The Portuguese Flag: Hidden History Within the Flag of Portugal

It’s one of those things I see almost daily, whether it’s being flown by patriotic locals, posted outside government buildings, or even on TV when watching sports. You’ll see the classic green and red flag of Portugal flying in many different places while you travel here. Although it might seem simple at first, everything within the flag of Portugal has been placed with a strong idea and symbolism behind it. Read on to find out everything you might want to know about the Portuguese flag!

The Portuguese Flag Today

The Portuguese flag today (known in Portugal as the Bandeira das Quinas) is made up of an unequal bi-colour rectangle. It’s dark green on the left-hand side (the hoist) and scarlet red on the right-hand side in a 2/5 to 3/5 ratio. Located on the line separating the two colours is something called an armillary sphere. On top of that armillary sphere is the national shield of Portugal. It’s a white rimmed red shield with a smaller white shield (called a inescutcheon) placed at its centre. Within the red rim are seven gold coloured castles. On the white inescutcheon are five smaller blue shields arranged in a Greek cross pattern. Within each of these blue shields lies five white dots (officially called bezants). After reading the description, you might be thinking it sounds rather complicated.

Rest assured it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Here’s a good image to help you put the description of it all together:

Portuguese flag: Image source

The Symbolism Within the Flag of Portugal

With the description out of the way, perhaps it’s time for a quick history lesson on how these colours and symbols came to be the flag of Portugal! Although it was officially adopted on 30th June 1911, the colours, the symbols and the meaning behind them are much much older than that. The three men commissioned with designing the flag were a painter, a journalist, and a writer. Their names were Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, João Chagas, and Abel Botelho. If you’re interested in a deep dive on the history of the announcement here’s a pdf copy of a newspaper from the day.

What Does the Red and Green of the Portuguese Flag Mean?

When the flag was first adopted, the colours especially the use of green, was not seen as a traditional choice for Portugal. In the previous versions of the Portuguese flag the colour green had actually been rarely been used at all. Traditionally, blue and white had been a much more prominent colour and had featured on several of the flags of the past. Both monarchists and the country’s Catholics preferred the blue and white of the former regime. Believing it both to be more historical and representative of Portugal’s past. Blue also had a religious meaning, its one of the main colours used in depictions of Mary and the Immaculate Conception. That’s Nossa Senhora da Conceição in Portuguese and she’s also the patron saint of Portugal. You’ll find multiple churches dedicated to her all over Portugal and she’s often depicted with a blue robe, or a white and blue tunic.

Despite this, the republican-inspired push deliberately aimed to break the former flags bond with the monarchy and religion. The republicans wanted to emphasise the secularisation of Portugal and promote the republic. Several decades before this, red and green had been adopted as the colours of the Portuguese Republican Party and its associated movements across the country. These movements would culminate with the Republican Revolution of 5 October 1910 overthrowing the monarchy. In the following decades, these colours were reported and popularised to represent the hope of the nation (green) and the blood (red) of those who died defending it. This was supposedly as means to reduce the flags political sentiment.

Why is there an Armillary Sphere on Portugal’s Flag?

On top of the red and green, and overlaid on the split between the two colours is an armillary sphere. What’s an armillary sphere you ask? Well, the armillary sphere was an important astronomical and navigational instrument for the Portuguese sailors during the Age of Discovery. It’s essentially a model of the objects in the sky. It consists of a frame of metal rings that represent latitude, longitude and several other important astronomical features.

King Manuel I, who ruled during this period, quickly incorporated the armillary sphere into his personal banner at the end of the 15th century, while he was still a prince. The following use of this badge in official documents, monuments and flags during his reign, transformed the armillary sphere from a simple personal symbol to a national one that represented the Kingdom of Portugal. At the same time, it was also used as the ensign of ships sailing between the mainland and Brazil. As a result, it became a colonial symbol and a key element of the flags of the future Brazilian kingdom and empire. Its use continued long after the death of Manuel I and it came to represent one of the most important periods of Portuguese history.

