meaning of the 3 X’s

Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms: An Enigma

The Coat of Arms of the city of Amsterdam is somewhat of an enigma. Not much is known about its origins or its precise meaning.

The symbolism of the heraldic shield with its three crosses in particular has been the subject of much speculation. But here’s what we know:

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Amsterdam coat of arms
The Amsterdam Coat of Arms. This rendition is seen on a downtown university building.

What Does XXX in Amsterdam’s City Shield Mean?

At the heart of Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms are three white X’s displayed on a black band that runs down the middle of a red shield. (Trivia alert: such a shield is called an escutcheon).

You can dismiss one frequently suggested explanation right off the bat. Forget the dated, louche image of Amsterdam as a city high on triple-X entertainment.

St. Andrew’s Crosses

The X’s are actually St. Andrew’s Crosses. They are named after the apostle Andrew who was martyred on an X-shaped cross in the 1st century AD.

The shield is the official symbol of the City of Amsterdam.

In the full coat of arms the shield appears underneath the Imperial Crown of Austria (more about that in a moment).

Coat of Arms, Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s Coat of Amsterdam carries the words Heldhaftig (Heroic), Vastberaden (Resolute), Barmhartig (Merciful).

Amsterdam’s Official Moto: Heroic, Resolute, Merciful

Two golden lions flank the shield. The official motto of Amsterdam is on a scroll below it: Heldhaftig (Heroic), Vastberaden (Resolute), Barmhartig (Merciful). Alternative translation: Valiant, Steadfast, Compassionate.

Jokers have at times updated the phrase to, ‘Defiant, Stubborn, and Extremely Tolerant.’

The red shield with its black banner and white crosses is seen, in one form or another, throughout Amsterdam. But the full version of the Coat of Arms is far less common.

Amsterdam Coat of Arms: Meaning Unknown

Many people believe that the St. Andrew’s crosses refer to the three dangers medieval Amsterdam faced: fire, floods and the Black Death. However, there is no historical evidence for that interpretation.

Another possible explanation comes from titillated folks with an active imagination, who assume the three X’s refer to the city’s liberal reputation. But that is not the case either.

Finally, the three crosses also do not represent the words of the official motto, because that has only been in use since 1947. The motto was added in that year by then Queen Wilhelmina to commemorate the demeanor of Amsterdam’s citizens during World War II.

heraldic shield
The shield of Amsterdam is seen in various depictions, with or without the crown, throughout the city.

Why is the Imperial Crown of Austria part of Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms?

Detail of the Westertoren, showing the emblem of Amsterdam, as well as the symbol of the imperial crown of Maximilian of Austria.
Detail of the Westertoren, showing the emblem of Amsterdam, as well as the symbol of the imperial crown of Maximilian of Austria. (Click for larger image)

According to an article once posted on the official website of the municipality of Amsterdam, “The heraldic origins of the coat of arms of Amsterdam are unknown.

The black banner in the centre could represent the water of the rivers Amstel and IJ at which the city is located. This is the case in the case of several other Dutch cities, such as Delft and Dordrecht.

In 1489 the small merchant city obtained the right to add to its coat of arms the crown of the monarch, Maximilian I, archduke of Austria, German King, and Holy Roman emperor.

For the merchants of Amsterdam the crown was a weighty recommendation in other elements of the Kingdom, right down the the 17th century.

By that time Amsterdam had long been a powerful trading city in a by now Protestant country which, in 1648, was formally to leave the Holy Empire of the Germany Nation on the Peace of Münster.

The crown adorning the emblem and the tower of the Westerkerk church is in fact the crown of emperor Rudolf II. The two lions were added as shield bearers in the 16th century.

In recognition of the conduct of the people of Amsterdam during the Germany occupation of 1940-1945, Queen Wilhelmina granted the city the right on 27 March 1947 to add to the coat of arms the motto, ‘Valiant, Resolute, Compassionate.’”

But that information still does not explain why the crown was given. Wikipedia to the rescue:

During the Hook and Cod wars in Holland in the 15th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I supported the bourgeoisie in the cities (Cod) in their fight against the nobility in the countryside (Hook).

