Monday, March 4, 2013

The meaning of the Arms of the Sede Vacante

I will not be writing who loses his job or who gets to keep his during a Sede Vacante.  Wikipedia has written about that quite extensively.

What I'll be posting today is the explanation of the arms of the Holy See Sede Vacante.

Since most people have been using this emblem as their own profile photo in Facebook during this Sede Vacante, I thought of making a post to explain each of the ecclesiastical devices used in the Arms of the Holy See Sede Vacante.

But before continuing on look at the difference at the Arms of the Holy See and the Arms of Vatican City.

Arms of the Holy See

Arms of Vatican City

Notice the difference?

It is the placement of the keys.

The meaning of the keys also accounts for the meaning of the arms.

The Gold Key represents the Key presented by Christ to Peter with the power lose and bound those in Heaven and on Earth.  While the Silver Key represents his earthly powers of governance in the Vatican City State.

So as you can see, the gold key's end points to the left for the arms of the Holy See, with the left or dexter side traditionally representative of Heaven.  That of the right side or sinister side to that of the earth, thus the end of the silver key pointing to the right side.  The ends of the keys are in the lower part of the arms indicating the power to turn the keys rests in the hands of the the bearer of the keys, the Pope.  As in traditional chivalric charges, the headdresses of the owner of the arms rests above the keys.  For knights it is their helmets, kings have their crowns, dukes and princes their coronets, and for the pope, the triple crown symbolical of the Pope's power as Supreme Pastor, Supreme Teacher and Supreme Priest.

So you can see how the keys are differently placed in the arms of the Holy See and the arms of Vatican City State.

(The meaning of the red and gold cords on both the Arms of Vatican City and the Holy See were not properly defined.)

Now during a sede vacante, the tiara is taken out to symbolize the absence of a reigning Pope.  But what we have "crowning" the keys is an umbrella known as umbraculum (in Latin) or ombrellino in Italian and in English's called an umbrella.

It can trace its origin with the Borgia Pope Alexander VI who used during processions.  Royalty used these ornate umbrellas when they go out for processions and Alexander VI who had a very nasty reputation for flare and pageantry used it to emphasize his temporal powers.

The canopies also denote the power of the cardinals as a collegial bodies.  This is evident in conclaves before the 1978 Conclave when the number of cardinals were so few that there were canopies above the heads of each sitting cardinal in the Sistine Chapel sitting in conclave.

Once the cardinal elected responds "Accepto" to the question of the cardinal dean whether he accepts his canonical election to the papacy, the other cardinals stand and pull the strings holding their canopies.  This will cause the canopies to fold up thus acknowledging that there, among them, is someone of higher authority than them.  The only canopy left unfolded is that of the cardinal elected into the papacy.

I highly suggest you watch "The Shoes of the Fisherman" for a more accurate portrayal of the papal conclave.

The ombrellino then became the symbol of the Pope's temporal powers and it is actually given as one of the privileges of minor basilicas along with the use of the Tiara and Crossed Keys.

Ombrellinos are now used as the power of the Holy See over papal basilicas.  It is commonly seen in minor basilicas with the bell on a rod known as a tintinnabulum.

Tintinnabulum of Mission Dolores Basilica,
San Francisco, USA
St. Louis Cathedral - Basilica, St. Louis, MO

Don't strain yourself.  You won't find this in any minor basilica in the Philippines.  Filipino rectors of these basilicas either don't know about this or simply don't care about these "popishry".

Basilica of St. John the Evangelist Stamford, CT

And here is the arms of the reigning pope, which at that time the photo was taken was Benedict XVI and the arms of the basilica ALSO not done here in the Philippines.

And here is the arms of the Cardinal Camerlengo.  He possesses these arms even though not is sede vacante to mark him as not just your "usual cardinal".

So what does the arms of the Holy See Sede Vacante denote?

Just like the functions of the Camerlengo...Temporal Governance of the Holy See.  Just as the ombrellino denotes temporal powers, so does the Holy See Sede Vacante is being governed on purely temporal matters, until the successor of St. Peter sits upon his chair.


  1. I believe the Malolos Cathedral-Basilica has an ombrellino and a bell located at the right side of the sanctuary. The altar also contains the coat of arms of John Paul II and of the diocese.

  2. Here is the link of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Malolos, showing the ombrellino at the altar side. Taken during the canonical coronation.

    1. for those curious, it's visible in pictures number 93 and 105 in the Photo Gallery Link.

  3. Technically, that is not the umbraculum and tintinnabulum. This is the conopaeum.

    Although the Instruction Domus ecclesiae issued in 1989 does not mention the umbraculum and tintinnabulum as special privileges granted to minor basilicas. Even minor basilicas declared after 1989 still use the umbraculum and tintinnabulum like the Cathedral - Basilica of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri which was granted the minor basilica status in 1999.