New Zealanders are currently voting in a referendum on the national flag. A lot of us are not happy about it. Last year some of us voted (I didnt) to pick one of five replacement flags, and now were voting on whether we want to go with the replacement flag or stick with the old one. After much thought, I have decided not to vote. I hate them both. I think there is one clear best choice, with more apt symbolism and a greater weight of tradition behind it than either, but it was never on the ballot. Ill show you what Im talking about at the end of this post.
The story of the flag begins with St Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, who tradition has it was crucified on an X-shaped cross at his own request because he didnt want to upstage Jesus. A similar story is told of St Peter, who to this day enjoys heart-warming loyalty in the Goth crowd he was crucified upside down. Given what we know of the mechanics of crucifixion, both stories were probably made up in the Middle Ages to sell hagiographic icons. But anyway, thats the tradition.
Fast forward to 9th-century Scotland, when the Picts and Scots were trying out the idea of merging their kingdoms for mutual defence against nasties like the Vikings and the English. The Pictish King Óengus II prayed to St Andrew for victory on the battlefield. Why St Andrew in particular instead of any other saint Im not sure. A cloud in the shape of a diagonal cross appeared in the sky and Óenguss forces were duly victorious. From then on the Cross of St Andrew became the national symbol of Scotland. It looks like this:
The blazon or heraldic description for this is Azure a saltire argent that is to say Blue, with a white diagonal cross. Heraldry is a much-overlooked chapter in the history of Western art and graphic design. If youre unfamiliar with it, think of the House sigils on Game of Thrones and youve got the general idea. I remember finding a comprehensive book on heraldry in the library at my high school and being captivated by all the archaic words and images. Here was a system, centuries old, for capturing complex images in a verbal formula which could be repeated exactly and used to reproduce them.
England also has a cross emblem belonging to a saint from the opposite end of the Roman Empire. St George is of course best known for saving a maiden from a dragon, a story likely derived from the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. The detail of the dragons demand for sacrifices in return for access to the towns only well was almost certainly added to the story during the Crusades to stand for the Saracen tax on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The red cross on white was the prime symbol of the Crusades, and its not surprising it became associated with St George, though exactly when and how or what either one has to do with England isnt clear. The Cross of St Georges blazon is Argent a cross gules.