Cross of Saint John the Baptist

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In medieval Italy bloody battles were fought between white flags with red crosses and red flags with white crosses. The former is known as the Cross of Saint George, the latter as the Cross of Saint John the Baptist. Both flags stem from the time of the Crusades and their simple designs spread to all of Europe and the rest of the world. 

Top left: Order of Malta, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland

The state flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is red with a white cross. Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of the order and the flag with the Croce di San Giovanni Battista (as it’s called in Italian) can be seen in Malta, on the SMOM headquarters in Rome and at SMOM embassies around the world. The order is a charitable organisation and a subject of international law at the same time. Since 1798 it doesn’t rule an independent territory, but the order enjoys diplomatic recognition by many countries and issues its own passports, license plates, etc.

The Order of Malta which is Roman Catholic and the different Orders of Saint John which are Protestant trace their roots back to the hospitaller knights of Jerusalem, founded around 1099 to provide medical care to pilgrims and to protect Christians against Islamic prosecution. The SMOM is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order and its state flag, a Crusader flag basically, has remained unchanged for 700-800 years.

According to legend, the Danish flag fell from the sky during a battle in Estonia in 1219. A far more reasonable explanation for the Dannebrog with its white cross on a red field is the Crusader flags of the 12th and 13th Century. The banner of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsfahne, in German) during this time was also red with a white cross. This early German war flag may have inspired the flags of two neighbouring nations: Denmark and Switzerland.

The Swiss city of Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino flies a white cross on red, too. Its name (Luganum, in Latin) is spelled with the letters L, V, G and A in the four quarters of the flag.

Top right: Savoy, France and Italy

A red flag with a white cross is also the popular flag of the French historical region of Savoy (Savoie, in French). Savoy borders Italy and Switzerland and for eight centuries it was ruled by the House of Savoy, one of Europe’s oldest dynasties. Amadeus III may have been the first Count of Savoy to use a Crusader flag with a white cross on red. He participated in the Second Crusade in 1147. The flag of Savoy, therefore, shares the same origins as the flags of Malta and Denmark.

The city of Chambéry is the historical capital of Savoy. The only difference between the city’s and the region’s flag is a golden 5-pointed star. Also the flag of Valence, capital of the Drôme department, have a white cross on red (with a blue tower in the centre).

The Counts, later Dukes, of Savoy extended their rule across the Alps into Northern Italy. Amadeus VI of Savoy (Savoia, in Italian) fought the Turks under a blue flag with an image of the Virgin Mary in 1366. Since then sky blue, or Savoy blue, has been the livery colour of the Savoyard dynasty.

In the 19th Century Italy was unified under the Savoyard crown. The Kingdom of Italy from 1861 till 1946 made use of the white cross on red and a border of Savoy blue. These arms appeared in the white middle stripe of Italian flags and a banner of these arms was the naval jack of Italy’s Regia Marina.

Bottom left: Veneto

Northern Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. For centuries cities, towns and noble families battled over their loyalties: On one side the pro-imperial ghibellini with their German-inspired red flags with white crosses (John the Baptist’s cross), on the other side the pro-papal guelfi who used flags of reversed colours (George’s cross). For example, the cities of Milan and Genoa used and still use white flags with red crosses.

Around Venice the Croce di San Giovanni Battista is in the municipal arms of e.g. Vicenza, Mirano (with an added cross in the first quarter), Treviso (with two 8-pointed white stars) and Oderzo (with a pair of 6-pointed stars). The arms of Vicenza and Treviso appear together with arms of other provincial capitals on the tails of Veneto’s elaborate regional flag, adopted in 1975.

Bottom right: Piedmont

In the North Italian region of Piedmont (Piemonte, in Italian) flags of several cities and towns are red with white crosses. Examples of cities which have a Cross of Saint John the Baptist in its municipal arms and flag are Asti and Novara.

The regional arms of Piedmont are the same as those of the Principality of Piedmont. The heir of the Dukes of Savoy, later the Kings of Sardinia and later still the Kings of Italy used the title of Prince of Piedmont. This is why the arms of Piedmont are the same as the arms of the House of Savoy differenced with a blue so-called label. In heraldry, a label is used to mark the elder son.

In Piedmont three versions of the regional flag are in use: One which is a heraldic banner of the region’s arms, another with an added blue border and yet another which has both a border of blue as well as fringes of gold. The latter of these is the official regional flag, adopted in 1995, the most common is the version with the blue border.

 

Read also about the Cross of Saint George (Saint George’s Day) and the Cross of Saint Andrew (Saint Andrew’s Day and The Russian Connection).

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Tour de France 2017

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The world’s most prestigious bicycle race is a great occasion for flag flying. Fans and spectators line the route waving lots of national and regional flags. Some of the latter may not be that well-known. So, here are the flags of the regions that the Tour passes through this year, from Düsseldorf to the finishing line 23 days and 3,500 km later in Paris. 

[A] Rhineland, [B] Wallonia, [C] Luxembourg, [D] Lorraine, [E] Franche-Comté, [F] Champagne, [G] Burgundy, [H] Savoy‚ [I] Périgord‚ [J] Guyenne‚ [K] Gascony‚ [L] Béarn‚ [M] Bigorre‚ [N] Comminges‚ [O] Foix, [P] Languedoc‚ [Q] Rouergue‚ [R] Dauphiné, [S] Provence, [T] Île-de-France.

