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Papal Tiara

The Papal Tiara, also known as the Triple Tiara, Triregnum or Triregno1, is the three-tiered papal crown formerly worn by popes from Pope Clement V up to and including Pope Paul VI, who was crowned in 1963. Though not worn by Popes John Paul I and John Paul II, it has not been abolished and it remains the symbol of the papacy and the Holy See, featured in the coat of arms of the Vatican and on many papal coats of arms.

It remains possible that Benedict XVI or any of his successors could decide to reinstate the use of the Papal Tiara for ceremonial use.


Not just one Tiara

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) wearing his Papal Tiara.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) wearing his Papal Tiara.

Though people often talk about the Papal Tiara, in fact there were many. Unfortunately many of the earlier priceless papal tiaras (most notably the tiaras of Pope Julius II2 and Pope Saint Silvester) were destroyed, dismantled or seized by invaders (most notably by Napoleon's army in 1798), or by popes themselves; Pope Clement VII had all the tiaras and papal regalia melted down in 1527 to raise the 400,000 ducats ransom demanded by the occupying army of Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. However eleven silver triregnos exist (a twelfth if one includes Pius VII's papal papier-mâché tiara), of which the earliest, the sole survivor from the attack by Napoleonic troops, dates from the reign of Pope Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century.

Many crowns were donated to the papacy by world leaders or states, including Queen Isabella II of Spain, the King of Belgium and Napoleon I of France. The crown provided by the latter was made from elements of former papal tiaras destroyed by his soldiers, and was given to Pius VII as a 'wedding gift' to mark Napoleon's own marriage to Empress Josephine on the eve of his imperial coronation. Others were provided to a newly elected pope by the See which they had held prior to their election.

Coat of arms of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963).
Coat of arms of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963).

In some instances, various cities sought to outdo each other in the beauty, value and size of the tiaras they provided for 'their' pope. Examples include triregnos given to Popes John XXIII and Paul VI by their previous Sees, Venice and Milan, on their election to the papacy in 1958 and 1963 respectively.

Nor was a pope restricted to wearing just one tiara: Pope John XXIII, for example, was photographed on different occasions wearing his own tiara presented in 1958, Pope Pius IX's 1877 tiara, or one of Pope Leo XIII's tiaras.

Pope Paul VI, whose bullet-shaped tiara is one of the most unusual in design, was the last pope to date to wear a triple tiara, though it remains open to any of his successors to reinstate both the coronation ceremony and the use of any one of the tiaras. Surviving tiaras, with the exception of that of Pope Paul VI, are on display in the Vatican.

Shape of the Triple Tiara

Pope Pius X (1903-1914) wearing the 1834 Triple Tiara of Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Pius X (1903-1914) wearing the 1834 Triple Tiara of Pope Gregory XVI

Almost all surviving Triple Tiaras are shaped similarly, in the form of a circular beehive, with its central core made of silver. Within that one shape, a number of variations occurred; some were sharply conical, others bulbous. All tiaras but the final one were heavily covered in jewels. Each tiara was structured in the form of three crowns marked by golden decorations, sometimes in the form of crosses, sometimes in the shape of leaves. Most were topped off by a crucifix. The tiara of Pope Gregory XVI (given to him in 1834) involved three golden circles inlaid with diamonds over the central silver core of the crown, above each of which a series of golden 'clover' shapes, inlaid with jewels. (See photograph opposite of Pope Pius X wearing that tiara.) In contrast the 'Belgian' tiara given to Pope Pius IX in 1871 had its conical shape almost hidden beneath three layers of upright golden decoration inlaid with jewels, making it the most unusual (and perhaps for that reason least worn) tiara in the papal collection. (The picture below of Pius XI shows him wearing what appears to be the 'Belgian Tiara'.) It was made in Bourdon, Ghent (Belgium) from a design by Jean Baptiste Bethume. It is decorated with gold, pearls, gilt silver, emeralds, enamel and precious stones.

The tiara given to Pope Pius IX in 1877 by the Vatican's Palatine Honour guard in honour of his Jubilee is strikingly similar in design to the earlier tiara of Gregory XVI. It remained a particularly popular crown, worn by among others Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII (who was crowned with it) and Pope John XXIII. Pope Leo XIII's crown, in contrast was much less decorated and much more conical in shape. John XXIII is pictured wearing it below. Apart from the odd looking Belgian Tiara of 1871, two other unusual tiaras exist. One was made for Pope Paul VI in 1963. (A photograph of his coronation is reproduced below.) Shaped like a cross between a beehive and a bullet, and made of silver, it contained few jewels, making it considerably lighter than earlier tiaras. The three tiers were represented simply by three circles at points running around the exterior. Another is the papier-mâché tiara (see below).

Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) wearing what appears to be the 1871 Belgian Triple Tiara of Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) wearing what appears to be the 1871 Belgian Triple Tiara of Pope Pius IX

Symbolism of the Triple Tiara

Just what the three crowns of the Triple Tiara symbolise is disputed. Some have linked it to the threefold authority of the Supreme Pontiff: Universal Pastor (top), Universal Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (middle) and Temporal Power (bottom). Others have given a spiritual interpretation, the three-fold office of Christ, who is Priest, Prophet and King. Other theories suggest the three crowns refer to the 'Church Militant on earth', the 'Church Suffering after death and before heaven', and the 'Church Triumphant in eternal reward'. Yet another theory suggests they represent the Pope's roles as lawgiver, judge and teacher. When popes were crowned, the words 'Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ' were used, perhaps indicating the definitive meaning of the three crowns, though there is no evidence that that coronation oath is based on the originally intended meaning attached to the three tier tiara.


According to James-Charles Noonan3 the bottom of the three crowns appeared at the base of the mitre in the ninth century. When the popes assumed temporal power in the Patrimony of St. Peter (known generally as the Papal States), the base crown became decorated with jewels to resemble the crowns of princes. A second crown was added by Boniface VIII in 1298 to symbolize spiritual dominion. Very soon after, in or around 1314, a third crown and lappets (cloth strips) were added; Pope Clement V was the first to wear the triple tiara. Though a powerful symbol of the papacy, it has not always been respected even by its wearers. One mediæval pope, Innocent VIII, even pawned off his papal tiara. A Protestant theory is that the three crowns (triregnos) fulfilled Daniel's prophecy in the seventh chapter of his book in which the "little horn" of the Roman Papacy uproots three kingdoms before it.


Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) wearing a Tiara often associated with
Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) wearing a Tiara often associated with Pope Leo XIII

The Triple Tiara was not used for liturgical ceremonial, such as celebrating High Mass. Instead it was used exclusively in formal ceremonial processions to and from St. Peter's Basilica or St. John Lateran (the cathedral of the pope as Bishop of Rome), usually when the pope was being carried in the sedia gestatoria or portable throne, whose use was finally ended by Pope John Paul II in October 1978 (John Paul I had initially decided not to use it, only to relent when informed that without it he could not be seen by people. John Paul II opted to use what became known as the popemobile when appearing outdoors.) In addition, the triple tiara was used for 'solemn acts of jurisdiction' where the pope appeared 'in state', for example in making a statement ex-cathedra (using Papal Infallibility). It was also worn when a pope gave his traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing from a balcony, the only principal occasion when the tiara was worn in a religious ceremony. The pope, like all other bishops, wears a mitre at pontifical liturgical functions.

Undoubtedly the most famous occasion when the triple tiara was used was the Papal Coronation, when, in a six-hour ceremony, the new pope would be carried in state to the location of the coronation (usually St. Peter's Basilica or, in the case of Pope Pius XII, on the balcony outside, or on some occasions in the Sistine Chapel). The new pope would be crowned with the words

Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

As with all other modern coronations, the ceremony itself was only symbolic; the person duly elected became pope and Bishop of Rome the moment he accepted his election in the Conclave, as popes John Paul I and II showed by declining a coronation.

The papier-mâché Tiara

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) wearing his own Tiara given by the people of his home region in 1959. Because his election was so unexpected, they had not the time to have a tiara manufactured for his actual coronation. He used the 1877 tiara.
Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) wearing his own Tiara given by the people of his home region in 1959. Because his election was so unexpected, they had not the time to have a tiara manufactured for his actual coronation. He used the 1877 tiara.

