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Croatia : Coat of Arms

Last modified: 2013-08-04 by ivan sache
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[Coat of arms of Croatia]

Coat of arms of Croatia - Image by Željko Heimer, 3 October 2000



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Adoption of the coat of arms of Croatia

The coat of arms of Croatia was adopted on 21 December 1990 by Law Zakon o grbu, zastavi i himni Republike Hrvatske, te zastavi i lenti Predsjednika Republike Hrvatske (Law on the Coat of Arms, the Flag, and the National Anthem of the Republic of Croatia, and on the Flag and Sash of the President of the Republic of Croatia; original text), adopted on 21 December 1990 and published in the Croatian official gazette Narodne Novine, No. 55/90.
The coat of arms is made of a chequy shield crowned by five smaller shields.

Željko Heimer, 3 August 2006


The checky shield

Origin of the shield

The arms of Croatia, "Checky argent and gules", seem to date from 1525. In the 9th century the Croats formed a political entity; their ruler took the title of King in 929. In 1102, a succession crisis was solved with the choice of the King of Hungary as King of Croatia. The two kingdoms were ruled by the same ruler until the Turkish conquest in 1526, though Croatia retains its institutions, its governor (ban), and its coinage. On medieval coinage, the arms of Croatia appear to be a mullet of six over a crescent (the motif appears on coins as early as the late 12th century).
In 1525, under unclear circumstances, the arms "Checky argent and gules" were adopted; they would remain the arms of Croatia in the Habsburg achievements until 1918. Used on the flag of the puppet Independent State of Croatia in 1941-45, they also appeared on the seal of the Republic of Croatia after 1946.

François Velde, 30 June 1995

The symbol of checky fields is much older than written Croatian history, that is to say older than the 7th century, therefore much older that the arms themselves.
The traces of checky could be found on the way Croatian tribes came from what is today Poland (Vistula valley), and even further back to east. According to some findings of checky patterns in Iran, some scientists would like to prove an Iranian (or Arian) descent of the Croatians.

Željko Heimer, 26 March 1996

According to Jerzy Gizyski's History of Chess, which also has more extensive references to chess in polish Heraldry: "A chequerboard appears in the Croation coat of arms. It is said that Svetoslav Surinj beat the Venetian Doge Peter II in a game for the right to rule the Dalmatian towns". The story is probably a 19th-century, Romantic invention, and even as such not very much rooted. No heraldic relevant source mentions it at all.

Knut A. Berg & Željko Heimer, 18 July 1998


Arrangement of the squares

On historical coat of arms, the arrangement of the red and white squares is irrelevant. However, during the 20th century, the red-first design somehow became usual, and was heraldically chosen as a more pleasing combination for single checky shield.
The red-first design was adopted the Banate of Croatia set up in 1939 in Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, the Independent State of Croatia prescribed the white-first design for the coat of arms while the Partisans retained the red-first design - when they used a coat of arms, which was not all that frequent.
After the Second World War, the red-first design was again official in the arms of the Republic of Croatia, although many examplse of the coat of arms of the white-first design are also preserved. A legend of the time explains that the white-first design was always used when Croatia was at peace and free, while the red-first design was used when Croatia was occupied or at war - however, this story holds no evidence at all.
When Croatia readopted its historical coat of arms in 1990, the red-first design was chosen again, following the aforementioned heraldical principles. However, about the same time many unofficial flags were produced with the white-first design and without the crest. These variants were especially preferred by right-winged parties and people more or less prone to follow the Ustaša ideas.

Željko Heimer, 26 March 2006


The crest above the shield

The five coat of arms surmounting the checky shield are called in the official description "the historical Croatian coats of arms", named from left to right:
1. The oldest known coat of arms of Croatia;
2. The coat of arms of the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik);
3. The coat of arms of Dalmatia;
4. The coat of arms of Istria;
5. The coat of arms of Slavonia.
It is sometimes said that the five coat of arms are representing the five historical regions of Croatia, which is not quite true.

