You have probably noticed that the vast majority of the nations’ flags around the world are rectangular. But have you actually ever wondered why? Well, as European ships sailed through the oceans centuries ago, they used flags to manifest the country of origin. And once they found out that a rectangular flag catches the wind more effectively compared to any other shape, they ultimately settled on that specific shape, with the idea predictably catching on also on land! Today, apart from Nepal and its unique double triangular-pennant configuration symbolizing the Himalayan Mountains, there just two more exceptions to that rectangular-shape rule. Switzerland and Vatican City are the only 2 countries that have square-shaped flags.
The Swiss flag
The iconic white cross on the Swiss flag dates back to 1339 and the Battle of Laupen: the soldiers of Bern and their allies came up with a brilliant solution that helped them tell friends and enemies apart while on the battlefield. They sewed two white linen strips in their uniforms in order to form a distinctive white cross that was hard not to notice. The idea proved to be hugely influential and went on to appear on the arms and banners of all Swiss soldiers ever since, eventually becoming the nation’s official flag in the mid-19th century. The white cross in itself occupies the center of the flag, featuring arms of equal length.
Due to its bright red color, the flag is often mistaken for that of the International Red Cross. Swiss citizens are permitted to have the flag fly in their properties throughout the year. As expected, removing, destroying or desecrating the Swiss flag is punishable by law. As for the origin of the red color, consensus hasn’t been reached: some claim that it symbolizes the blood of Christ, while others maintain that it followed the example of the old Bernese flag.
It is noteworthy that, despite its peculiar square shape, reasons of uniformity dictate that a rectangular variation of the Swiss flag be in fact used in major international and sporting events.
The Vatican City flag
A second deviation from the rectangular-shape rule is Vatican’s flag: the tiny independent city-state is home to St. Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel and the headquarters of the Catholic Church, and its flag boasts a distinguished history which dates back to 1195.
The state’s current flag dates to 1929, when Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Pacts, laying the foundation for the sovereign state of the Vatican City that would be governed by the Holy See. The flag is vertically divided into two parts that represent the principle symbols of the Pope. Owing to the Vatican city abiding exclusively by God’s rules, the yellow and white stripes break the heraldic rule of tincture. The yellow band occupies the hoist side. The white portion, taking up the fly side, shows the Vatican City’s coat of arms, namely the crossed keys of Saint Peter crowned by the Papal Tiara, the symbol of sovereignty. According to most scholars, the golden key stands for spiritual power, while the silver one signifies earthly power. A reddish rope knots the keys together. Since heraldic terminology does not discriminate between yellow and gold, nor between white and silver, the flag’s yellow and white colors stand for gold and iron, the metals which the the keys of St. Peter are made from.
Apart from flying in the independent city-state, the flag is also displayed worldwide in Roman Catholic churches and institutions, typically alongside the national flag of the country where they are situated.