ecclesiastical heraldry


Divided into various branches, principally, the arms of religious corporations and other bodies; the insignia of ecclesiastical dignity, rank, or office; the charges, terms, and forms of general heraldry having a religious or ecclesiastical origin, usage, or character; the emblems or devices attributed to or typifying particular saints or other beings venerated by the Church. The earliest ecclesiastical seals were undoubtedly personal, bearing the effigy, arms, or device of a bishop or abbot, but in England, by law of Edward I, 1307, religious houses were ordered to have a common seal and there finally developed the idea of an impersonal coat of arms for each community. There is little, if any, evidence of a regularized sovereign control of ecclesiastical heraldry before the Reformation, hence the arms of abbeys and priories have little of the exactitude that characterizes other heraldry of the period. A large number of ecclesiastical coats of arms are based upon the figures and effigies of patron saints and the oval cartouche was often substituted by supposedly peace-loving ecclesiastics for the shield which is the ordinary vehicle of a coat of arms but is essentially a military institution. The chief distinction in the bearing of personal arms by an ecclesiastic is found in the use of the miter, the crosier, and the ecclesiastical hat.

The heraldic use of the hat dates from the early 14th century, and in the 17th century its use for the lower ranks of the Church became fairly universal. It is low, flat, wide-brimmed, and depending from either side are cords and tassels (houppes or fiocci). Originally the number of tassels was indeterminate but in early representations six tassels on either side are usually found. The cardinal’s hat is scarlet and has fifteen tassels on each side. The hats of a patriarch, an archbishop, and a bishop are green. A patriarch also has fifteen tassels but the cord and taseels are interwoven with gold; an archbishop has ten tassels and a bishop has six. Archabbots possess episcopal rank and use the same hat as a bishop. The ordinary ecclesiastical hat of a simple priest is black and had originally on either side a single tassel of the same color, but this later developed into a double tassel. The prelates of the papal chamber use a violet hat with ten red tassels on either side. Apostolic prothonotaries are entitled to a violet hat with six red tassels at each side. Domestic prelates, privy chamberlains, and privy chaplains of His Holiness have a violet bat with six violet tassels. Honorary chamberlains and chaplains have a violet hat with three violet tassels.

The heraldic miter is placed above the arms of all who are entitled to wear it. It is always represented as of gold and the labels or infulae depending from within it are of the same color. That of a bishop and an archbishop are identical. The crosier is another external ornament to the shield, widely made use of by ecclesiastics and as a sign of episcopal dignity is said to be traceable to the 4th century. The processional cross which is carried in front of an archbishop is also used armorially, being represented in pale behind the shield. The cross of an ordinary archbishop has but a single traverse which distinguishes it from the primatial cross, which has the double traverse and the papal cross with the treble traverse. The pallium is also used armorially. The emblems of the papacy consist of the tiara and the crossed keys of Saint Peter, one of gold and too other of silver, the two being usually tied together with a cord. Crests and helmets are not usually borne by ecclesiastics but the use of mottoes is quite correct. Members of a regular order frequently impale the arms of the order with their personal arms, and cardinals have often impaled with their personal arms the arms of the pope who has raised them to that rank. Precentors denote their office by placing a baton behind their shields and the arms of a canon are often displayed upon his almuce (tippet or hood). Priors and prioresses place a bourdon (or knobbed staff) of silver in pale behind their shields. Armenian archbishops use a green bat with ten green tassels. Behind the shield are placed a Latin crosier and a Greek crosier in saltire, the shield is ensigned by a miter and in pale is a cross with a double traverse.

MLA Citation

  • “ecclesiastical heraldry”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 August 2018. Web. 2 March 2021. <>