Armillary Sphere

The Portuguese Shield and Bezants

Resting over the armillary sphere is a Portuguese shield. Although the armillary sphere is tied to the real-life discoveries of the old world. The remaining symbology of the shield and its bezants are tied to historical legends and perhaps mythology. The legends are widely reported but are now known or at least believed to be rich historical story telling.

The shield is present in every single historical flag in one form or another, except during the reign of Afonso I.  It is perhaps the prime Portuguese symbol as well as one of the oldest. The first elements of today’s shield appeared during the reign of Sancho I in 1139. The evolution of the Portuguese flag is inherently associated with the evolution of this shield. Within the white inescutcheon, the five small blue shields with their five white bezants are said to represent the five wounds of Christ. These five blue shields and their bezants are popularly associated with the Miracle of Ourique.

The Miracle of Ourique and the Five Blue Shields

The story behind this miracle goes back to the Battle of Ourique on 25 July 1139. An old man appeared before Count Afonso Henriques (future king Afonso I) as a divine messenger from God. He foretold of Afonso’s coming victory and assured him that God was watching over him and his army. The messenger advised the Count to walk away from his camp alone during the following night, if he heard a nearby chapel bell tolling. The Count would follow the old man’s instructions and while doing so witnessed an apparition of Jesus on the cross. Afonso then heard Jesus promising great victories for the coming battles. As well as God’s wish to act through Afonso and his descendants. It was supposedly God’s wish for Afonso to create an empire which would carry God’s name into unknown lands.

Supposedly boosted by such an experience and with God on his side, Afonso won the battle against an outnumbering enemy force. Legend has it that Afonso defeated the five Moorish kings of Seville, Badajoz, Elvas, Évora and Beja Taifas. The five kings would while fleeing the battle leave their five shields behind. In gratitude to Jesus, he incorporated the five shields arranged in a cross to represent his divine-led victory over the five enemy kings onto his coat of arms. The five shields featuring five silver bezants to further represent the five wounds of Christ.

Despite this noble story, there is considerable evidence against it. The first, the legend itself was only recorded in the 15th century by a chronicle named Fernão Lopes (1419). The second, is that during the multiple reigns following Afonso I, the number of bezants on each shield was often greater than five. With support of this explanation lacking, it’s firmly regarded as patriotic myth.

Why are there Seven Castles on the Portuguese Flag

The red border of the Portuguese shield was added during the 13th century by Afonso III. The seven castles that inhabit the red border are again traditionally considered a symbol of victories over their Moorish enemies. Under Afonso III’s conquest of the Algarve in 1249, he supposedly captured seven enemy fortresses which are represented on the current flag. Once again, this legend is also disputed. The king and his descendants’ banners are officially documented and throughout time change multiple times. Some reconstructions display sixteen castles, with this changing to twelve in 1385, and again to seven in 1485, and even eleven just ten years later in 1495. In 1578 it was again seven castles and stayed that way until its modern representation.

Another more accepted hypothesis about the origin of the castles on a red border lies in the family ties of Afonso III with Castile. Both his mother and his second wife were Castilian, whose arms consisted of a golden castle on a red field. It’s entirely possible the seven castles were picked for their symmetry and familial ties instead of the legends of the seven castles in the Algarve!

The Portuguese Flag

Well, there you have it. Next time you see the flag of Portugal, you’ll know the hidden history and symbology of all its elements. If you think there’s anything we should add to this, let us know in the comments!

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1 thought on “The Portuguese Flag: Hidden History Within the Flag of Portugal”

  1. I subscribe to the more pragmatic explanation that the “quinas” originated from the two strips of blue leather pinned or nailed onto the white painted shields of Afonso Henriques and his soldiers, as his flag was a blue cross on a white field (incidentally, the first flag ever to display a cross). With the wear and tear of battle and everyday use, eventually only those pieces of blue leather tacked onto the shields remained with their respective nails prominent. The number of nails probably varied from individual to individual, thus the varied number of bezants over the years. Of course meaning and stylization would have eventually been attached to what has come to be known as the “quinas”.

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