June 24, 2015, marks the 444th Foundation Day of the City of Manila. The Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) joins the commemoration by publishing a special webpage that examines its rich precolonial past, its evolution from a walled city to a megacity, and the significance of the Ultramar—symbol of the city the Spaniards once heralded as the Distinguished and Ever Loyal.


The first coat of arms for the Philippines was that of the City of Manila granted by King Philip II of Spain on March 20, 1596.

“By these presents I assign, as the special coat-of-arms of the said city of Manila in the Filipinas Islands, a shield which shall have in the center of its upper part a golden castle on a red field, closed by a blue door and windows, and which shall be surmounted by a crown; and in the lower half on a blue field a half lion and half dolphin of silver, armed and langued gules—that is to say, with red nails and tongue. The said lion shall hold in his paw a sword with guard and hilt. This coat-of-arms shall be made similar to the accompanying shield, painted as is indicated above. I bestow these arms upon the said city of Manila, as its own, and as its appointed and recognized device, so that it may and shall bear and place them upon its banners, “shields, seals, flags, and standards, and in all other parts and places desired and considered fitting, according to, and following the same form and manner as the other cities of my kingdoms to which I have given arms and device place and possess them.”

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Colección de armas y blasones de Indias. (Photo from the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.)
Noticias civiles y eclesiásticas de Indias y otros documentos. (Photo from Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.)
Noticias civiles y eclesiásticas de Indias y otros documentos. (Photo from Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.)

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The backdrop at the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is feathered doves converging on the Seal of the President of the Philippines. This iconography is vital, not just politically, but visually for the general public, not only to represent the ongoing and long-sought often peace process, brokered by the national government, to our kin Moros in their ancestral lands in Mindanao, but four centuries of the iconography of authority; the heraldic sea-lion of Manila dating to 1596.

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If we break it down the backdrop has several distinct visuals: the doves of peace (the modern branding of which we owe to the genius of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who made it the popular symbol of peace after World War II), and the Seal of the President which is composed of the following symbols: round shield, its name, the golden Philippine sun and three stars, the equilateral triangle, and and at the center of gravity, the very curious gilded creature wielding a sword called the heraldic sea-lion.

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The Presidential Seal.

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Heraldic Lions: variations, including the Sea Lion, also known as a Morse. (Photo from "A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, 1909.)
Heraldic Lions: variations, including the Sea Lion, also known as a Morse. (Photo from “A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, 1909.)

The sea lion, in classical heraldry, is defined as half-lion on the upper part, and half-dolphin (a fish in the classical tradition) on the lower part. It has been the single, constant, identifying symbol of the governing authority of the Philippines since the Spanish conquest, originally part of heraldic blazon of the Coat of Arms of Manila under a Spanish Royal Grant of 1596. And adopted on May 30 of that year.

By 1609, Antonio Morga would describe it as follows:

 “His Majesty Philip the Second, our sovereign, gave the name of New Kingdom of Castile, of which by his royal privilege, he made the city of Manila the capital, giving to it, as a special favor among others, a coat of arms with a crown, chosen and appointed by his royal person, which is scutcheon divided across, and in the upper part of a castle on the red field, and in the lower part a lion of gold, crowned and rampant, with a naked sword in the dexter hand, and half the body in the shape of a dolphin upon the waters of the sea, signifying that the Spaniards passed over them with arms to conquer this kingdom for the crown of Castile.”

In terms of its basic elements–the castle, later, a tower, to represent Castile, and the silver sea lion to represent Spain–the coat of arms of Manila remained consistent; only in some details would it change over time. For example, it gained, then lost, a crown for the sea lion and, similarly, a crown for the tower, after this came to replace the original representation of a castle.

The Katipunan and the First Philippine Republic had neither nostalgia nor use for the symbols of the Spanish monarchy; it dispensed with European style heraldry altogether, preferring the iconography of the revolutionary traditions and movements of France and the Americans. Its symbols would be, therefore, the revolutionary sun and three stars, and the equilateral triangle of Masonry.

But Manila, bestowed the motto of noble and ever-loyal, indeed remained such; the enclave of a beleaguered and besieged Spanish imperium, handed over, in a last outburst of colonial spite, directly to the Americans in order to prevent Filipinos from savoring the conquest –indeed, reconquest—of their prehispanic city.

