second and third quarter are the red, blue and golden stripes, the colours also seen in the renaissance style dress uniform of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

In the middle of the white cross are the coat of arms of the Commanding Captain. The present Commanding Captain is colonel Christoph Graf. He was born in Pfaffnau in the Swiss canton of Lucerne and joined the Guard in 1987. In 2015 he was appointed to his present role by Pope Francis.

The gold antler and the silver plowshare on red in his shield symbolize the traditions of hunting and farming in the Graf family of Pfaffnau. The coat of arms rest on a background of silver and blue. These colours represent the Commanding Captain’s home canton of Lucerne; the flag of Lucerne is a horisontal bicolour of white and blue.