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Pontifical Decorations

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Pontifical decorations are the titles of nobility, orders of Christian knighthood and other marks of honour and distinction which the papal court confers upon men of unblemished character who have in any way promoted the interests of society, the Church, and the Holy See. The titles range all the way from prince to baron inclusive, and are bestowed by the pope as temporal sovereign. The title ordinarily conferred is that of count prefixed to the family name, which title is either merely personal or transferable by right of primogeniture in the male line. Bishops assistant at the throne are de jure Roman counts. There is another title which is usually called Count Palatine, but the true designation is Count of the Sacred Palace of Lateran, which is attached to many offices in the papal court. The papal orders of knighthood, ranking according to their importance and dignity, are:

  1. Supreme Order of Christ;
  2. Order of Pius IX;
  3. Order of St. Gregory the Great;
  4. Order of St. Sylvester;
  5. Order of the Golden Militia, also called of the Golden Spur;
  6. Order of The Holy Sepulchre (semi-official note of the Cardinal Chancellor of Equestrian Orders, "Osservatore Romano", 12 Feb., 1905).

Pius X decreed that the Orders of Christ and the Golden Militia should have only one, the other four orders, three grades or classes ("Multum ad excitandos"; 7 Feb., 1905); that occasionally, but very rarely, in matters of special importance and by special papal permission, a commander eminently distinguished might be allowed to wear the badge (smaller size than that of the first class) on the left breast. According to critical historians, these orders do not antedate the Crusades. After the Crusades, the kings of Europe founded and placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Saints, orders of chivalry. Of these, some were intended to protect their kingdoms from the incursions of the infidel, and were in reality religious military orders; others were designed as a desirable and honourable recompense for eminent services to king and country. The lavish and indiscriminate creation of knights of the latter orders led in course of time to a loss of prestige and desire on the part of men of eminent merits to be knighted. The Roman pontiffs, in their dual capacity of spiritual and temporal rulers, either founded or approved, or remodelled and restored to their pristine glory, the six papal orders afore-mentioned.

Supreme order of Christ

The Supreme Order of Christ is of Portuguese origin (see ORDER OF THE KNIGHTS OF CHRIST). The papal and Portuguese order are one and the same, for a two-fold reason; the pope is the head of every religious order and can admit to solemn profession in any order without the permission of its superior general, and, further, in the Bull of approvals he reserved to himself and his successors the right to create knights of the order, a right which was exercised by the popes and recognized by the kings of Portugal. The decoration is a long red cross, bordered with a narrow gold band, whose extremities are of a trapezoidal form, surmounted by a royal crown, which, in turn, is surmounted by a military trophy attached to the ribbon. Upon the centre of the long red cross is superimposed a small, simple, white enamelled Latin cross. The white upon the red symbolizes the triumph of the Immaculate Lamb of God, by His blood, over the world of sin. Until within a few years ago, this decoration was worn suspended by a red ribbon which encircled the wearer's neck. Pope Pius X, in memory of the ancient collar composed of alternate swords and tiaras which the knights of old wore, decreed that the decoration should henceforth be worn suspended from a collar composed of shields bearing alternately the cross of the order and the papal emblems connected with golden knots. The "plaque", or badge, worn on the breast, is a silver eight-rayed star ornamented with jewels, bearing on its centre the cross of the order, which is encircled by a crown of gold oak leaves wound with a green fillet. The uniform is of a bright scarlet with facings of white cloth and rich gold embroideries on the collar, breast and cuffs (Moroni, Diz., XVIII, 216). Knee breeches of white smooth silk with gold side stripes, shoes of white silk with gold buckles, hat with white plumes and ornamented with a knot of twisted gold cord terminating in tassels of gold, and a sword with a gold ornamented mother-of-pearl hilt and pendant tassels of twisted gold cord complete this official costume (Pius X, 3 May 1905). The official dress of a professed knight of this order when it was a religious military body was white.