It would be under the Americans that the coat of arms of Manila would again come into prominence during the Insular and Commonwealth governments albeit with the American Eagle as its crest, replacing the crown of royal rule from Madrid. It was made the focal point for the coat of arms of the Philippine Islands, and, in modified form, made part of the coat of arms for the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

Before the outbreak of World War II, a revision of the national coat of arms eliminated the symbols of Manila, in an effort to revert to the revolutionary symbols of the First Republic. But this was rejected in turn and led to the return of the centuries-old ultramar called the sea-lion. The independence of the Philippines on July 4, 1946 led to a new coat of arms that tried to incorporate both colonial regimes (American and Spanish) as Philippine symbols: but here, the American bald eagle was joined by the lion rampant of the Kingdom of Leon, banishing the sea-lion.

In 1947, however, the creation of a coat of arms for the presidency led to the revival of the sea-lion, which has become the defining symbol of the presidency.

Ultramar, as the sea-lion is historically called, in Latin means ultra: from beyond, mar: the sea, connotes the various far-flung Spanish possessions, from across the Atlantic in the New World of the Americas, and West of the Pacific, that was called Las Islas Filipinas, which extended to what is now Guam, the Caroline Islands and the Marianas, from the sixteenth century towards the twilight of the nineteenth century. The depiction of the half-lion, half-fish symbol followed the classical tradition of iconography and heraldry, with the lion represented the lands of the Kingdom of Spain, whose might extended across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in a vast Spanish Empire. “As above, so below” was a dictum of the classical tradition, that what is found in the heavens, is also found in the land, and what is in the land, therefore in the seas. The dictum is present in ancient and institutional religions, philosophy, and the aesthetic principles of classical art. Another term for it was decorum which signified what was “fitting”. There is fitting behavior in given circumstances, a fitting style of speech for given occasions and of course also fitting subjects for given contexts. This dictum and iconographic decorum has never been more evident in the Arab-influenced prehispanic Philippines than the Moro iconographic motif of the buraq, the mythical, hybrid and sphinx-like horse that carried the Prophet Mohammed to heaven. In counterpoint, the Roman Catholic See of Manila has for its coat of arms, a variant of the 16th century Spanish arms of Manila, tower instead of castle, with three, not two windows, with the sea-lion holding a cross instead of a sword.

Detail of Cartouche with Sea-Lion, Mapa de las Yslas Philipinas. Hecho Por El Pedro Murillo Velarde, 1744. (Photo from the Lopez Museum & Library Collection.)
Detail of Cartouche with Sea-Lion, Mapa de las Yslas Philipinas. Hecho Por El Pedro Murillo Velarde, 1744. (Photo from the Lopez Museum & Library Collection.)
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Antwerp (Belgium). It is considered the first modern atlas, dedicated to King Philip III of Spain. The map shows the mythical denizens of the Pacific Ocean. (Photo from Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.)
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Antwerp (Belgium). It is considered the first modern atlas, dedicated to King Philip III of Spain. The map shows the mythical denizens of the Pacific Ocean. (Photo from Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.)
Les Isles Philippines, 1862. Illustrations de Description de l'Univers...1683. Allain Manesson-Mallet (1630-1706) Cartouche detail with mythical sea-horses and triton.
Les Isles Philippines, 1862. Illustrations de Description de l’Univers…1683. Allain Manesson-Mallet (1630-1706) Cartouche detail with mythical sea-horses and triton. (Photo from Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)
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Coat of Arms of the Archdiocese of Manila, 1585.
Nereid (sea-nymph) riding a sea-lion. Detail of the wall fresco dedicated to "Water" in the Room of the Elements.
Nereid (sea-nymph) riding a sea-lion. Detail of the wall fresco dedicated to “Water” in the Room of the Elements.
The 'Water' fresco in the Room of the Elements (Air, Water, Fire, and Earth), 1555-1557, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. The gods of water pay tribute to Venus, born of Saturn's seed spilled in the sea. One of the painters of the Room of the Elements is Giorgio Vasari.
The ‘Water’ fresco in the Room of the Elements (Air, Water, Fire, and Earth), 1555-1557, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. The gods of water pay tribute to Venus, born of Saturn’s seed spilled in the sea. One of the painters of the Room of the Elements is Giorgio Vasari.