Coats of arms No. 1, 3 and 5, as well as the checky shield, were all, at least at some times, used as the coat of arms to represent the whole Croatia, especially in early heraldic period. Afterwards, in late Middle Ages, the distinction of the three crown lands (Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia) was made.
Coat of arms No. 1, with crescent and star, was used in the earliest heraldic and preheraldic periods by Croatian rulers; it has nothing to do with Islam. The oldest Croatian tribes that settled the area of modern Croatia before christianization worshipped pagan gods, which they represented, as it is not unusual, by a star and crescent. Even after christianization the symbols remained important. The two symbols appeared on coins issued in 1196 by Croatian rulers - then already subdued under Hungarian crown even if with much authonomy -, and were subsequently used for some time as the symbols of Croatian sovereignty. With the arrival of the newer Croatian symbols (Slavonian, Croatian and Dalmatian coat of arms), the old symbols were gradually forgotten. It is only in the 19th century that the leaders of the national reformation movement (mostly Ljudevit Gaj) readopted them, as the original Croatian symbols. At the time the crescent and star, usually placed on red background, as a rule followed the three coats of arms of the Croatian Triune Kingdom in artistic representations. The movement called itself the Illyric movement, according to the misconception that the old, pre-Roman Illyrian tribes of western Balkan were predcessors of Croats. The Illyrian name has been used for Croats in many cases since the Middle Ages. Thus the Illyrian coat of arms became an important national symbol, especially since it was the only emblem that would differentiate the revolutionary patriotic movement from the regime that used the three coat of arms. In the 20th century, the symbol was gradually dropped from official and popular usage but was not forgotten. As an important national symbol it was included in the coat of arms adopted by the independent Croatia in 1990.
Coat of Arms No. 2 is the coat of arms of the Dubrovnik Republic. It is in fact the Hungary Ancient ("Barry gules and argent) arms, granted by a Hungarian king as sign of augmentation after he had adopted for himself an other coat of arms ("Per pale Hungary Ancient and Hungary Modern"). This coat of arms should be red with white bars (usually four), but in the state coat of arms they were rendered by the artist as blue and red, and reduced to four alltogether. The reduction of the number of stripes was made for the sake of simplicity (a 9-striped shield would have been very unpractical in small representations), while the change from white to blue was considered valid as there are many historical examples of such an use*.
Coat of arms No. 3 is Dalmatia ("Azure, three crowned leopard's heads or"). This is probably the most well-known of the five, also found in the arms of Austria, Hungary, Venice... at some times either as arms of pretence or as the sign of a real power over Dalmatia.
Coat of Arms No. 4 is Istria ("Azure, a goat or attired and hoofed gules", used for the Austrian (Habsburg) Margravate as well as by the Venetian rulers. This is probably the least known in the set.
Coat of Arms No. 5 is Slavonia**, an other very well-known coat of arms dating back to the early days of heraldry.

Željko Heimer, 15 December 2004

* Metallic inks sometimes used to illustrate argent tended to degenerate into some sort of matt blue. A clear example can be seen in a 15th century nautical chart illustrated in Smith ([smi75c]), where the flag of England appears as a red cross on a blue field etc. This might explain the blue color used in the Hungary Ancient arms. In many sources, the four white/blue bars were indeed explained as rivers.
Santiago Dotor & Željko Heimer, 5 October 2000

** The arms of Slavonia appeared on coins of that region as early as 1235.
François Velde, 30 June 1995


Objections to the coat of arms

Quoting Vecernji list, 28 January 2000:

Whether the Croatian coat of arms is unconstitutional is a question recently elicited by Dr. Slaven Letica. We can discuss the coat of arms, but not its constitutionality, answered Pr. Dr. Nikša Stančić, from the History Department of the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, head of the expert committee that participated in the first stage of the creation of the new Croatian coat of arms in 1990:

"Just after the elections in 1990, Dr. Domljan [then President of the Parliament] asked me to establish a working group. Our task was not to propose the shape and contents of the coat of arms, but to provide expert background and to warn the politicians who shall determine the coat of arms on the heraldry rules. We gave rules on how the coat of arms could be done. We warned also that new heraldry does not respect and does not have to respect the rules of traditional heralrdy. According to heraldry, the coat of arms have mandatory and non-mandatory elements. So, a rank symbol if mandatory, a symbl of baron or count, or, in case of a state, a symbol for monarchy or republic. The traditional symbol of a republic is a three-towered city, and our coat of arms is somewhat historized, something that could symbolize a historical kindgom. The fact that there is something beside the basis of the coat of arms is not unconstitutional, nor it is against the heraldry rules. I submitted our proposals to Dr. Domljan, so he commissioned the painter Miroslav Sutej, who produced many designs. We met several times President TuĐman. On one of those meetings Dr. TuĐman accepted exactly the design that was the best among those proposals. It was Sutej's failure to let the coat of arms of Dubrovnik in the crown to differ from the original. Maybe to him, as an artist, it was not of such importance. It was objected that the goat is an Italian symbol. The coat of arms of Istria is the coat of arms of the Austrian Duchy of Istria, much younger than the rest of coat of arms, but it is generally accepted in Istria. The coat of arms of Croatia was also used by all possibly ideologies, from feudalists to reformers, Stjepan Radić [a Croatian politician in the interbellum], Ustašas, partisans, but that should not mean that it is now unacceptable if most of the people accept it. The oldest preserved red-white coat of arms is the one on Cetina seal from 1st January 1527, when the Croatian Pparliament adopted the Habsburg dynasty for Croatian kings.The oldest known Croatian coat of arms, the first one in the crown, is the coat of arms of late 12th or early 13th century, preserved on a coin of the Croatian Herzeg [Duke] Andrew, subsequently to become the Croatian-Hungarian King Andrew II. It is inscribed in the coin 'Dux Croatiae'. I do not know how much it would be wise today to think about the change of the coat of arms with which we have gone through independence struggle and Homeland War. I had different opinions about its contents and how it was designed, but it constitutionality can not be questiopned."

Željko Heimer, 30 January 2000