Its style and design was decided by a flag committee in 1910 and is ripe with symbolism reflecting the country's history and accomplishments. Divided into green and red, with the green area (the hoist side) being slightly narrower - the red section represents blood lost by those fighting for Portugal to become a republic in the past, and green symbolises hope for the future. The central shape of an intricate circle of yellow ribbons represents an armillary sphere (an early astronomical device for reading the stars), on top of which is a white shield containing five smaller blue shields that represent the five Moorish kings that were killed by Alfonso I, the first king of Portugal. Within each blue shield are five dots representing the five wounds Christ suffered during the crucifixion, and the whole shield is bordered in red, within which are images of seven yellow castles, representing the castles captured from the Moors during battles under Alfonso III.

National Flags elsewhere

Flags are seen as a proud acknowledgement to bring the people of a nation together, maybe a symbol of unification or a sign celebrating a country’s history. There are a total of 193 national flags in the world flown by sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, and believe it or not, there are no rules, mandatory or otherwise, of what a flag should look like – they are sometimes decided by competitions, a committee, or maybe the leader of the country will design it. The colours and designs of national flags often stem from the history, culture, or religion of that country, and can be updated following a change in borders, cultural values, or perhaps different leadership.

Why do most flags frequently have just 3 colours?

The first reason is simply because, in days gone by, it was easy to stitch three strips of fabric together! Many flags can be linked by common traditions, or it might simply be geography. The rarest colour on a flag is purple, and only two countries, Dominica and Nicaragua use it. In the past, purple dye was very expensive, being made from the mucus of thousands of rare sea snails only found in what is now known as Lebanon, and over 10,000 sea snails were required to produce just 1 gram of purple dye.

Some flags look almost identical to others - Chad and Romania for example; comparison side by side is the only way to tell the difference. Ireland and Côte d’Ivoire could be mixed up to the untrained eye, as the two outer colours of the same green and gold are just reversed.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: francisco-de-frias;


Here’s something I didn’t know – a person who studies flags is a vexillologist, one who designs flags is a vexillographer, designing flags is called vexillography, and someone who just admires flags is a vexillophile. There is even a book by Ted Kaye called ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag’, which has been translated into ten languages. It’s not meant to be an in-depth look at flag design, but a quick reference and primer for anyone interested in vexillography or who wants to create a flag.

Does size matter?

Size doesn't exactly matter, but shape and aspect ratio matter, and ratios are usually width divided by height. The ratios most commonly used are 2:3, used by 85 of 195 sovereign states, followed by 1:2, used by the rest, and most dependencies and former colonies use the same proportions as their mother countries. National flags come in various ratios, from the very stretched appearance of the flag of Qatar - the only flag whose width-to-length ratio is an odd 11:28 - to Switzerland and the Vatican City, being the only square flags in the world, and Nepal, with an unusual double pennant style.

But at the Olympics, for the sake of practicality, they are all the same 2:3 ratio. It used to be that the ratio was made to follow the one of the host country, but has now been standardised so that at ceremonies they all look the same uniform size.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan