The current Portuguese flag was created in 1910, after the proclamation of the Republic on October 5, 1910. Such a profound change in the centuries-old monarchical tradition justified new symbols and, consequently, a new national flag.
The Portuguese flag is rectangular (height is 2/3 of the width), and it is characterized by being divided vertically into two colors – dark green and red, with green remaining in the pole and occupying 2/5 of the bottom. The coat of arms of Portugal on the armillary sphere, in yellow, superimposed on the union of colors and vertically centered.
Creation of the Portuguese Flag
Just 10 days after the revolution, on 15 October, one of the first measures of the new government was the creation of a commission to develop a new Portuguese flag. This commission consisted of Navy officer Ladislau Parreira, Army officer Afonso Palla, journalist, and politician João Chagas, military and writer Abel Botelho and the famous painter Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro.
On October 29, a first draft of the national flag was presented, which corresponded largely to the green-red flags used on 5 October but with red on the pole’s side. After some changes (shape of the armillary sphere and removal of the radiant star placed in timbre), a second project was presented on 6 November, approved by the Government on 29 November 1910, and approved by the Constituent Assembly on 11 June 1911.
The government also approved the 1st of December as the Day of the Flag, and on the 1st of December of 1910, the new national flag was used in the military and popular parade that left the Lisbon City Hall to Praça dos Restauradores, where it was raised for the first time.
Meaning of the Portuguese Flag
Meaning of the Colors of the Portuguese Flag
The main colors of the Portuguese flag are dark green and red (scarlet). Dark green is located on the side of the pole and occupies two-fifths of the total area, while red is on the fly side and occupies the remaining three-fifths of the flag.
Green is popularly associated with the hope of the Portuguese people, while red means the blood shed by those who fought for their country. However, this supposed symbolism is a “fairy tale” created a posteriori. This symbology only arises during the Estado Novo (Portuguese dictatorship of the 20th century), and it is “a typical case of symbology that emerges from design” ( Jorge Candeias, 27 Nov 1998), thus not being the real reason for having these colors in the flag Portuguese.
But why these colors? As mentioned above, the flag and colors were chosen by a commission in 1910, approved by the government and the constituent assembly. Despite being present in some past flags and symbols, both green and red were never Portugal’s main colors. On the other hand, they were the colors of the flags of the Portuguese Republican Party, and the flags unfurled in the republican revolt of Porto on 31 January 1891. Although the revolution failed, the colors gained strength and symbolism and were never forgotten.
The traditional colors of Portugal were white and, to a lesser extent the blue. The white was clearly the color of Portugal, while the blue was somewhat seen as the monarchy’s color, besides being the national color. Thus, many people were against the new flag, and many alternative suggestions were using the old White and Blue, and a mix of the traditional colors and the new ones. In the end, the new flag prevailed.
The Armillary Sphere
Centered and superimposed on the union of colors, we find a very stylized version of the Armillary Sphere, in yellow, highlighted in black. It consists of four rings arranged as maximum circles of the same sphere, three of which on planes at 90° angles and a fourth, wider, in an oblique position. The rings symbolize two meridians (nodal and zenith-apical), Ecuador, and Ecliptic, however, they are positioned seeking graphic harmony and not astronomical correction. Note that there are no polar circles on the Portuguese flag.
The Armillary Sphere is one of the most important astronomical instruments of navigation used by Portuguese sailors during the Age of Discovery. Introduced in Portugal by the Templars, it became one of the nation’s greatest symbols and, above all of Portugal’s greatest glory, the discoveries.
The Armillary Sphere had already been incorporated by D. Manuel I in his personal flag and later in national flags and symbols. It was recovered by the republicans to represent the maritime expansion of the Portuguese throughout the 15th and 16th centuries and symbolizing the global character of Portugal.
Resting over the armillary sphere, we have the Portuguese Shield. With the exception of the reign of Afonso Henriques (the first king of Portugal), the coat of arms is present in all the historical flags of Portugal. It is thus the main Portuguese symbol. The shield evolved over centuries, but the main elements appear since the reign of D. Sancho I, the second king of Portugal.
This shield is very complex, with lots of details and symbolism. We will first describe each of the Portuguese shield elements and then explain their possible meanings and origins.
The coat of arms on the Portuguese flag is represented by a round-tipped shield consisting of a white interior area and a red exterior area, parallelly limiting the shield. In the red part, we have seven yellow castles, three at the top (one in each corner and one in the middle), two at the midpoint of each quadrant of the curved base (rotated 45 degrees), and two more on each side of the edge, on the horizontal line of the middle banner. Each castle consists of the main building, showing a closed (yellow) gate, on top of which are three battlemented towers.
In the white part of the shield, we have five small blue shields (escudetes), arranged in a Greek cross (1 + 3 + 1). Within each of these shields, there are five white discs (the bezants) arranged in the shape of a Saint Andrew’s cross (2 + 1 + 2). The shields thus loaded with the bezants are what is usually called “quinas“.
Finally, we should note that the shield is outlined in white all around, and all objects that make up the flag are limited by a black line, except for the bezants, the shields, and of course red and green fields.
Symbolism of the Portuguese Coat of Arms
To better understand the coat of arms, we will divide it between the white shield with the five quinas and the red outer area with the yellow castles.
The origin and meaning of the quinas, that is, the five blue shields with the 5 bezants, are related to the legend of the Battle of Ourique. According to legend, Afonso Henriques was visited by God who indicated that he would win the battle found a new empire of God.
According to the legends, the 5 bezants represent the 5 wounds of Christ when crucified, while the five shields arranged in a Christian cross form the five Moorish kings (from the tafras of Évora, Beja, Elvas, Badajoz and Seville) that D. Afonso Henriques would have killed during the Battle of Ourique. There is another lesser-known version of the legend that tells us that the 5 bezants refer to the 5 wounds suffered by D. Afonso Henriques in the battle.
Besides, according to the legend, the sum of all the bezants (the central ones should be counted twice) symbolizes the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot received for the betrayal of Jesus Christ. However, we must note that these explanations lack evidence, as they appear only a few centuries after the battle of Ourique, for example in the chronicles of Fernão Lopes (1419).
Throughout this time, the number of beetles has varied. If we look at the Portuguese historical flags only in 1385 it was fixed in five, so the real meaning can not be exactly that. The presence of the bezants is supposed to be an affirmation of sovereignty as it assisted the sovereign to mint his own currency.
The current shield has seven gold castles depicted in yellow. According to legends, they represent the seven fortresses conquered in the ancient kingdom of the Algarve, conquered by D. Afonso III in the 13th century. However, this explanation is not completely satisfactory because, in addition to Afonso III already using castles before the conquests, he did not have a specific number of castles. The number seven is fixed much later, only in 1485.
One of the most credible hypotheses for castles is related to the family ties of D. Afonso III since his mother and his second wife were Castilian, whose coat of arms consists exactly of a golden castle on a red field.
The Flag of Portugal
The current Portuguese flag appeared with the implantation of the republic to break with some symbols of the past and, in particular, with the Monarchy. The new colors, which now seem so natural to us, were argued, discussed, even fought against, and took some time to be fully accepted. Time, wars, past difficulties, and even sport brought legitimacy to the new Portuguese flag, and today it is a non-issue for the vast majority of Portuguese.
Finally, we leave the words of the poet Bernardo Passos:
She is so ours already, guiding our steps …
In such a way says Motherland, that beautiful flag,
That either this homeland lives by lifting it well in its arms
Or this homeland dies shrouded in it!