During these wars Amsterdam loaned large amounts of money to Maximilian I. In 1489, the emperor gave Amsterdam the right to use his personal imperial crown in its coat of arms, out of gratitude for these loans.

When his successor Rudolf II created a new personal crown, Amsterdam changed the crown accordingly. After the Reformation, the Protestant Amsterdam continued to use the crown of the Catholic emperor. In 1804, the crown of Rudolf II became the Imperial Crown of Austria.

Coat of Arms of Amsterdam, Wikipedia. Last accessed Thursday, October 28, 2021 – 10:46 AM CET

The Oldest Known Version of Amsterdam’s XXX Emblem

The heraldic shield with the Andreas crosses has been in use for a long time.

During construction work for the Noord/Zuidlijn (North/South metro line) workers found a pair of old cloth sealing pliers bearing the three crosses. Archaeologists have dated the tool to 1350 — making it the oldest instance of the emblem.

In documents the coat of arms appears from the year 1419.

Amsterdam City Flag: “The most badass city flag in the world”

Amsterdam Flag
Amsterdam flag alongside the flag of the Netherlands (or, as Americans would have it, Holland).

Now, bear with us for a moment.

The study of flags is called vexillology. An expert on flags is therefore called a vexillologist. Yes, a vex-il-lol-o-gist.

Podcast host Roman Mars loves flags. In 2015 he gave a hugely popular TED Talk on city flag design: Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.

March, 2015, TED Talk by vexillologist Roman Mars. His comments regarding the flag of Amsterdam start at 10:05

Mars shows many examples of poorly (or even terribly) designed flags representing American cities:

Poorly designed city flags
Poorly designed flags representing cities in America. From a talk by vexillologist Roman Mars

Then, while displaying Amsterdam’s coat of arms, he says:

The European equivalent of the city seal in the city coat of arms [Shows the Amsterdam Coat of Armssee below this quote]. And this is where we can learn a lesson on how to do things right. So this is the city coat of arms of Amsterdam.

Now if this were a United States city, the flag would probably look like this [Shows the same coat of arms, but now on a blue background].But instead, the flag of Amsterdam looks like this [Shows the flag of Amsterdam]

Rather than popping the whole code arms of Amsterdam on a solid background and writing ‘Amsterdam’ below it, it takes the key elements of the escutcheon — the shield — and they turn it into the most badass city flag in the world.

And because it’s so badass, those flags and crosses are found throughout Amsterdam.

Vexillologist Roman Mars, TED2015, March 2015

The Amsterdam Coat of Arms (top). In the middle, the way a U.S. city would design the city flag - the entire Coat of Arms on a blue background. At the bottom, the actual Amsterdam City Flag - just the city seal.
The Amsterdam Coat of Arms. In the middle, the way a U.S. city would design the city flag (according to flag expert Roman Mars). At the bottom, the Amsterdam City Flag.

Amsterdam Emblem: Flags, umbrellas, hats, underwear, tattoos, and more

Amsterdam’s XXX shield shows up on just about anything and everything: flags, buildings, hats, cups, underwear, napkins, and so on. You can have it tattooed on your body, buy it as jewelry, or eat it as chocolate.

Once you start looking for it, you see the shield everywhere you look. It comes in many shapes and forms. How many can you photograph in a day? A unique collage of your photos would look great on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Chances are you’ll buy at least one souvenir with the emblem imprinted on it.

A buyer beware: the umbrellas sold in tourist/souvenir shops often don't make it through more than a week's worth of rain.
A buyer beware: the umbrellas sold in tourist/souvenir shops often don’t make it through more than a week’s worth of rain.

‘Stadswapen van Amsterdam’

Studying Dutch?

Coat of arms = Wapen
City coat of arms = Stadswapen
Escutcheon = Wapenschild
Saint Andrew’s crosses = Andreaskruisen

City shield of Amsterdam
The heraldic shield – or escutcheon – of the City of Amsterdam. Seen here on the side of house boat.

More about Amsterdam

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About This Article

Amsterdam Coat of Arms and City Flag is written and maintained by the DutchAmsterdam team — Amsterdam locals.

It was last updated on Wednesday, October 27, 2021 to provide information on how the city got its motto (See the footnote to this section).

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