Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Neither the Council of Europe nor the European Union are religious organizations, nor do they express or support any religious views. They exist and operate in a completely secular realm, but, despite this, we find the connection their flag has with symbols of Christianity very interesting.
In 1950, the Council of Europe, which had been established for just one year, decided to adopt a flag expressing the spirit of European unity.
The commission reviewed many flag projects. The majority of them contained the image of the cross, as the cross, as a Christian symbol, was considered unifying for the European countries. The argument was also made that the Crusaders marched under flags with the cross on them and fought as a united Europe. One of the preferred designs for the flag among the proposed versions was one featuring a yellow sun on a blue background and a red cross painted inside, designed by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the Pan-European Movement. After Turkey, which was accepted as a member of the Council of Europe in 1950, protested the depiction of only a Christian symbol on the organization’s flag, Paul Levy, head of the Council of Europe’s news service, proposed the commission add a small crescent.
Eventually, this design was rejected. The second flag offered by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, representing a copy of the English “St. George”, was also rejected, together with all its variants.
The commission also reviewed several versions of stars depicted in different configurations on a blue background. Understandably, there could be no religious claim to such symbolism. Finally, the symbol of twelve golden stars spread in a circle on a blue background was chosen as the flag of the Council of Europe in 1955, and later (from 1985), used as the flag of the European Community, and after 1993 of the European Union.
The symbolic meaning of the flag is explained on the official websites of the Council of Europe and the European Union as follows:
“Against the blue sky of the Western world, the stars symbolize the peoples of Europe in a form of a circle, a sign of union. Their number is invariably twelve, the figure twelve being the symbol of perfection and entirety.” — Council of Europe. Paris, 7–9 December 1955..”
The design of the flag belongs to Strasbourg designer Arsène Heitz, and Paul Levy, Director of Information at the Council of Europe. Heitz, who was born and raised in Strasbourg, explained the symbolic meaning of the flag of his own creation somewhat differently from the official version.
The fact of the matter is that, in the main Cathedral of Strasbourg, which is an amazing sample of Gothic architecture, there is a statue of St. Mary (the Blessed Virgin) created in 1859, with 12 golden stars diadem on her head. Arsène Heitz himself claimed that he was inspired by the religious motif of this statue when creating the flag. According to him, the symbolism of the flag is based on the tradition of Christian iconography, and symbolizes the “Virgin of the Apocalypse” (St. Mary) in the Revelation of St. John. In various interviews, Paul Levy, co-author of the flag, stated that his was the final design: “Hertz offered me many versions, and I chose the one with twelve stars.” When the members of the flag-commission argued, Paul and Arsène proposed a flag with fifteen stars, but it was decided to have 12 stars on the flag.
A 12-star statue of the St. Mary and a stained-glass window in Strasbourg Cathedral
The German newspaper “Die Welt” wrote in 1998 that although Paul Levy denied any religious motivation for the flag, he was “obsessed with creating a twelve-star flag after seeing the statue of St. Mary in Strasbourg Cathedral.”
The fact that executives of the Council of Europe do not ignore the religious origins of their organization’s flag may be implicit in the fact that in 2000, the Council of Europe gifted to the Cathedral of Strasbourg the stained-glass window of the famous French artist Max Ingrand, created with metal and glass, which to this date decorates the southern façade of the Cathedral. The stained-glass window depicts the twelve-star flag of the European Union on a blue background above the holy virgin. When I first visited the temple about 25 years ago, I stared in amazement at the stained-glass window, which clearly featured an EU flag. Since I did not know history of the stained-glass window, I thought it was from previous centuries, and it occurred to me that there might be some connection between the famous Virgin Mary from the revelation of John and the flag of the Council of Europe.
“A great sign appeared in the sky – a woman who was wearing the sun. The moon was at her feet and a crown with twelve stars on her head. ” (Revelation, 12,1)
I am writing this to convince the reader of a resemblance that is completely vivid and impossible not to see: that is, the flag of the Council of Europe and the European Union is a symbol of St. Mary and, therefore, Christianity, and of the region and the world of the Christian values.
One way or another, it is a fact that the flag of the Council of Europe, and later of the European Union, represents pure Christian symbolism, following the rules of iconography. It should be noted that despite this fact, Turkey did not protest this flag design. It is doubtful that the Turks, distinguished for their excellent scholars of theology and Christianity, did not know what such a flag symbolized, yet they unconditionally supported the adoption of this flag by the Council of Europe, perhaps because Muslims and their Koran also acknowledge the existence of St. Mary as the mother of the “prophet” Isa (Jesus), and they revere her as much as Christians do.
I wanted to tell this story because, on July 5, 2021, in Georgia – a country of ancient Christianity on the path of democratic development – certain groups who present themselves as defenders of Christianity and Orthodoxy, tore down this Christian symbol from the pedestal and desecrated and burned it! In general, desecrating any flag, even that of an enemy or an occupant (for example, of the Russian Federation), is unethical and unworthy behavior, but it is especially surprising when people who commit violence in the name of Christ at the same time desecrate a symbol representing Christian sanctities.
Hopefully, receiving this information about the European flag will at the very least make some misled citizens think, and also reveal the unjust nature of their behavior.