With its striking colors and unusual design, Brazil’s is among the most easily recognizable — and, arguably, beautiful — national banners in the world. But what’s the true meaning of the Brazilian flag?
While almost every Brazilian has been taught each color highlights a different kind of wealth — green for our forests, yellow for our mineral resources, and blue for the bluest sky on the planet —, the flag of Brazil actually has nobler origins.
The current design derives from the flag of the Portuguese royal family that ruled Brazil for much of the 19th century.
If you want to learn everything about the history and meaning of the Brazilian flag, as well as a few fun facts along the way, you’ve come to the right place.
The history of the Brazilian flag
The Brazilian flag as we know it today owes its distinctive shape to Brazil’s flag under the Braganza dynasty, which ruled Brazil from its independence in 1822. Before that, Brazil had had simpler flags, the majority of which showed Portugal’s coat of arms against a white background.
The first flag was designed by French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret, who’d landed in Brazil in 1816 as a member of an artistic mission charged with creating the country’s first academy of fine arts. Yet the meaning of the Brazilian flag, as we’ll see in the next section, is controversial.
The coat of arms, on the other hand, is easier to decipher. The centerpiece features a golden armillary sphere superimposed with an Order of Christ Cross. Both are historic icons of Portugal, the homeland of Pedro I, Brazil’s first emperor. The band surrounding it contains 19 stars, one for each Brazilian province.
Then you have one branch of coffee on the left and one of tobacco on the right to illustrate Brazil’s commercial wealth, and a royal crown on top. This was later replaced with an imperial crown, because Pedro was just a tad obsessed with Napoleon. The Emperor’s coat of arms became Brazil’s original national emblem.
Although a military coup abruptly ended the monarchy in 1889, the new order preserved the flag’s basic layout to give off an idea of stability. Proportions were altered, and a starred blue circle and a central band were adopted in place of the imperial coat of arms.
The “retrofitted” flag was designed by a commission of artists led by Raimundo Teixeira Mendes. It was presented to Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, Brazil’s first president, who approved the creation on November 19, 1889, four days after the proclamation of the republic. November 19 has since been declared Flag Day.
The Brazilian flag colors
As I revealed in the intro spoiler, most Brazilians are taught from an early age that our flag symbolizes our copious natural resources.
But historians beg to differ when it comes to the meaning of the Brazilian flag. They argue the green rectangle and the yellow rhombus are meant to represent each of the royal houses that made up Brazil’s imperial family.
Green should account for the Braganzas, from whom Pedro I descended, and yellow seems to stand for the Habsburgs, the family of Austrian princess Maria Leopoldina, his first wife.
Anyhow, it’s hard to know for a fact which story is closer to the truth about the meaning of the Brazilian flag, because the decree establishing the design of the imperial flag says nothing about the reasoning behind the layout.
And in case you’re wondering, the official colors of the flag are not specified anywhere, even though manufacturing one in the wrong colors is apparently illegal.
The meaning of the Brazilian flag
Now that we’ve covered the colors on the green-and-yellow banner, let’s explore its central elements instead, namely the blue circle and the band.
The dark blue disk represents the sky over Rio de Janeiro precisely at 8:30 AM, November 15, 1889. That’s the date a military coup ousted Emperor Pedro II and proclaimed the Federative Republic of Brazil (back then called the United States of Brazil).
Each star on the circle accounts for one of Brazil’s 26 states (plus one for the Federal District, home to Brasília). It includes nine constellations, among which the Southern Cross, Virgo, and Scorpius.
The curved band that divides the circle in two, within which Brazil’s official motto is inscribed in dark green, reflects the doctrine the military elite of the time followed: French philosopher Auguste Comte’s Positivism.
By positing the world would eventually drop all mystical beliefs in favor of science, Comte declared “love as the principle, order as the basis, progress as the goal”. Ironically (and, in my opinion, tellingly), love was left out of Brazil’s motto, and only “Ordem e Progresso” survived.
Other fun facts about the Brazilian flag
- Brazil’s first Republican flag was not unlike another star-spangled banner. That’s not exactly shocking, considering the U.S. was (and, for some, still is) a role model to our young republic. But Marshall Deodoro da Fonseca, a nationalist, vetoed the design.
- Between the colonial era and today, Brazil has had more than 10 flags. A couple lasted less than 10 years in the job, while the one we just mentioned was replaced after a mere four days. Despite minor changes, Brazil’s current flag is our most enduring national banner.
- A few proposed designs for the Republican flag had a black-red-white color scheme. One of them would go on to become the flag of the state of São Paulo.
- The flag is one of four official national symbols, alongside the national anthem, the coat of arms, and the seal, which is used to certify government documents.
- While the representation of the November 15, 1889 sky on the flag is quite accurate, the designers enlarged the Southern Cross with a little poetic license. After all, that’s our “national” constellation, as it were.
- In theory, worn-out flags ought to be handed over to the police so they can be incinerated on Flag Day, November 19.
- Just like the American flag, the amount of stars on the Brazilian flag is supposed to change according to the number of states in the country. The latest such update took place in 1992 to accommodate the recently admitted states of Amapá, Roraima, Rondônia, and Tocantins.
- In order to uphold the original Positivist credo, a Congress bill proposed in 2003 would have preceded the motto “Order and Progress” on the flag with the word “love”. Eighteen years later, the bill has yet to be debated by members of Congress.
- At 286 m2 (3,078 ft2), the largest flag on Earth is located in Brasília. It flies permanently on top of a 100-meter- (328-foot-) tall pole and is changed monthly at a ceremony that has turned into one of the city’s major attractions.
- By law, national symbols like the flag may not printed onto clothes or any packaging. At least in this case, though, freedom of speech has won, as nobody is really prosecuted for wearing the flag.
- In the past few years, like in other countries, the flag and other national symbols have been appropriated by the Brazilian far-right. As a result, many moderates and leftists have been avoiding using them in any form and even wearing the national soccer team jersey.
The meaning of the Brazilian flag isn’t the only intricate story about Brazil we’ve covered so far. Dive into the most recurring stereotypes about Brazil and Brazilians or the unlikely specifics of pizza in Brazil and keep on discovering the South American country!