The Carmelite historian, Fr. Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm., tells us that the shield appeared for the first time at the end of the fifteenth century, on the cover of a book about the life of Saint Albert dated 1499. The symbol appears in the form of a vexillum, that is, a sign, standard or banner. With the passing of time this was modified until the present form of a heraldic shield was reached.
There has never been an official explanation of the shield’s symbolism, and therefore different interpretations of it have been given.
At the centre is a stylised mountain whose peak points towards heaven; it has rounded sides and three gold six-pointed stars, one in the centre of the mountain, the others in the sky on either side of the mountain. With regard to colours, white and brown appear together and correspond to the colours of the Carmelite habit.
We can safely presume that the mountain is symbolic of Mount Carmel, where the Order originated. Thanks to the writings of the Carmelite saints, and the liturgy of the Order, the mountain has itself become a symbol of Christ.
The lower star is often interpreted as representing the Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea. The two higher stars flanking the mountain perhaps represent the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Seen in this way, the stars symbolise the Marian character of the Order and its Elijan origins.
A more recent interpretation is that the two upper stars represent Mary and Elijah, whilst the white star represents us – the Carmelites of today – ascending the mountain that is Christ. The fact that the stars are six-pointed perhaps is a reminder of the roots of Carmel (and indeed Christianity) in Judaism.
In the 16th century the shield began to appear bearing a crown above, from which the arm and sword of Elijah emerge, surrounded by a semicircle of a dozen stars. The stars are a typical depiction of Mary that recall the apparition of ‘the woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12:1). The crown can likewise be seen as symbolising Mary’s queenship, but could also be a symbol of the Kingdom of God with Jesus the sovereign Lord of Carmel. It is common also for the Order’s motto – the words of Elijah from 1 Kings 19:10 – to appear above or below the crest: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domine Deo exercituum (‘I am full of zeal for the Lord God of Hosts’).
A cross has sometimes been depicted on the summit of the mountain, and is often associated with reform movements within Carmel. Though this originated within the ‘Ancient Observance’ of the Carmelite Family, a cross on top of the mountain is now more commonly associated with the Discalced Reform. The Ancient Observance in Sicily places a Cross of Jerusalem above the mountain, recalling the Order's origins in the Holy Land.