Our earliest existing instances of the Carmelite arms appear to be Italian of the early sixteenth century. Certain points seem to indicate that they came to Italy from Germany.
There have been several explanations of the design and they are all connected with the Prophet Elijah of the Old Testament. The Carmelites trace their origin to the hermits who lived in the spirit of Elijah on Mount Carmel in the twelfth century.
The peak or point in the centre of the shield is taken to represent Mount Carmel, the scene of the Prophet’s greatest triumph over the false prophets of Baal, and the dwelling place of the followers of Elijah. The star in the lower part symbolises Elijah while the two stars above it represent Christ and Mary. Many saints and early writers have seen a symbol of Our Lady in the cloud which Elijah saw arising from the sea to bring rain to the parched land of Israel (see 1Kings 18:44). The early hermits built an oratory in honour of Our Lady on Mount Carmel and chose her as their patroness. Later they become known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Others have seen the lower star representing us and the upper stars representing Elijah and Mary, the two great models for the Order, guiding us up the Mount towards Christ. Another interpretation sees the lower star representing Elijah and the Prophetic Tradition while the two upper stars represent the Greek (Eastern) Tradition and the Latin (Western) Tradition.
The sword symbolises the power and zeal of Elijah. In the Scriptures Elijah appears again and again as God’s Prophet, speaking out boldly against abuses and reminding the Israelites of their special calling to live as God’s people. The sword is sometimes shown as flaming, to suggest the ardent and zealous spirit of the Prophet; moreover it recalls the fire which he called down from heaven upon the mountain of Carmel to confound the false prophets of Baal (see 1Kings 18:38). Elsewhere in the bible we are told, Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire, his sword flashing like a torch (see Ecclesiasticus 48:1).
Around the crest are grouped twelve stars. The number is meant to refer to the crown of the woman in the Book of Revelations (or the Apocalypse), who has always been taken as a figure of Our Lady, And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet and her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelations 12:1).
The motto or legend consists of the words of Elijah taken from the First Book of the Kings, 19:10: With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts. In Latin the phrase reads: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum. These words express the whole life of the prophet Elijah and the very spirit that moved him. The crest or coat of arms stands as an emblem of that tradition and is associated with Carmelite spirit which has been handed down to us.