In 2017, like so many times before, the start of the course is outside France. The Grand Départ was in Düsseldorf, Germany, with the first individual time trials. On day 2 the Tour crossed the Rhine river and passed through Aachen on its way to Liège in Belgium. In the German Rhineland region the green-white Rhineland flag [A] could be seen in the streets of Aachen, for example.

The city of Liège is in the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia. The Walloon Rooster, red on yellow, is the region’s flag [B]. Stage 3 of the race started in Verviers in the Province of Liège, passed through the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and finished in Longwy in France. The Luxembourgers often use the armorial banner of Luxembourg [C] instead of their national flag which is very similar to that of the Netherlands. Longwy is in the historical province of Lorraine whose flag is also an armorial banner based on the province’s arms [D].

On day 5 the Tour will leave Lorraine and enter the historical province of Franche-Comté [E]. On day 6 the stage ends in Troyes in the historical province of Champagne [F] and on day 7 the Tour continues through Burgundy (Bourgogne, in French) [G]. Stage 8 is in Franche-Comté close to the Swiss border.

Stage 9, the first mountain stage, ends in Chambéry in the historical province of Savoy (Savoie, in French). The iconic Savoyard flag with a white cross on red [H] looks a little like the Danish flag.

After a day of rest, the course continues on day 11 with a flat stage from Périgueux to Bergerac. Both cities are in the Dordogne department i.e. the historical region of Périgord [I]. From there, the next stage takes the Tour south across the Garonne river through Guyenne [J] and Gascony (Gascogne, in French) [K]. It ends in Pau in the historical province of Béarn [L].

On day 13 and 14 the riders will climb the Pyrenees and pass through the historical regions of Bigorre [M], Comminges [N] and Foix [O]. The flag of Foix is an armorial banner with three so-called pales, red on gold, not to be confused with the flag of Provence which has four red pales on gold [S].

Stage 14 of the course stretches from Blagnac, a suburb of Toulouse, to Rodez, capital of the Aveyron department and the Rouergue region. Historically Rouergue was part of Guyenne. So, as on the flag of Guyenne [J], there is a golden lion on red in the flag of Rouergue [Q]. Both Toulouse and Le Puy-en-Velay, at the end of stage 15, are in the historical Languedoc region. The regional flag is red with a yellow Cross of Toulouse, or Occitan Cross [P]. This symbol is very popular in Languedoc and in others parts of southern France which are culturally and linguistically Occitan.

After yet another rest day, stage 16 of the course reaches across the Rhône river to the historical province of Dauphiné. The flag of Dauphiné has the fleurs-de-lys of the French kings and the dolphin of the heirs to the French throne [R]. The traditional title of a French crown prince, Dauphin, originated in this region in the 14th Century.

The steep mountain roads of the French Alps awaits the riders on stage 17 and 18, and the Tour enters Provence for the first time [S]. Stage 19, the longest this year with 222 km, starts in Embrun in the Alpine valleys of Dauphiné and ends in Salon-de-Provence. The second individual time trial will be in Marseille, the largest city in Provence.

The last leg on day 23 of the 2017 Tour is in the region of Île-de-France and, traditionally, the finishing line is on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in the centre of Paris. The fleurs-de-lys of the old Kingdom of France appear in the regional flag of Île-de-France [T].

 

Read also: Tour de France: A Festival of Regional Flags.

New Flag In Mauritania?

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A referendum to be held before the end of the year will decide whether or not the flag of Mauritania is changed. The proposal to add two red stripes to the national flag has been met with harsh criticism.

After a period of deepening political instability and a so-called Dialogue national inclusif led by president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, himself a leader of two military coups, Mauritanians will be asked to go to the polls soon to vote on constitutional changes and the revision of national symbols.

“Two red stripes will be added to the top and bottom of the national flag to honour the sacrifice of the nation’s martyrs, and there will be a patriotic modification to the national anthem while maintaining its religious character,” it says in the accord from the political talks.

The flag of Mauritania was adopted in 1959. It is one of the few national flags in the world which doesn’t contain red, white or blue, the three most common flag colours. The colour green as well as the crescent and star represent Islam. The golden yellow is said to represent the sands of the Sahara Desert.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a vast West African country with a relatively small population of about 4 million. Half of all Mauritanians live in the capital of Nouakchott, one of the largest cities in the Sahara, located close to the Atlantic coast. Arabic is the official language, French is widely used in the media.

The proposal to add red stripes to the national flag has not been received with unanimous support from Mauritanians.

Some argue that no-one, not even the country’s political leaders, has the right to change a flag which has been passed down to Mauritanians as a symbol of national heritage, unity and pride. Others argue that changing the flag is a mere gesture in the face of growing frustration with unemployment, hunger and corruption.

A former Mauritanian minister of foreign affairs and retired United Nations senior official, Ahmadou Ould Abdallah, criticizes the decision to change national symbols, saying in an interview with the Réseau Mauritanien d’Informations:

“Faced with the daily difficulties encountered by citizens, the security challenges that accumulate, the huge national needs, the priority now is to stop the suicidal spiral which leads us towards a catastrophe.”

The diplomat issues an unusually stern warning to his country’s leaders:

“We must avoid ridiculous and false debates about the changing of national emblems, the country’s name or the transfer of the capital city. We saw with Mobutu and Muammar Gaddafi that their flags didn’t survive their reigns.”