While the design of the ultramar sea-lion followed the decorum of the classical heraldic and iconographic tradition of Europe, the image itself is more ancient than previously thought. The leokampos was a popular image in the ancient cities of the Mediterranean Sea region, specially among the sea-faring Greeks, and the Etruscans of Italy. The leokampos, or sea-lion, with its brethren, the hippokampos, the sea-horse and a host of other hybrid aquatic creatures and denizens like Nereids (sea-nymphs) and Tritons (sea-gods), populate the Great Sea (Mediterranean), in other popular iconographies, for example in classical sculpture, the hippokampos and leokampos carry the souls of the good departed to the Isles of the Blessed, to be found in the western oceans, outside the Pillars of Hercules which marked the boundary of the Great Sea.

In Renaissance Florence, a great 16th century mural is found in the town hall depicting the allegory of the sea with gods and goddesses, where a Nereid sea-nymph is carried by her trusty leokampos, the sea-lion, although this iconographic decorum is curiously absent in the Nereids, an early 20th-century painting of the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla, later given to the Philippine Government by american philanthropist, Alma de Bretteville Spreckles, which now hangs prominently in the historic Kalayaan Hall of the Presidential Museum & Library, albeit, the painting knows where the sea-lion is, in these hallowed halls.

Mosaici delle Terme di Nettuno, Mosaics of the Baths of Neptune. Archaeological site of Ostia Antica, Rome. 2nd century A.D.
Mosaici delle Terme di Nettuno, Mosaics of the Baths of Neptune. Archaeological site of Ostia Antica, Rome. 2nd century A.D.
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Roman mosaic: Sea lion detail. Terme di Nettuno, Baths of Neptune. 2nd century A.D. Archaeological site of Ostia Antica, Rome.
Putto che cavalca una leonessa marina decorazione di fontana da soggetto ellenistico. Tomba di Giulia Procula. Necropoli Isola Sacra. The Ostiense Museum (Archaeological Museum of Ostia).
Putto che cavalca una leonessa marina decorazione di fontana da soggetto ellenistico. Tomba di Giulia Procula. Necropoli Isola Sacra. The Ostiense Museum (Archaeological Museum of Ostia).
Cherub riding a lioness. Marine decoration subject, Hellenistic fountain. Tomb Giulia Procula. Necropolis of Isola Sacra. The Ostiense Museum (Archaeological Museum of Ostia).
Cherub riding a lioness. Marine decoration subject, Hellenistic fountain. Tomb Giulia Procula. Necropolis of Isola Sacra. The Ostiense Museum (Archaeological Museum of Ostia).
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Detail of the sea-lioness. The Ostiense Museum (Archaeological Museum of Ostia.)

This perhaps finds a parallel echo in the earlier Neolithic cultural treasure of the Philippines, known as the Manunggul Jar, whose boat figure, with a distinct anthropomorphic face – on the prow of the canoe carries two soul effigies into the voyage of the afterlife.

The sea-lion as popular imagery to its credit is still very much visible in our every day life, apart from familiarity as symbol of Manila and the presidency. It is also a part of the iconography of a well-known beverage, for the century-old brand of San Miguel Beer is the Spanish arms of Manila with a crown distinguished by the sea-lion facing sinister, as it is the corporate brand, so it should be capped on the bottle, a modern day branding if not practical dictum. One of the popular magazines of the 19th-century, La Ilustración Filipina, featured the personifications of Mother Spain, sitting with a guardian lion, and the Maiden Filipinas, on her side a shield of the coat of arms of Manila with the ubiquitous sea-lion. Unbeknownst to most people, except for sleuthing heraldry connoisseurs, at the base of the Legazpi and Urdaneta monument in Luneta Park is a bronze scrolled cartouche bearing a coat of arms with a winged sea-lion, possibly the allegorical arms of Adelantado himself. The monument, which took a not just a few years to be transported to Manila, because of the Revolution against Spain, and the subsequent Philippine-American War, was not erected until the American era, and is a silent but vivid memorialization to the sword and the cross, twin symbols that define our 333 years of Spanish colonization and cultural contact. As if in apotheosis, the sea-lion is crowned, wielding a sword, and flying with magnanimous wings.

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Stereoscopic view of the Legazpi and Urdaneta Monument, Luneta. Early 20th century. (Mario and Stephen Feir Collection)
Detail of Winged Sea-Lion with crown and sword. Legazpi and Urdaneta Monument, Rizal Park.
Detail of Winged Sea-Lion with crown and sword. Legazpi and Urdaneta Monument, Rizal Park.
San Miguel Beer, advertisement, Sunday Times Magazine, August 15, 1948, p29. (Lopez Museum & Library Collection)
San Miguel Beer, advertisement, Sunday Times Magazine, August 15, 1948, p29. (Lopez Museum & Library Collection)
Masthead of La Ilustración Filipina. 1891-1905
Masthead of La Ilustración Filipina. 1891-1905
Lopez Memorial Museum.
Lopez Memorial Museum.

Our country is archipelagic, its rich and noble lands are bound by the sea, and what but a sea-lion could be a fitting symbol to represent its lands, seas and skies. It endured in prestige and remained relevant as the nation ebbed and flowed in the currents of history. As a symbol of power and protocol, it shares as brethren with the sea-goat (Capricorn) of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. It was his personal emblem. As a symbol of the Philippine Presidency, the ultramar sea-lion connotes strength and determination, as the exactitude of the geometry of the equilateral triangle assures and measures it, the sun and three stars illumine the office and the person, and gives them hope and labor in the perpetual cycle of night and day. The Philippine Navy has the sea-lion for its brand and icon as well. The various departments of the executive branch of the government have in their seals variants of the sea-lion, each with its own special attributes: scales for balance and justice, horn for communication and clarity, fasces for unity and authority, feathered pen for authorship and aptitude, etc. This civic innovation to the heraldic symbol achieved widespread use after 1946, at the outset of the Third Republic under President Manuel Roxas who approved the seal for presidency (making it different from the coat of arms of the republic), and permeated into medallic art of the honors and decorations of the Republic, starting with the Philippine Legion of Honor also in 1947, and continued in the Quirino administration with the creation of the Order of Sikatuna, giving prominence to the sea-lion as symbol of the executive authority.

Philippine Legion of Honor.
Philippine Legion of Honor.

For its part, Manila maintained its ancient sea-lion. After independence in 1946, the American bald eagle was removed, and a crown –this time a civic crown, signifying not royal rule, but independent cityhood—placed above the coat of arms. In 1965, the second elected mayor of Manila, Antonio Villegas abolished the coat of arms in Manila, instituting an elaborate symbol featuring the palisades of the fort of Rajah Sulayman, the baybayin script “K”; and a portrayal of San Agustin church and the gate of Fort Santiago –a mélange in every sense of the word. It formed the focal point of murals by Botong Francisco commissioned for Manila City Hall, only for this seal to be literally covered up, when the sea-lion made its return, in a new coat of arms designed by Galo Ocampo, the same designer of the Republic’s coat of arms and the presidential seal: but gone would be the tower of Castile, replaced by a shell with a pearl, and with the sea-lion above heraldic representations of water.

Thus was a nod made to the past while symbolically exorcising much of the iconography that had distinguished Manila. Yet the sea-lion remained unique, though increasingly gilded. Indeed, as Mayor Villegas attemped, some may question the validity of bestowing prominence to a symbol which is historically colonial and foreign. The ultramar sea-lion is also rather unfairly and more often described mistakenly as a “merlion” like that of the symbol of Singapore. The latter is a late 20th century creation, originally for the purpose of tourism, but became elevated as symbol for the country of Singapore. There are valid and legitimate whys and wherefores for the prominence of the sea-lion in our political history, protocol, and institutional memory. And these will be discussed sufficiently and at length in the book, Branding Guidelines for Corporate Identity – A Comprehensive Usage Manual by the PCDSPO.

The Sea-lion in modern masonry. After the Philippine Navy seal.
The Sea-lion in modern masonry. After the Philippine Navy seal.

For the sea-lion, an imagined symbol of authority and office, distilled through pride of history, and bloodstained struggles for self-identity and self-determination make up the Filipino-ness of it all. Re-energizing a symbol for new meanings is a global anthropological phenomenon, and we have the privilege of 69 years of our independent nationhood to empower us.