Order of Pius IX

This had for its founder (17 June, 1847) the pope whose name it bears. Its object is to fittingly reward noble and conspicuous deeds which merit well of Church and society, and to stimulate others to follow the illustrious example set them. At first it comprised only two classes, knights of the first class, who, upon receiving the decoration, were made nobles with hereditary succession, and knights of the second class, whose title of nobility was personal. Shortly after (17 June, 1849, "Cum hominum mentes") the order was divided into four classes, viz.:

  1. Knights of the Great Ribbon;
  2. Commanders with the Badge;
  3. Commanders, and
  4. Knights.

Knights of the Great Ribbon wear a wide ribbon extending from the left shoulder saltier-wise to the right side where from a rosette attached to the ribbon the star of the order is suspended. They also wear on the breast the large badge set with diamonds. Commanders wear the decoration at the neck. Commanders with the Badge, besides the star at the neck, wear a badge of smaller design than the large plaque on the breast, and simple knights wear the star on the left breast. The decoration is an eight-pointed blue enamelled star. The spaces between the rays are filled in with undulating golden flames. On the centre is a white enamelled medallion on which is engraved the words PIUS IX and around it, in a golden circle, are stamped in characters of blue, the motto, VIRTUTI ET MERITO. The reverse is identical with the obverse side except that the inscription ANNO 1847 is used instead of PIUS IX. There are two forms of badges. One is a large silver medal similar to the star, and the other is of the same design but larger and adorned with brilliant gems. The ribbon of the decoration is dark blue silk bordered with red. The official costume (rarely worn) is a dark blue evening dress coat closed in front by one row of gold buttons. The collar and cults and breast of the coat are covered with golden embroideries more or less elaborate, according to the grade or class of the wearer. Golden epaulettes, white trousers with gold side stripes, a bicornered hat with white plumes, complete the official dress. This order may be conferred also upon non-Catholics.

Order of St. Gregory the Great

Gregory XVI founded this order to reward the civil and military virtues of subjects of the Papal States by brief "Quod Summis", 1 Sept., 1831, and placed it under the patronage of the great pope whose name it bears. It has two divisions, civil and military, and each division is divided into four classes, viz.:

  1. Grand Cross Knights of the First Class;
  2. Grand Cross Knights of the Second Class;
  3. Commanders, and
  4. simple Knights.

The decoration is a bifurcated or eight-pointed red enamelled gold cross, in the centre of which is a blue medallion on which is impressed in gold the image of St. Gregory, and at the side of his head near the right ear is a dove; in a circle around the image appears in golden letters "S. Gregorius Magnus". On the reverse side is the device, "Pro Deo et Principe", and in the centre around it, GREGORIUS XVI. P. M. ANNO. 1. The badge is the cross of the order surrounded with silver rays. The ribbon of the order is red with orange borders. The cross worn by a knight of the military division is surmounted by a military trophy; the cross of a knight of the civil division is surmounted by a crown of gold oak leaves. The costume of ceremony is a dress coat of dark green open in front, and covered on breast and back with embroideries in the form of oak leaves. White trousers with silver side stripes, a bicornered ornamented hat, and the usual knightly sword, complete the costume, which is rarely worn.

