What does the XXX on Amsterdam’s flag really mean?

What does the XXX on Amsterdam’s flag really mean?

  • Post category:Community

Interpreting the flag

Ever wondered what those three white crosses on Amsterdam’s flag mean? No? Well you need to have a long hard look in the mirror. It’s highly likely you’ve already been asked, and only a matter of time if you haven’t. Would you rather mumble something about the red light district and defer to google or casually disseminate your understanding of Amsterdam’s symbolic history to wide eyed visitors desperate to find out what does the XXX on Amsterdam’s flag really mean?

Everyone likes to disagree about the origin and meaning of the crosses, so you can have even more fun by taking a stance at random, rigidly sticking to it, and watching as the faces of your opponents turn one of the shades of Amsterdam’s flag and you inwardly laugh like the pot-stirring devil’s advocate you are.

This comprehensive guide helps you do both. Read on to discover the various theories behind the flag and find out how to deflect naysayers to your own interpretation of its meaning.

St Andrew the fisherman

St Andrew's Cross

One thing we’re fairly sure of is that the crosses are St Andrews Crosses, or ‘saltires’. You can find one of these on Scotland’s flag too, although they preferred size over quantity to represent their patron saint. 

How St Andrew came to be associated with the X-shaped cross is a rather unpleasant story. Although early accounts differ, Middle-Ages tradition has it that he deemed himself unworthy to be executed on the same cross as Jesus, and so opted for crucifixion on this slanting version.

Other than particular countries, St Andrew is also the patron of various trades, fishermen among them. Given many of the disciples were also fishermen, it’s unclear why he took this honour – but then, as the rest of this post will show, sometimes things just come about and there’s little point dissecting them much further.

The Persijn Family

Anyway, the land which Amsterdam now occupies was reclaimed from the sea relatively late by Dutch standards – around the 12th Century. Large tracts of land were owned by the Persijn family, whose subjects were predominantly fishermen and some farmers who worked the boggy ground and the waters of what is now the Amstel and IJ.

The Persijn coat of arms depicts no fewer than 9 St Andrews Crosses. We’re not sure why there are 9, but it’s likely these saltires were a reference to the fishermen of their land – and their patron saint. Either that or they just really loved St Andrew for reasons only known to themselves.

The prevailing belief is that the coat of arms of the City of Amsterdam derived from the Persijn coat of arms, some time between 1300 and 1500. The black stripe in the middle representing the river Amstel (similar to the devices of Dordrecht and Delft), which divided the two halves of the Persijns’ land. The same colours and crosses were found on the coats of arms of Ouder-Amstel and Nieuwe-Amstel, all settlements which are now part of Amsterdam.

Why three crosses?

Why was one saltire enough for Scotland, Alabama, Burgundy, and the Russian Navy, but didn’t quite cut it for this eager young buck of a city? There’s a few theories.

Three Kisses

Three kisses is the customary greeting and farewell in the Netherlands. 

Crosses have been associated with kisses since at least the Middle-Ages. At a time when literacy was very low, ordinary people would sign their name on official documents with the letter X – a cross, to symbolise honesty. To add their personal seal to this generic signature, their would kiss it, and thus solemnise their agreement to whatever the document said (most likely a lifetime of indentured servitude). 

It’s wonderfully romantic interpretation of the three crosses on Amsterdam’s flag, but sadly it seems the three kiss custom was a twentieth-century adoption.

Three trials

Black Death, Pieter Bruegel

Some say the three crosses represent the three great trials Amsterdam faced in its early history: fire, flood, and plague. Floods routinely hit Amsterdam until the increase of dyke and canal building in the late sixteenth century, the Black Death decimated Europe in the 1340s, and a great fire hit Amsterdam in 1452. 

Either as a memorial to these trials or an attempt to ward off their resurgence, it’s possible the crosses are possible representations of these catastrophes. However, although we can be sure the city crest we recognise today was in use in 1505, it was likely used as early as 1300, which would predate the fire and the plague. 

Three cities

Amsterdam used to consist more identifiably of three settlements: Ouder-Amstel, Nieuwe-Amstel, and Amsterdam. Many think the three crosses represent each of the three towns – separate but united.

Each town also had a crossing point on the Amstel. Given the attractive logic of a cross symbolising a crossing (in both Dutch and English), you can’t help but see some sense in this interpretation. But it seems a little too convenient, and also to erode the significance of them being St Andrews’ crosses.

Something to do with porn?

Similarly, it’s nice to theorise there’s some connection between the three X’s and Amsterdam’s liberal attitude towards sex shops, pornography, and prostitutes. With a strong sea-faring contingent, Amsterdam quickly gained a reputation for prostitution to cater for the… needs… of the sailors who came in and out (no pun intended) as early as 1500. So it would be very convenient if the Persijns had taken their lead from this. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely, both from the date and from the use of the three Xs elsewhere.

The XXX was probably first used as a way of distinguishing strengths of liquor in nineteenth-century America (single, double, or triple distilled). Its relevance to pornography was a twentieth-century coupling: deriving from X-rated film classification as early as 1950 in the UK. 

City of sin, city of freedom

Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.

John Green

So what we know is: Amsterdam’s flag derives from its city crest, first used by the Persijn family as early as 1300. The X’s are St Andrews Crosses, representing the fishermen who called old Amsterdam home. We don’t know why there are three, but there are several valid interpretations. 

But does it really matter? Let’s remember this is Amsterdam, a city that has become synonymous with freedom and tolerance. Anyone who tries to impose their interpretation on you is rather missing the point. A symbol whose meaning remains static loses relevance quickly. A symbol whose meaning becomes unclear over the years invites new interpretations that ensure it can and will be relevant for centuries to come. 

So do yourself a favour – pick a meaning and stick by it. Make up a story if you like – a botched game of noughts and crosses? Amsterdam got 0 out of 3 in a test? The King of Amsterdam was displeased with the design of his flag? Don’t let anyone tell you that Amsterdam is not what you think it is. 

Whether the noble Persijns envisaged what their humble city would turn into or not, the mysterious crosses stand as a monument to its capacity to evolve. 

Authentic Days

Share your passion with like-minded people by creating and/or joining activities.

Leave a Reply