heraldry keys meaningIf there were a Locksmith’s Order, surely in its coat of arms there would be keys, maybe represented in a golden crested field, to portray the preciousness of an ancient profession, and in a red one, as the fire of Hephaestus or Vulcan, the god that “softens the metal in the forge”.


Even if in ancient times the symbol of blacksmiths was a pair of tongs, today we can imagine several keys arranged in different ways, maybe a flat key together with a transponder one, or a double-bit key together with a dimple one. The field is so varying, with so many choices, depending on the shape and on the technology. But we should pay attention to a few details: to the position, for example, because arranging the keys in a cross, either a Latin one, a Greek one or a St. Andrew’s one, according to the symbolism of heraldry, will definitely take us in another field.


Right, because there someone else who is allowed to use the keys in his coat of arms: the Pope himself, no less! Since the 14th century, the keys, a golden one and a silvery one, are a part of the official coat of arms of the Holy See. In this case, they are arranged in a saltire, meaning that they are crossed over one another or placed against the coat, with the contraptions facing upwards, glancing at the sky, and outwards, and the handles facing downwards, often tied with a red bow. On the other hand, the symbol of the Fabric of Saint Peter, the body created for the construction of the Basilica with the same name that, to this day, runs its management, is arranged at a pole, that is to say vertically.


In the long history of the papacy, all the popes have included the keys in their coats of arms, from the first one documented, that of Pope Innocent III, who first sat on the Chair of St. peter in 1198, to the Antipope Benedict XIII of 1397, from Pope Julius II, of the Renaissance period, to the current Pope Francis. And so did many dignitaries and ecclesiastical orders.


The symbolism has many aspects: it refers both to the authority of administrating the redemption and teaching the doctrine and to the power of binding and releasing. From an heraldic point of view, the golden key identifies the power that extends to the heavenly kingdom, and the silver one identifies the spiritual authority on earth.


In the civic heraldry, instead, the keys are always identified as a symbol of power, insomuch that we can always find them in the coats of arms of castle owners and captains, or of governors and commanders of fortresses, but, on the other hand, the keys are also a symbol of obedience and submission, when they refer to the offer of the key of a city, as we can see in “The Surrender of Breda”, captured by the Spanish painter Diego Velásquez. In the painting of 1635 we see the humble Dutch commander surrendering the keys of the city to the victorious and sympathetic Genoese Ambrogio Spinola, firmly at the vanguard of the Spanish army.

Today the keys are found more often on the shops’ signs than on the coats of arms or in the paintings, but even here, drawn with display stickers or with luminous neon lights, molded in colored plastic stamps or traced with futuristic holograms, they still remain a symbol of great virtue and nobility.