Order of St. Sylvester, before the regulations of Pius X

This was the Order of the Golden Militia under a new name. Prior to the year 1841 it was known as the Militia of the Golden Spur or Golden Militia, and though it is not historically established who among the many supposed founders is the true one, yet it undoubtedly is the oldest and, at one time, was one of the most prized of the papal orders. Faculties granted to the Sforza family (Paul III, "Hinc est quod nos", 14 Apr., 1539), to the College of Abbreviators (Leo X, Const. 14 "Summi") and to bishops assistant at the throne (Julius III, 6 Apr., 1557) to create Knights of the Golden Militia resulted in lavish bestowal and diminished prestige of the decoration. Pope Gregory XVI ("Quod hominum mentes", 31 Oct., 1841), retaining the ancient name, placed the order under the patronage of St. Sylvester (one of its alleged founders), withdrew all faculties to whom and by whomsoever given, and forbade the use of the title or the decoration to all knights created by other than by papal Brief. The better to restore it to its ancient glory and splendour, he limited the number of commanders to one hundred and fifty and knights to three hundred (for Papal States only), and appointed the Cardinal of Apostolic Briefs as Chancellor of the Order, with the duty of preserving the name, grade, number and date of admission of each knight. He divided it into two classes, commanders and knights. The former wore the large sized decoration suspended at the neck, the latter the small sized one on the left side of the breast. The decoration, according to the Gregorian Brief, was an eight-pointed gold cross with an image of St. Sylvester wearing the tiara on its white enamelled centre, and around this centre a blue enamelled circle bearing in letters of gold the inscription SANC. SYLVESTER P. M. On the reverse side, in golden characters, was stamped MDCCCXLI GREGORIUS XVI RESTITUIT. A golden spur hung suspended from the sides of the bifurcated foot of the cross of the order to mark the unity of the Sylvestrine order with that of the Golden Militia. The ribbon of the decoration was of silk composed of five strands, three of which were red, and two black. Commanders wore the decoration at the neck, the knights on the breast. The ribbon of the former was larger than that of the latter, the cross of the former was also more elegant than that of the latter. The official costume was a red evening dress coat with two rows of gold buttons with green collar and facing. The gold embroideries of the coat were of a more ornate design for commanders than for knights. White trousers, with gold side bands, hat with white plumes and a sword with a silver hilt and also gilt spurs, completed this rarely used costume. Knights of both classes wore around the neck a gold chain from which was suspended a tiny golden spur commemorative of the ancient order of that denomination. Pius X (Motu Proprio, "Multum ad excitandos", 7 Feb., 1905) divided the Sylvestrine into two orders of knighthood, one retaining the name of St. Sylvester and the other taking the ancient name of the order, i.e. Order of the Golden Militia, or Golden Spur.

Order of St. Sylvester, since the regulations of Pius X

The order now has three classes of knights:

  1. Knights Grand Cross,
  2. Commanders, and
  3. Knights.

The present decoration is a gold cross of white enamelled surface, in the centre of which is impressed the image of St. Sylvester P. M., surrounded by a blue enamelled circle bearing the inscription in letters of gold SANC. SYLVESTER P. M. On the opposite side, in the centre, are the pontifical emblems with the date of the Gregorian restoration, MDCCCXXXXR, and that of the Pius X renovation, MDCCCCV, impressed in characters of gold upon a blue circle. The badge is the cross of the order attached to a silver star. The new costume consists of a black (formerly red) coat with one row (formerly two) of gilt buttons, and cuffs and collar of black velvet embroidered in gold; black trousers, with gold stripes, a bicornered hat of rough silk adorned with papal-coloured cockade, and finally a sword with a hilt of mother-of-pearl ornamented with gold and worn suspended from a gilt belt. The ribbon of the decoration is black silk bordered with red. Simple knights wear the cross on the left breast of the tunic. Commanders wear a larger cross suspended by the ribbon of the order encircling the neck, and the Knights of the Grand Cross wear a cross of largest form pendant from the right shoulder and the badge on the left side of the breast. The hat of the commander is adorned with a black, that of the grand cross knight with a white, plume.

