Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Curiosities of the Tiara

Just some random Catholic facts for your amusement and edification. I'm not intending this to become a comments-box discussion on Benedict XVI's coat of arms, since that's ancient history as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, it's still on the flag.

The mitre was at one time the sole prerogative of the Pope. Indeed, the tiara and the mitre in all likelyhood descend from the same bonnet, a curious thing shaped like a sugar-loaf and either called the camelaucum or the phrygium--ironically, the same infamous oriental cap of liberty later resurrected by the Jacobins of revolutionary Paris. The Phrygian cap--worn by freed slaves in ancient days--was purportedly bestowed on Pope Sylvester by Constantine as a sign of the Church's new freedom. While this is undoubtedly a legend, at least one author has suggested that the popes of the era must have had some distinguishing head-piece, and we have definite evidence for the camelaucum from the seventh century onwards.

The crowns were added one-by-one; the first allegedly was added by St. Symmachus (498-514), which is in all likelyhood a fairy tale. Symmachus did a great many other things, though, including combatting a Byzantine-backed anti-Pope that went on through increasingly garbled complexities, including four truly bizarre years with the pope stuck out at St. Peter's and his rival living at the Lateran, even daring to hang up his portrait in the series at St. Paul-without-the-Walls. It appears the crown was really first added sometime around the reign of Charlemagne, or perhaps in the thirteenth century.

The second was Boniface VIII's idea, purportedly to show both temporal and spiritual power, and the third either by Benedict XI or Clement V. Nobody is quite sure why--the heraldist Giluiano Cesare de Beatiano, advancing a theory that would make even Jack Chick blush, claims it to represent temporal power over the known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The late Bruno Bernard Heim asks, sensibly, why nobody got around to adding coronets for Australia or the Americas; on the other hand, St. Robert Bellarmine nonetheless backs up (without the continental argument) the assertion of the tiara's temporal significance, which is no surprise as it's never really been associated with the liturgy, with the apparent exception of an Eastern-Rite liturgy once celebrated by John XXIII of blessed memory.

The best explanation would appear to be that the crowns represent the supremacy of the Pope over the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant, and also his triple ministry of priest, pastor and teacher of the faithful. Or, as the old coronation rite once put it, his tripartite authority as the Father of Kings and Princes, the Rector of the World, and the Vicar of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Earth.

A few brave souls have undertaken to usurp the tiara from time to time. This was once considered a capital crime, if intended to misuse the pope's jurisdiction. Heim writes that "today the law has become unnecessary." (It is not known at time of writing if Archbishop Heim had ever been aware of the wellspring of nuttiness that was the late Gregory XVII of befuddled memory). Then there's the Patriarch of Lisbon who actually still uses the tiara heraldically, with a double-barred cross and crozier. The Patriarchate is a fairly young ecclesiastical institution and formerly subject to some peculiar issues of jurisdiction. It was created by the Golden Bull of 1716 as a Portuguese compliment to the Patriarchate of the West Indies--a relatively minor office, without pay, held ex-officio since 1572 by the chief chaplain of the Spanish Army. (It appears to have been vacant since 1963).

The Patriarchate itself started out equally small and was for a time largely restricted in authority to the Portuguese chapel royal, a chunk of Western Lisbon, and a number of suffragams. The former Archbishop of the place still controlled the remainder of Lisbon and a substantial ecclesiastical province which included San Salvator in the Congo and, apparently, the Brazilian city of Bahia de todos os Santos with its 365 churches--now voodoo-infested, if Umberto Eco is to be believed. This curious arrangement with its two cathedrals was eventually scrapped, though the double cathedral chapter persisted until 1837.

The Lisbon tiara is somewhat different in shape from that of Rome's, though like Rome it seems to have several variants, either bulbous or conical. Some call it a triregnum to distinguish it from the papal variety, though that too is often called a triregnum as well, to further confuse things. The origin of this singular bit of ecclesial headgear has less to do with Lusitanian pontifical megalomania than King John V's (1707-1750) hobby of coming up with new ornaments for his patriarch in an effort to establish a sort of non-schismatic Western Rome. (The first patriarch of Lisbon, Thomas d'Almeyda, seems to have been a pretty nice guy, even saintly). The sedia gestadoria was also used there, and the cathedral chapter has three ranks patterned after the three orders of the College of Cardinals, as well. This rather charming sort of liturgical weirdness is uniquely Portuguese, as the Portuguese Braga rite retains rubrics concerning a serpent-shaped Paschal candlestick, as well as a prayer to be said in the sacristy while combing one's hair--apparently once a fairly common practice.

While Portuguese claims that the Pope said it was okay strike me as somewhat suspicious (there's a hint of "the dog ate my homework" in there somewhere), Rome never really made much of a fuss over the matter. Ironically enough, it seems that the old 1917 Code of Canon Law says that any century-old privilege is automatically considered valid, since proof of the origins of such a right is no longer required by law. I'm not sure if this is in the 1983 Code. On the other hand, there was that fellow Antoine-Anne-Jules, Cardinal de Clermont-Tonnerre (d. 1830), who had the fantastic cheek to stick a tiara atop his arms because of his alleged ancestral relative, Pope Nicholas II. One has to draw the line somewhere.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: