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.