The Order of the Golden Militia, or the Golden Spur

Pius X, in commemoration of the high prestige to which this order had attained long years before it was absorbed into the Gregorian Order of St. Sylvester, and as a souvenir of the golden jubilee of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception of the B. V. M., gave back to it the separate existence, name and grade of ancient days, and rendered it still more illustrious by placing it under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. To this order are to be admitted only those who have distinguished themselves in an eminent degree, and either by feat of arms, or by their writings, or by any other conspicuous work, have spread the Catholic Faith, and by their bravery have safeguarded, or by their learning made illustrious, the Church of God. To insure its continued high grade of excellence and desirability, its founder limited it to one class and one hundred knights for the entire world ("Multum ad excitandos", 7 Feb., 1905). It can be conferred on those already knighted in the highest orders, even that of Christ, as well as on those who have never received any order of knighthood. The honour is bestowed by a "Motu Proprio" (Pope's own motion) and as such is expedited through the secretariat of State, and free from all chancery fees. The decoration is an eight-pointed or bifurcated yellow enamelled gold cross, with a gold trophy on top and pendent from the inner sides of its bifurcated foot a gold spur. On a small white medal in the centre of the cross the word MARIA surrounded by a golden circle, and on the reverse side in the centre is stamped the year MDCCCCV and in the surrounding circle the inscription PIUS X RESTITUIT. The badge is the cross upon the rays of a silver star. The ribbon used for both decoration and badge is red bordered with white. The knights of today do not wear the ancient collar. The cross is worn suspended by the ribbon of the order which encircles the neck. The badge is attached by the ribbon to the left breast of the tunic. The present official dress consists of a red tunic with two rows of gilt buttons, the collar and cuffs of which are black velvet embroidered with threads of gold, long, black cloth trousers with gold side stripes; epaulettes ornamented with gold fringes and surmounted on top with emblems of the order, gold spurs, oblong two-peaked hat fringed with gold and adorned with a gold knob displaying papal colours, a sword whose hilt is a gilt cross and scabbard black, and finally a gilt sword belt with red fringe. All former concessions of noble titles, even that of count palatine to Knights of the Golden Spur, were revoked by Pope Pius X, who desired to have the personal merit and worth of the knights their sole and only title to honour and respect among men.

Order of the Holy Sepulchre

St. James, first Bishop of Jerusalem, the Empress St. Helena, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, are among the reputed founders of this order. According to the opinion of critical historians, the order is a branch of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem which was approved (1113) by Pope Pascal II. Whoever may have been its real founder, it is certain that in the twelfth century there was another order following the Rule of St. Basil that proceeded on a line of action parallel with that of Knights of Jerusalem. Upon the fall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were driven out of Palestine, and some of them settled at Perugia. Gradually the order lost its prestige, and was by Pope Innocent VIII (1489) united to the Knights Hospitallers. Pope Alexander VI (1496) restored (Hélyot says, instituted) this order that by offering a most desirable and honourable distinction as a reward for the great labour, fatigue and expense of a journey to the Holy Land, he might incite wealthy and noble Europeans to visit and aid the holy places. He reserved to himself and his successors the title and office of supreme head; but empowered the Franciscan Custodian of Mount Sion, the Commissary Apostolic of the Holy Land — as long, and no longer than, the Jerusalem Latin Patriarchate remained vacant — to confer in the name of the pope the Knighthood of the Holy Sepulchre upon worthy persons. Popes Alexander VII (1665) and Benedict XIII (1727) confirmed the privilege. Benedict XIV ("In Supremo Militantis Ecclesiæ", 17 Jan., 1746) remodelled the rules of the order, fixed the forms by which the Franciscan Custodian should be guided in bestowing the decoration, renewed its ancient privileges (similar in part to those granted to the Golden Militia), and granted to the Knights the right to use the title of Count of the Sacred Palace of Lateran. Pius IX, upon the restoration of the Latin Jerusalem Patriarchate (1847), withdrew the Alexandrine faculty, and gave it to the new patriarch and his successors. The patriarchs alone can in future create Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and this they do not of their own right, but in the name and by virtue of the pope's authority. It was required that a knight should, except in an exceptional case, give an alms of 100 sequins in gold (equal to $200) towards the Holy Places. This money was by decree (S. C. P. F., 1847) ordered to be turned over to the patriarch for the needs of the Holy Land. Pope Pius IX ("Cum multa", Jan. 24, 1868) remodelled and approved the ancient statutes, and divided the order into three (practically four) classes:

