A Vatican-Sized Flag Mystery

Reddit user “horizontalhole” discovered something curious:

From 2017–2022 the Vatican flag SVG on Wikimedia Commons contained a mistake. You can now tell which flag manufacturers/emoji platforms used the file.

I found this post via the Depths of Wikipedia Twitter account. Once you see the most noticeable difference — the tiara in the Wikimedia Commons version is filled red while the official flag is white — you begin to see examples everywhere. It seems like a bunch of people in Iraq in 2021 were waving the Wikimedia version because a print shop made a bunch of them. It is also present in images from Thailand, Switzerland, and crowds at the Vatican itself.

But here is where things got weird: the version with a red filled tiara is also present on the Popemobile in a visit to Peru, held outside the Pope’s plane in Rome, was raised outside the Vatican embassy in Italy, and hung at a Catholic Conference building in the United States. In addition to the red tiara, they also have the brighter yellow fill in the key of the 2017 Wikimedia variant. While members of the public may have purchased a faulty flag, it seems unlikely to me for representatives of the Vatican to be using a knockoff. And if you go back far enough in the Getty Images archive, you will see the red variant in photos from Mexico City in 2016 and outside the United Nations in 2015 — both taken before the flag on Wikimedia was changed to the apparently incorrect version.

It gets stranger still. The flag shown on one official Vatican webpage about its history shows only the white-filled tiara, but the cord element below the keys is shown in red, which differs from another official Vatican page where it is shown in white. A translated version of the latter page says nothing about what colour each element is supposed to be aside from the yellow and white field.

Luckily, there is a definitive book by Rev. William M. Becker about the flags of the Vatican. On page 99, there is a picture of the flag from an appendix to the Vatican’s 2000 Fundamental Law, about which the Vatican says:

The flag of Vatican City State is constituted by two fields divided vertically, a yellow one next to the staff and a white one, and bears in the latter the tiara with the keys, all according to the model which forms attachment A of the present Law.

So it is settled, right? The version shown — which has a tiara in white, red-filled corded elements, and gold colours which differ from the yellow of the field — is the only official flag of Vatican City. Case closed?

Nope. On page 103, Becker writes:

State flags flown by Vatican buildings follow the basic constitutional design, but vary widely in details such as proportions, color shades, and emblem details. […]

Indeed, Becker includes a series of flags with variations in the colour used for the keys, the cord element, and the tiara, in the 1980s through 2013. Even well past the publication of what the Vatican deemed its official flag, versions shown in and around Vatican City have differences in the shading of each of these elements. Becker goes on to write that these “variations suggest that Vatican authorities could clarify the flag’s details more precisely”, and laments how “local flagmakers often rely on questionable sources (e.g., Wikipedia)” (106).

It does seem that, officially, the version of the Vatican flag with a white-filled tiara is the most correct option. But even within Vatican City itself and in official use, there is considerable variation. Perhaps most relevant to the original post, it is not necessarily true that a Vatican flag with a red-filled tiara is derived from the 2017–2022 Wikimedia image. However, with a more correct version in the world’s most-used encyclopaedia, it may be a productive case of citogenesis.