Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pontificalia II: the mitre and crozier

A mitre made by Augustus Welby Pugin for Cardinal Wiseman, 1848. The blog of Westminster Cathedral described it as, "by far the most splendid thing of its kind that had been made by English craftsmen since the Reformation".

"We, O Lord, place on the head of this Thy bishop and champion, the helmet of protection and salvation, so that his face being adorned and his head armed with the horns of both testaments, he may seem terrible to the opponents of truth, and through the indulgence of Thy grace may be their sturdy adversary, Thou Who didst mark with the brightest rays of Thy splendor and truth the countenance of Moses Thy servant, ornamented from his fellowship with Thy word : and didst order the tiara to be placed on the head of Aaron thy high priest. Through Christ Our Lord.
R. Amen."
(The bestowal of the mitre, according to the old Roman Pontifical's Rite of Consecration of a Bishop)

I'd like to believe that if more people had been familiar with this beautiful prayer as dramatized to great effect in the movie Becket, they would never have consented to its vandalism by the revisions of Bugnini. The reform of the rites of ordination and consecration of bishops, and especially of priests, been written about to death, so there's no need for me to rehash the arguments here. I'll just instead point out that the bestowal of the mitre, once a prominent part of the ceremonies culminating in the enthronement of the bishop in the old rite of consecration, was one of many casualties of the year 1968. The investiture of the bishop with the ring and mitre was moved from its former place after the end of Mass to before the Offertory. Strangely, it called for the mitre to be placed on the new bishop's head saying nothing at all! 

This awkward moment of silence is, thankfully, faintly remembered as it was reversed by the 1989 tweaks to the Pontifical under Pope John Paul II. The new wording, though it pales in compare to the old, at least ascribes symbolic significance to the mitre beyond some ostentatious headgear which the "experts" deigned to retain solely to appease the simple layfolk. The current formula has the consecrator say:
"Receive the mitre, and may the splendor of holiness shine forth in you, so that when the chief shepherd appears you may deserve to receive from him an unfading crown of glory."
What does the mitre signify? When did bishops start wearing them? Why are there different kinds and shapes of mitres? Why are some Anglicans objecting to the mitre today?

Raymond Cardinal Burke wearing a precious mitre

What does the mitre signify?

The mitre is, of course, the "tall pointy hat" worn by bishops and certain other prelates in the liturgy. Every bishop has a right to wear it by virtue of his order. Today, two kinds of priests are also allowed their use: abbots of religious houses, and the monsignori of the "Anglican" Personal Ordinariates (who, though merely in the presbyterate, previously served as bishops of Anglican bodies and now enjoy Ordinary status in the Catholic Church). Both these types of priests can only wear the mitre within their jurisdiction. So, while a bishop might wear his mitre anywhere he celebrates Mass, a Benedictine abbot would only wear it within his own monastery. Before Vatican II, certain other classes of monsignori were also allowed to wear the mitre, and there were complex distinctions between mitred and non-mitred abbots. Of course, any cardinal could wear one even if he isn't a bishop, but this is extremely rare today.

It's commonly held today that the mitre symbolizes the flaming tongues of the Holy Ghost, as they were seen above the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost. It's certainly fitting since the bishops are the successors of the Apostles, from whose hands flow the gift of Holy Orders. For the historian's sake, though, we must admit that this wasn't always what the mitre signified. 

When did bishops start wearing them?

Mitres as we know them today originated in Rome. Their first recorded use was by the Pope and cardinals in the 10th century, though of course they might be older. They were first a soft cap over a diadem with two lappets (strips of fabric hanging down the back), worn only for processions. Later, the Popes started to wear them even during the liturgy. Bishops of the 10th century were quick to imitate the Roman practice, so by the 1100's, they were in standard use throughout the western Church. 

As I said before, it's important to note that the mitre didn't always signify episcopal or even mere priestly authority because the privilege to wear one was granted, on rare occasion, to kings and abbesses. A king was, after all, anointed to a certain type of priesthood and, like it or not, had a say in the nomination of bishops and various other ecclesiastical affairs. An abbess could command vast tracts of land and resources, and even the obedience of the lesser clergy in her domain. The distinction between clergy and laity was well understood, but their roles in the governance of the Church were blurred by today's standards.