  1. Grand Cross Knights,
  2. Commanders, and
  3. Knights.

Commanders of conspicuous ability and eminent virtue were, in rare cases, and by special papal faculty, permitted to wear the badge on the breast, and so constituted a grade between the grand cross knight and the commander. Pius X "(Quam multa te Ordinemque", 3 May, 1907) fixed the number of grades at three, granted the privilege of affixing a military trophy to the cross, approved the creation of patriarchal representatives in other lands, as the good of the order may demand, prescribed the uniform for them, reserved to himself and successors the title of grand master, and appointed the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem his lieutenant and administrator in the bestowing of this papal decoration. He also arranged that in the event of the death of the patriarch and the vacancy of the see, the powers of the patriarch as papal lieutenant and administrator of the Order of Holy Sepulchre should by law devolve upon the cardinal secretary of state. The decoration is a large red enamelled gold cross, with a narrow border of gold, and surmounted by a royal crown. Prior to the last century the cross was simply gold without the red enamel. The form of the cross is what is called "potentiate", that is, crutched or gibbet-shaped. The four extremities are shaped as the large cross and four small red enamelled crosses of simple form are attached. The ribbon is of black watered silk. A mulberry trophy connects the cross with the ribbon. The plaque or badge is an eight-pointed or rayed silver star, on whose centre is the red cross encircled by the two green enamelled branches, one oak and the other Laurel. The collar, worn only on solemn occasions, is composed of little Jerusalem crosses, and rings of burnished gold. Knights of the first class wear the grand cross suspended from the wide black watered silk ribbon running saltier-wise from the right shoulder to the left side, and the badge on the breast. Commanders carry the cross and Ribbon fastened at the neck. Knights wear the badge on the left breast.

Patriarchal representatives, besides the usual decorations, are permitted to wear the grand cross prominently placed on the breast of the uniform, but on the right side of the breast of the civil dress. The costume is a white evening dress coat with collar, cuffs and breast facings of black velvet with gold embroideries, epaulet of twisted gold cord, white trousers with gold side stripes, a sword and plumed hat. Pius X added to the costume a large white woolen mantle with a red Jerusalem cross on the left breast. The knights rarely don this official robe; they content themselves with wearing the decorations on the civil dress. This decoration may be conferred upon ladies who are then styled Dames or Matrons of the Holy Sepulchre. The dames wear the insignia of their grade, no matter what grade it may be, always on the left side of the breast (Leo XIII, 3 Aug., 1888).

In addition to these principal, there are other minor papal distinctions, of which some are temporary and others permanent. Permanent minor decorations are the medals:

The medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice was instituted by Pope Leo XIII (17 July, 1888, "Quod Singulari") in memory of his golden sacerdotal jubilee, and bestowed on those women and men who had merited well by aiding and promoting, and by other excellent ways and means assisted in making the jubilee and the Vatican Exposition successful. This decoration was made a permanent distinction only in October, 1898 (Giobbio, see below). Its object is to reward those who in a general way deserve well of the pope on account of services done for the Church and its head. The medal is of gold, silver or bronze. The decoration is not subject to chancery fees. The medal is a cross made octangular in form by fleurs-de-lis fixed in the angles of the cross in a special manner. The extremities of the cross are of a slightly patonce form. In the centre of the cross is a small medal with an image of its founder, and encircling the image are the words LEO XIII P. M. ANNO X (tenth year of his pontificate). On the obverse side are the papal emblems in the centre, and in the circle surrounding the emblems the motto PRO DEO ET PONTIFICE is stamped. On the obverse surface of the branches of the cross are comets — which with the fleurs-de-lis form the coat of arms of the Pecci family. On the reverse side are stamped the words, PRIDIE (left branch); KAL. (top branch); JANUAR. (right branch); 1888 (at the foot). The ribbon is purple, with delicate lines of white and yellow on each border. The decoration is worn on the right side of breast.

Benemerenti medals

Pope Gregory XVI (1832) instituted two medals which he called merit-medals to reward civil and military daring and courage. The military medal bears on one side the image of the founder, and on the other side an angel holding a scroll with the word BENEMERENTI, surmounted by the papal emblems (sometimes this medal is found encircled by a crown of laurels). It is worn on the breast suspended by a white and yellow ribbon. The civil merit-medal has engraved on its face surface only the word BENEMERENTI, surrounded by a crown of oak leaves. The ribbon is of the papal colours.

