The Portuguese Flag

Azulejo 15Yesterday I decided to have a clear-out and in the process I found a tiny Portuguese flag pin that a friend gave me a few years ago. As someone who has worked a lot with symbolism I became fascinated with the design of the flag and curious to find out what it meant.

Firstly the main colours of the flag are red and green. The green takes up two fifths of the flag and the green, three fifths. An armillary sphere is placed over where the two colours meet and over that lies the shield of Portugal.

The flag itself has been in use since 1910 when the monarchy of Portugal were overthrown. However, it was not until 1911 that the flag as it flies today was agreed officially and there was much argument around its design in that intervening year.

Previously, the colours of the flag were mostly blue and white which celebrated the royal family. It was natural therefore that these colours were changed to those of the republican party. Red to represent the blood of the Portuguese (and those who had died defending their country) and green to represent hope and optimism in a new era of republicanism.

Portuguese FlagPhoto by MadalenaPestana on Flickr

The armillary sphere represents Portugal’s great history of maritime discoveries. The sphere was used to navigate the oceans and was incorporated in the personal banner of King Manuel 1st who reigned during those magnificent times. The architecture of the era often included the armillary sphere as well. You can see examples on Belém Tower and in the Monastery of Jerónimos.

Lastly on the flag is the shield of Portugal which sits on top of the armillary sphere. The shield has been present on almost every flag of Portugal (if in slightly differing designs). In the centre of the shield are five small blue shields with five dots in each. The dots are called ‘bezants’. A bezant is an old coin which comes from the word “Byzantian” as these gold coins were the most prized.

It is believed that these five bezants represent the five Moorish Kings that were overthrown by Afonso 1st. Afonso was given a vision that told he would conquer the opposing kings even though their armies outnumbered his. Whether or not this is historically true remains in question but it is said that he included the five bezants to remember this divine victory and honour the five wounds of Christ. The thirty byzants in total are meant to recall the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received for selling out his friend Jesus.

Seven castles on a red background surround the central blue shields and these are supposed to represent Afonso 3rd’s victory over seven Moorish kings.

Much of the truth behind these symbols is lost to history and arguments continue today over what they really represent. Like any good symbol, the images used evoke certain meanings and emotions and it is they that are the most important. Here is a land full of passion, hope and loyalty, a land with a history of discovery, a willingness to take a risk and overcome the odds. The colours are strong and proud like the land it flies above.

For a more comprehensive history check out Wikipedia’s entry on the Flag of Portugal


8 comments for “The Portuguese Flag

  1. July 19, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    What an interesting post! You know, we just spent 6 weeks in Portugal, came back a week ago, and we noticed that the Portuguese love to hang their flag everywhere (at the beginning as we were here it was the Europa Cup, and they were still in it, and the flags were really everywhere, even on donkeys!!!).
    When I made my sketches outside and put colors later on, I never remembered which side was green and which red, and still don’t know, except when I look at some photos of the flag! But I never really paid attention to the details of the flag, but be sure, after reading your entry, when we go there next time (soon I hope as we have totally fallen in love with the whole Portugal!!!) I will examine the flag with much attention!
    Your site is simply great, and your writing a real delight, and I will surely come back often.
    By the way: do you speak Portuguese? And if yes, do you know a good method to learn it (with CDs and book). I definitely want to speak Portuguese when we go back there…

  2. Lily
    July 20, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Hi Miki
    Thanks for your comment and oh wow your art is beautiful! What a talented artist you are! (For anyone reading do go and take a look!)
    I speak some Portuguese but I am still learning. I definately recommend taking a look at LingQ. I wrote an article on this here
    It’s a really great way of learning and has helped me no end. It’s a beautiful language. There’s plenty of Portuguese radio and tv on line too to listen and watch to get used to the language as well.

  3. July 20, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Lily, I just had a quick look at your article, and I am so happy about it! I am simply happy to have met somebody who loves Portugal as I do, an who is able to express her love in suhch a wonderful way and to share iy with such generosity and intelligence of words. Thank you so much!
    Later on today I have some urgent paintwork to do now), I will read it entirely and then go with deep pleasure to the site you mention. I generally love languages very much and I am sure that it will be a wonderful discovery!
    Have a nice Sunday!!!

  4. October 1, 2008 at 2:20 am

    So many wonderful portuguese people here!! I love it! I feel like I’m with the family over the holidays! haha!! I am so obsessed with anything that has a Portuguese flag on it.. I have everything in myhouse from full size flags to magnets to mousepads. I even wear jewelry with the Portugese flag on it! =) My boyfiends last name is Nunes. Its also Portuguese!! Aren’t we cute?? Take a look at the Portuguese flag item for sale in this store..

  5. Nuno
    June 3, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Hi, i’m a native of Portugal and just want to rectify the following:

    “Previously, the colours of the flag were mostly blue and white which celebrated the royal family. ”

    Actually the collors blue and white represent the country (historicly, blue and white were the heraldic collors of the first kings of Portugal, hence why in 1821 blue was added to the white, representing the Liberal Constitution or Bill of Rights).
    So the only thing that represented the royal family was basically the crown…

    And according to many people, including some republicans,
    it is not natural at all that the colours of a party (or one part) should represent the all of the nation…


  6. Lily
    June 3, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Olá Nuno
    Thanks for your comments and correction. It’s always good to learn more. That’s very interesting regarding regarding the colours shouldn’t represent the whole of a nation. I hadn’t considered that before.
    Sometimes I think it would be nice if all flags contained all the basic colours to show how we as a human race are all connected but with different designs to represent different cultures.
    Muito obrigada x

  7. maria almeida
    August 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    hey! interesting blog! if you’re interested in symbolism and hermetism in portugal + the secret meaning of the portuguese flat (and other fabulous theories) you should check Manuel J. Gandra. He’s a university lecturer in Lisbon, an author and also does guided visits to quinta da regaleira in sintra when visitors request him. it’s well worth checking his stuff. really really interesting stuff! m

  8. Lily
    August 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Maria
    Oh yes I’d definately like to know more re: symbolism and hermetism. Thank you 🙂 I will definately check out Sr. Gandra!

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