Some illustrations by Pugin

Why are there different kinds and shapes of mitres?

Archbishop Fulton Sheen lived
 during the age of ultra-tall mitres.
The height of the mitre roughly corresponds with the style of the age it was made. What began as squat, short points in the Gothic age grew taller by the centuries until they reached their apex in the years immediately before Vatican II. There was a sharp reaction against the 2-foot tall mitres of Pius XII's day, so the heights came down by half everywhere outside of Rome.

Unlike the height and shape, which are governed more by fashion, the color and material are actually governed by rubric and occasion. The Caeremoniale Episcoporum of the Tridentine age had settled on three kinds:

-Simple mitre (simplex): plain white linen or silk. The simple mitre was worn on penitential days, or at any gathering in the presence of the Pope.

-Golden mitre (auriphrygiata): gold fabric with some decorative trim. This was the mitre most commonly in use; specifically, on all days when the Gloria in excelsis was to be said at Mass or Te Deum at the Office.

-Precious mitre (pretiosa): like the golden mitre, but further embellished with precious stones or plates of gold and silver. These are the ones that tend to survive from the Middle Ages to the present as works of art. 

On days when the precious mitre was used, the Caeremoniale actually had the bishop switch between the precious and golden mitres during the same Mass. The precious mitre was worn for the procession, then replaced with the golden mitre for the Mass of the Catechumens. The bishop then resumed the precious mitre for the end of Mass and recession. Perhaps the rationale was that by the time the bishop was in the sanctuary, the faithful in the cathedral couldn't see the embellishments of the precious mitre from such a distance anyway, so the bishop would use a less valuable mitre in the middle of Mass to reduce wear-and-tear. The modern Ceremonial of Bishops only allows one mitre to be used by the bishop per Mass in the Ordinary Form, though.

Important: the dominant color of the mitre is always either gold or white. It was never the tradition to wear a mitre that matched the liturgical color of the day. Red, green, or purple mitres are all of very recent invention and still against the rubrics of the Ordinary Form liturgy!

The Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York. Note York's incorrect (by Roman standards) green mitre.

Why are some Anglicans objecting to the mitre today?

There've been a few op-eds, of late, from members of the Anglican Communion calling on their bishops to put away their mitres. See Ian Paul's article, "Why bishops should throw away their mitres", or the Anglican Bishop of Croydon saying things like, “The mitre, as a symbol of power and authority, emphasises exactly the wrong things about ministry.” 

It might be a low blow to throw my Anglo-Catholic friends still in the Episcopal Church under the bus here, but the nay-sayers aren't entirely wrong. While Paul's article has some historical whoppers, it's true that the Church of England abandoned the mitre, and most other vestments, as trappings of popery. While it may be true that the first Episcopal bishop in the US, Samuel Seabury, wore a mitre, they weren't mainstream headgear for Anglican bishops until the 20th century, generations after the pioneers of the Oxford Movement. If their successors today are uncomfortable with wearing a piece of regalia that suggests being a "prince of the Church", they're right to do so. The mitre is a manifestation of Christendom: even if they don't sit in the king's council anymore, the bishops are still major landlords and, effectively, the overlords of the lower clergy. Pontificalia is the only thing visually separating the bishops from looking like the CEO's of a clerical corporation. If their idea of adapting to modernity is by taking on the dress of mainstream culture, then they deserve the ridicule and ruination that's sure to follow.

And now, a brief word on the second most distinct piece of pontificalia....

A superb example of medieval craftsmanship in this crozier's head.

What is the crozier? What does it signify?

The crozier as a symbol of the Good Shepherd, or of Moses, is too obvious to elaborate upon. But beyond that, the crozier is a symbol of jurisdiction. While a bishop can wear his mitre anywhere, he can only carry the crozier within his own diocese. Auxiliary and visiting bishops still need permission from the Ordinary to use it, although most Ordinaries give it freely, especially on major occasions. One exception is if an auxiliary or visiting bishop is giving confirmations or clerical ordinations. In this case, he's officially representing the Ordinary in the latter's absence and bears the crozier by right. Further, if multiple bishops are attending the same Mass, usually only the (principal) celebrant carries the crozier. The Church has long determined it to be gauche for many bishops to all process with the croziers at once.