Medal of the Holy Land

This was designed by Leo XIII (Dec. S.C.P.F. 2 May. 1901), who empowered the Custodian of the Holy Land to bestow it upon pilgrims who presented a certificate of good, moral Christian life from their parish priest and a genuinely religious intention in making the journey to the Holy Land. It serves as a testimonial and souvenir of the pilgrimage. The decoration is a cross similar to that of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, save that the four small crosses are crutched instead of being simple of form. A medallion with the inscription LEO XIII CREAVIT. ANNO M.C.M. occupies the centre of the large cross. On each branch of the large cross are graven figures of the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of Christ, and Last Supper respectively. On the crutched-shaped extremities are the words, CHRISTI AMOR CRUCIFIXI TRAXIT NOS. On the reverse side of the cross, the figure of Christ appears in the centre of the medallion. On the branches are representations of the Agony in the Garden, Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns and Crucifixion, and on the extremities of the branches the words SIGNUM SACRI ITINERIS HIERSOLIMITANI. It is worn on the left breast suspended from a red ribbon with four small blue transverse bars bordered with white, which in turn are edged with dark yellow. There are three classes of medals: gold, silver, and bronze, adapted to the condition of pilgrims and the services they have rendered to the Holy Land. The recipient must pay the cost of the medal and bestow an alms of at least two dollars towards the maintenance of the Holy Places. Each year the custodian must inform the Propaganda how many decorations have been bestowed and the amount of the alms given (Dec. S. C. P. F., 10 June, 1901).

Popes Pius VII and Pius IX conferred special decorations which were temporary and not permanent. The former bestowed a medal for military bravery, and another for zeal and courage in stamping out the brigandage, which had taken such hold in the Papal States during the seven years of the French occupation. The latter conferred the Mentana and Castelfidardo medals upon the papal and French soldiers who came to his help at those places.

Pontifical decorations are bestowed either by motu pro prio, and then forwarded by the secretary of state, or upon petition, when they are expedited through the chancery. The most certain and expeditious mode of procuring the coveted decoration is by a petition from the bishop of the diocese of the person to be honoured. The petition must state the name, age, country, in short, a brief history of the life of the applicant, bringing out in relief the eminent labours or work in science, literature, arts, controversial or other religious writings, or generous and self-sacrificing gifts or endowments made or done for society, the Church or its head, which are deemed worthy of papal recognition and reward. This petition must be endorsed by the ordinary of the applicant. The endorsement of another than the diocesan bishop will not suffice. The petition is sent to an agent at Rome, who presents it to the cardinal chancellor of the orders, who not only registers the petition and the endorsement of it by the bishop, but also seeks information from other sources as to the character of the party and his eminent good works.


MORONI, Diz., XI, 6 sqq.; XVIII, 210 sqq. ; XLIX, 81 sq q.; LXIV, 91 sqq.; LXVIII, 238 sqq. GIOBBIO, Lezioni di diplomazia ecclesiastica (Rome, 1899), Part I, lib. I, cap. x, art. iv, 514 sqq.; ANDRÉ-WAGNER, Dict. de Droit Canonique, III, 83, 501; IV, 361; BATTANDIER, Ann. Pont. Cath., 1901, 483 sqq.; 1902, 468 sqq.; 1908, 646 sq. For list of knights of all the decorations see Ann. for 1905. 1907, and 1908; Pii IX P. M. Acta, Part I, 43 sq., 195 sq.; IV, 391 sq.; BERNASCONI, Acta Gregorii papæ XVI,, 48; III, 179 sq.; Analecta Ecclesiastica (Rome, 1905), 99 sq.; 1907, 189; Leonis XIII Pont. Max. Acta (Rome), VIII, 259, 282; XXI, 74.

About this page

APA citation. Rock, P.M.J. (1908). Pontifical Decorations. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Rock, P.M.J. "Pontifical Decorations." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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