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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The Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg dies at 82

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Prince Richard, brother-in-law of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and head of the Sayn-Wittgenstein family, passed away on Monday 13 March 2017. His funeral service will be held on Tuesday 21 March, in the Evangelische Stadtkirche Bad Berleburg. 

Richard zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg was the third son-in-law of King Frederik IX of Denmark. He married Princess Benedikte in 1968 at Fredensborg Palace, Denmark. Her younger sister Anne-Marie had married Constantine II, King of the Hellenes, in 1964 in Athens, Greece. In 1967, the older sister Margrethe, heiress to the Danish throne, married Henri de Laborde de Monpezat who became Prince Henrik of Denmark.

Richard was a man of humour, and of temper, totally devoid of the stiff upper lip and the jetset lifestyle so often associated with royalty. He met his future wife at the wedding of Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus in the Netherlands in 1966. “In the royal corner,” as he once explained. From birth, Prince Richard belonged to that inner circle of closely related princely houses of Europe, but he never liked the pomp and circumstance and would rather wake up early to a day of hard work in the forest.

His main occupation in life was the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg inheritance, one of the largest private estates in Germany. Prince Richard took that responsibility seriously. “One would hate to be the weakest link in a long chain,” he said. The Prince has been praised for his work in wildlife conservation. He was an accomplished hunter and angler. And he was a central figure in local life in the town of Bad Berleburg. His family’s presence in the area goes back 800 years.

Prince Richard was a male line descendant of the medieval Counts of Sponheim. The chequered arms of the House of Sponheim were however not used by that branch which inherited the County of Sayn in the 13th Century. In stead, the arms of Sayn (Gules, a lion guardant Or) became the central element of the family’s heraldic achievements.

The County of Wittgenstein, where Bad Berleburg is located, was added in the 14th Century. Its arms (Argent, two pallets Sable) are the same as those of the medieval Counts of Battenberg and, in modern times, the Mountbatten family: the Marquesses of Milford Haven, the Marquess of Carisbrooke, the Earls Mountbatten of Burma and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

In 1792, the reigning count in Berleburg was raised to princely rank by the Holy Roman Emperor. The Principality of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg in the Rothaar Mountains on the border between Westphalia and Hesse was one of the many tiny German states that didn’t survive the Napoleonic Wars. Until the fall of the monarchy in 1918, the head of the family sat in the Prussian House of Lords.

The arms of Sayn and Wittgenstein can be seen together with the arms of the lordships of Homburg (Gules, a castle twice towered Argent, windows and port Sable) and Freusburg (Sable, on a bend sinister Argent three boar’s heads Sable) on the family’s armorial banner which was lowered to half mast on Berleburg Castle at the news of the Prince’s death.

Prince Richard’s only son, Gustav, is the new Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. Prince Gustav is named after his paternal grandfather Prince Gustav Albrecht who was reported missing in action in Russia in 1944 during World War II. In the 1960s the prospect of the Danish king getting a German son-in-law was disliked by many Danes. It was decided that any children of Prince Richard and Princess Benedikte would only succeed to the throne on the condition that they were raised in Denmark and became Danish citizens.

It is one of Prince Richard’s achievements that his nationality became a non-issue. As a young child he had lived in Sweden with his widowed mother who was a member of the Fouché d’Otrante family, Swedish nobles descended from Napoleon’s Minister of Police. So, Prince Richard had learned Swedish. Later in life he also spoke Danish, albeit in his own charming, “mixed Scandinavian” version. He was the German prince who put a friendly face on Germany at a time when it was needed.

The Flag Coalitions In German Politics

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If you want to understand German politics and all the possible party coalitions people talk about, you need to know a little about flags, too. Some of the combinations of parties which could potentially join to form a government are named for flags with the same colours as the parties in question. 

2017 is Super Election Year in Germany. Today, it started off with the election of a new Federal President. There will be three state parliamentary elections this spring and, on September 24, a new Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, will be elected.

However, it has become increasingly less easy to predict which parties will be in government in the future. Those days are long gone when the Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) or the Social Democrats (SPD) could be sure to govern alone, or with the help of just one of the smaller parties.

At the moment, Germany and three of its states (Länder) are governed by a “grand coalition” – a coalition where the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have had to join forces to form a majority. Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU and her Social Democratic counterparts will be sure to look for other options this year.

A coalition of Christian Democrats (party colour: black), the Greens (party colour: green) and the liberal Free Democrats (party colour: yellow) will probably be possible. Such a coalition is usually referred to as a “Jamaica coalition” as the Jamaican flag is black, green and yellow.

Another combination of one larger party and two smaller ones is the red-yellow-green. This kind of coalition is usually referred to as a “traffic light coalition” (Ampelkoalition), but has also been called a “Senegal coalition”. At the moment red-yellow-green governs in the the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In the case that a parliamentary majority can’t be built even when  Christian Democrats and Social Democrats come together there is talk of a “Germany coalition” (black-red-yellow) or a “Kenya coalition” (black-red-green) where one of the smaller parties takes part in the governing coalition, the Free Democrats or the Greens respectively. Presently, the state of Saxony-Anhalt has a black-red-yellow government.

Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein has been governed by a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the SSW since 2012. The South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW) is an alliance representing the interests of the Danish and the Frisian minorities. Its party colours are those of the arms of the historical duchy of Schleswig: yellow and blue. Because of the SSW blue, some have named the Schleswig-Holstein government the “Gambia coalition” as the Gambian flag has on it the colours red, green and blue.

A new Schleswig-Holstein state parliament will be elected on May 7. One week later, on May 14, parliamentary elections will be held in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

On February 12, the 1260 electors of the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) convened in the Reichstag building in Berlin to elect the Bundespräsident, the head-of-state of the Federal Republic of Germany. The next Federal President is the former Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD.