XXX: the Amsterdam Coat of Arms and Its Meaning

A Historically Relevant Symbol Rather Than a Red Light District Advertisement

Alex Dos Diaz / TripSavvy 

Given one of the most common stereotypes about the city of Amsterdam is that it's rife with sex tourism, the triple X symbol that can be spotted all over the city may come as little surprise—but does it really have to do with the city's reputation or famous Red Lights District? Not at all; the triple X on the Amsterdam coat of arms turns out to be just a coincidence that actually symbolizes the historical and cultural heritage of the city.

The Amsterdam Coat of Arms is the official symbol of the city, and as a result, can be found on everything from manhole covers to light poles and government buildings. It consists of a red shield and a black pale with three silver crosses, two golden lions, the Imperial Crown of Austria, and Amsterdam's motto: "Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig" ("Heroic, Steadfast, Compassionate").

The three Xs are actually silver Saint Andrew's Crosses, also known as saltires—a common heraldic symbol worldwide and the type of cross on which Saint Andrew is said to have been crucified—however, there are a few competing theories on the meaning of this particular part of the coat of arms.

If you're traveling to Amsterdam, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for this triple X symbol all around town—from traffic bollards to the Red Lights District—but also remember that it has nothing to do with sex tourism and everything to do with cultural heritage.

Theories on the Meaning of XXX

There are various theories as to what the triple Xs stand for, from representative symbolism to inherited religious iconography, but not at all of these can be verified as the actual source of meaning for this iconic symbol.

Although not based on historical texts, one of the most popular theories is that the three Xs represent the three problems that faced the city repeatedly throughout history: floods, fires, and the Black Death; there is, however, no mention in any official texts about the creation of the flag or coat of arms that references these natural disasters.

Another theory posits that the Xs actually represent the traditional three kisses that the Dutch exchange in greeting and saying goodbye, but again, that has no basis in historical documents or records.

The theory that's most likely closest to the truth, then, is that the crosses were taken from the coat of arms of the family that once owned Amsterdam, the Persijn family, and refer to the family's three properties: Amsterdam, Ouder-Amstel, and Nieuwer-Amstel (present-day Amstelveen). The black pale, a heraldic term for a vertical band, that runs down the shield would represent the Amstel River, on which these three towns were located.

History of the Amsterdam Coat of Arms

The official coat of arms for Amsterdam is rich with symbolism representing the diverse history that created this thriving city. For instance, the two lions, added in the 16th century, flank the shield as official shield bearers, though not much is known about why these creatures were chosen to represent the city.

Atop the shield is the Imperial Crown of Austria; in the 15th century, Amsterdam was rewarded with permission to use the imperial crown of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in its coat of arms in return for the financial support it provided to Maximilian in wartime; this was considered a favorable endorsement of the city far and wide. When the personal crown of the Catholic emperor became the Imperial Crown of Austria (under Maximilian I's successor, Rudolf II), the city of Amsterdam updated its coat of arms to the new crown.

The silver scroll below the escutcheon, the most recent addition, contains the motto of Amsterdam: "Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig, "Heroic, Steadfast, Compassionate". Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, the grandmother of the current Queen Beatrix, introduced the scroll to commemorate the February strike of 1941 when the non-Jews of Amsterdam rose up in protest of Nazi persecution of the city's Jewish population. This was the first, and one of the only, such strikes in occupied Europe. The scroll was added in 1947 and has since been emblazoned on surfaces across the city.

Where to Spot the XXX Symbol in Amsterdam

If you're visiting Amsterdam and are of relatively good vision, it's going to be hard to miss the three Xs—they're literally everywhere in the city, even on the manhole covers and poles that stop cars from running up on the sidewalks (locally known as Amsterdammertjes), even city services like trash collectors and postal workers have triple Xs on their vehicles.

Both the coat of arms and the triple X symbols appear throughout the city, though the Xs are more often found on their own. Advertisements referring to the city have even started using XXX as a replacement for the city's name—such is the case with the "XXX (Heart) Bikes" campaign.

Just remember that this symbol has nothing to do with the booming sex tourism industry in the city, so don't hesitate to enter St. Nicholas Church or The Hague (the capital building of Amsterdam) just because their doorways bear the XXX symbol!

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