An abbess's crozier at Saint Walburga's Abbey, Colorado.
As with the mitre, which is now a standard part of the rite for the blessing of abbots, the crozier is now given to all abbots as well; like before, the abbot who is merely a priest may only use mitre and crozier within his own abbey. The crozier was also formerly given to abbesses on rare occasions. This is no longer done as a matter of rite, but some abbesses may still carry the crozier on account of long-standing tradition. 

In the eastern churches, croziers take the shape not of the shepherd's crook, but either of a tau-shaped cross or something akin to the bronze serpent of the Exodus, with twin serpents surrounding a cross.

What about the Pope's staff? Is that a crozier, or something else?

You'll notice that the Pope is never seen with a crozier in the shape of a shepherd's crook. With a handful of exceptions, the popes haven't used croziers in nearly a thousand years. Because croziers imply a limited jurisdiction, popes since at least the time of Innocent III have been using a ferula instead: a staff surmounted with a cross. Medieval and Renaissance illustrations of the papal staff will usually show a cross with three bars--three being the number of completion and ranking above the mere two of an archbishop's cross. The ugly ferula with the low-hanging arms so often seen in our current day was, predictably, a product of the 1960's for Pope Paul VI. I had hoped that we would see the end of it after Pope Benedict XVI put it away in favor of an older staff used by Pius IX, but the ugly ferula has come back into vogue with the current pontiff.

A medieval pope's ferula with three bars.

Next time, we'll look at the uniquely pontifical vestments: the under-dalmatic and tunicle, gloves, stockings, and slippers.

Pontificalia III: the pontifical vestments


  1. I've been enjoying this series and am looking forward to the article on the much neglected tunicle, however I do have question about this article. In it you say that the mitre was worn by Kings on occasion, could you give an example of this? It was my understanding that the Mitre-Crown was the exclusive insignia of the Holy Roman Emperor (and the Russian claimants to Byzantine Succession after Tsar Peter's Westernization), in part a symbol of the Emperor's diaconal ordination. Together with the single-arched crest it differentiated the Imperial Crowns from a mere royal or noble crown, or at least was supposed to in theory.

    1. Good question. Matthew Alderman had this to say about it in a blog post from over a decade ago:

      "The case of mitred kings is particularly interesting, representing the ideal of close relations between pontiff and ruler, as well as the ruler as serving as an icon of Christ the King. In some cases, the lines between spiritual and temporal started getting blurred in some places, as at least one authority reports that during the High Middle Ages the Holy Roman Emperor would be ordained as a priest before his coronation, a priesthood admittedly without responsibilities, but a priesthood all the same. Incidentally, the Emperor also had the peculiar right to sing the Christmas Gospel with a drawn sword, and also honorary membership in several cathedral chapters.

      However, the mitre was usually bestowed on most worthy kings as a sign of fealty to Rome, and did not accompany ordination. The oldest example of such a privilege goes back to Nicholas II, who granted the mitre to Duke Spytihnev of Bohemia, while Alexander II decorated his successor Vratislas in the same fashion. Roger of Sicily purportedly received the right to the mitre, along with crozier, ring, dalmatic and sandals from Lucius II."

    2. Thank you for this information, it's quite fascinating. I should have guessed that Roger of Sicily would be in the answer, as his Arabic mantle would become part of the coronation regalia of the Empire made famous by Dürer's Charlemagne portrait, which interestingly does not depict the Imperial Crown with its mitre.

  2. Wonderful! Thanks for the scene from Becket!

  3. At least one American bishop never admits others to use the crozier in his territory.

  4. I just wish the movie did not have the unfortunate inclusion of nudity in an early scene.

  5. As a former crozier bearer, I was taught by FSSP priests that because the crozier symbolizes the bishop's jurisdiction and authority as shepherd, anyone holding it who is not the bishop should hold it with the crook side (i.e. the open side) facing himself.