Perhaps the most remarkable tiara of all is made not of metal but of papier-mâché. On 14 March 1800 Barnaba Cardinal Chiaramonte was elected pope in a conclave held not in the Quirinal Palace or the Vatican, where papal conclaves traditionally occurred, but in Venice, to which the church leadership had fled following an attack by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte's troops on Rome. On his election, Chiaramonte, who had taken the name Pope Pius VII, found himself without a crown; none had been brought by his predecessor Pope Pius VI when on 20 February 1798 the terminally ill pope had literally been flung, possessing no more than the cassock he was wearing, into an unmarked carriage and driven at speed to Tuscany to avoid his planned murder by Napoleon's troops. However Venetian noblewomen manufactured a temporary papier-mâché tiara for the new pontiff to wear, decorating it with their own jewels. This unusual papal coronation on March 21, 1800 occurred in a cramped monastery church, while the coffined corpse of his predecessor, dead seven months, remained unburied on the orders of pro-Napoleonic clergy, the late pontiff's coffin labelled simply "Citizen Braschi, exercising the profession of Pontiff".

This unusual tiara remains among the papal collection of tiaras. It is rumoured to have been worn by one later pope, Pius IX, sometime between 1870 and his death in 1878. The reason he wore it is unclear; it could have been, as has been suggested, as a sign of his humility. Equally, it could have been worn for propaganda purposes, it symbolising his self-proclaimed status as the "Prisoner in the Vatican", a term he claimed when in 1870 papal rule in Rome was ended by force and the city became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II. Wearing the papier-mâché papal tiara would have carried powerful resonances for Pope Pius IX. Like his namesake, it could be used to symbolise his victim status as a pontiff robbed of his god-given Papal States by an invading army, the prisoner reduced to wearing a compressed paper crown. Propaganda drawings in the Catholic press in Austria, Belgium and Ireland, and in the French royalist press, showed the "prisoner pope" reduced to sleeping on straw by his Italian 'captors'. Of course in reality whereas the original wearer of the crown, Pope Pius VII in 1800, lived in cramped conditions on the run accompanied by the corpse of his predecessor, the prisoner pope Pius IX lived surrounded by all the pomp and ceremony of the papal court in the Apostolic Palace, being presented with two more bejewelled tiaras to ease the pain of his "captivity", a fact that did not receive the same coverage as his supposed impoverishment.

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) wearing the 1877 Triple Tiara; Seventh-day Adventists claim it contains Vicarius Filii Dei.
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) wearing the 1877 Triple Tiara; Seventh-day Adventists claim it contains Vicarius Filii Dei.

The Papal Tiara and the 666 controversy

Main article: Myths and legends surrounding the Papacy

One common controversy surrounding the papal tiara, particularly coming from Seventh-day Adventists and other Protestants,4 involves the claim that the words Vicarius Filii Dei exist on the side of one of the tiaras. The controversy centres on the widely made claim that, when numerised (i.e., when those letters in the 'title' that have Roman numerals value are added together) the words produce the number '666', described in the Book of Revelation as the Number of the Beast (who some have claimed would 'wear' a crown similar to a triple tiara). This claim has been made by some evangelical Protestant groups who believe that the pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church is the Antichrist. Heretics dating back to the Cathars and Waldensians in the thirteenth century also held this view of the Church.

Four definitive sources are sometimes given. However none of the sources seem to stand up to detailed examination; one, for example, speaks of someone witnessing a pope wearing the tiara during Mass, which has never occurred. The claim is further countered by the fact that all the tiaras have been seen publicly by crowds on display as well as being photographed and filmed up close, yet none of the tiaras bear the supposed writing, and only one bears any writing at all. Many historians, academics and mainstream religious leaders view the story as a classic anti-Catholic myth, a story for which no evidence has been found, even by the Seventh Day Adventists who have spent over a century extensively searching for the evidence. Finally the title Vicarius Filii Dei itself is not a common papal title; however, the Donation of Constantine uses it to refer to St. Peter specifically.

The last crowned Pope

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) is crowned at the last papal coronation, in 1963.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) is crowned at the last papal coronation, in 1963.

As with all previous popes, Pope Paul VI was crowned with a tiara at the papal coronation. As happened sometimes with previous popes, a new tiara was used, one donated by the city of Milan in honour of Paul's elevation; he had been Cardinal Archbishop of Milan up to his election. Pope Paul's tiara was quite different from earlier tiaras. It was not covered in jewels and precious gems, but was sharply cone-shaped. It was also distinctly lighter in weight than earlier tiaras.

Pope Paul VI was the last pontiff to wear a tiara. At the end of the Second Vatican Council, he descended the steps of the papal throne in St Peter's Basilica and laid the tiara on the altar in a dramatic gesture of humility and as a sign of the renunciation of human glory and power in keeping with the renewed spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It marked a renunciation of one of the three possible reasons for the existence of the three tiers of the crown; secular power, which in any case had ended in 1870 when the Papal States joined the rest of Italy to form the Kingdom of Italy. Popes initially refused to accept their loss of the Papal States. In an act of defiance, they refused to leave the Vatican, describing themselves melodramatically as the 'prisoner in the Vatican'. Paul's removal of his tiara was intended to forever symbolise the papacy's renunciation of any desire for secular power.

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) laying his Papal Tiara on the altar of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of Vatican II
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) laying his Papal Tiara on the altar of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of Vatican II

Pope Paul's decision to abandon the use of one of the most striking symbols of the papacy, the Papal Tiara, proved highly controversial with conservative Catholics , many of whom continue to campaign for its re-instatement. Some indeed branded him an anti-pope, arguing that no valid pope would surrender the papal tiara. At least one 'claimant' to the papacy after Paul VI's death, Clemente Domínguez y Gómez, of the conservative catholic Palmar de Troya movement, and who was 'proclaimed' as 'Pope Gregory XVII' by his followers in Seville, Spain in 1978, was 'crowned' using a 'new' 'papal tiara', showing the power of its symbolism. A rival antipope, Pius XIII of the 'True Catholic Church' has made use of the tiara on his coat of arms.

Pope Paul's tiara was presented to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC by the Apostolic Delegate to the United States on February 6, 1968 as a gesture of Pope Paul VI's affection for the Catholic Church in the United States. It is on permanent display in Memorial Hall along with the stole of Pope John XXIII, which he wore at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

A permanent end to the Triple Tiara?

Inauguration of Pope John Paul II in 1978: He wore a simplex mitre. Around his neck he wore a woollen pallum, which replaced the tiara in the installation ceremony. He also did not take the .
Inauguration of Pope John Paul II in 1978: He wore a simplex mitre. Around his neck he wore a woollen pallum, which replaced the tiara in the installation ceremony. He also did not take the Papal oath.

In 1978, one of Pope John Paul I's first decisions on his election was to dispense with the 100-year-old papal coronation and the use of a papal tiara. Though perhaps understandable given Pope Paul's gesture a decade earlier, it still caused some surprise.

The new pope was instead installed in a revised and simpler Papal Installation, so low-key indeed that he had it moved to the morning so as not to disrupt Italian soccer coverage, which would normally be shown in the afternoon.

After Pope John Paul I's sudden death less than a month later, the new pope, John Paul II, opted to continue with John Paul I's precedent of replacing the papal coronation with a modest inauguration.

With the disappearance of the papal coronation, the British monarch is now the only monarch to receive a coronation. All others, like modern popes, are inaugurated into office. However, a future pope could decide to be crowned and wear one of the Triple Tiaras: the recent increased usage of some traditional elements, most notably the Tridentine Mass, which in an about turn is now being approved for usage more widely5, might open up the prospect of a return of the papal symbol pre-Second Vatican Council.

Though unworn, the tiara remains the symbol of the papacy, and still features on the coat of arms of popes, including the uncrowned popes John Paul I and John Paul II.

One of the papal tiaras remains in use, however, as is placed on the head of a statue of St. Peter to honor him as the first pope on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29.

Tiara envy

The 16th Century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is known to have commissioned Italian craftsmen to make a 5-crown tiara modeled on the Papal design, to demonstrate that his power and authority exceeded that of the Pontiff's.

List of Papal Tiaras still in existence

See also


Note 1: Some accounts of the papal tiara call it the Triregno, others the triregnum. The Holy See's press office uses the latter name.

Note 2: Designed by Ambrogio Foppa with a massive cost of 200,000 ducats, one third of the papacy's annual income, at a time when a parish priest was paid 25 ducats a year.

Note 3: James-Charles Noonan, The Church Visible, (ISBN 0670867454)

Note 4: Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical on the Book of Revelation (published in 1865 by the Seventh Day Adventists)

Note 5: After decades of active prohibition, the Vatican in the late 1990s and early 2000s facilitated the usage of the pre-Vatican II Latin Tridentine Rite of Mass, which previously had only been allowed in limited cases to small congregations in exceptional circumstances. A full Pontifical High Mass celebrated by a cardinal and attended by Cardinal O'Connor of New York, occurred for the first time in 30 years in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York at the end of the twentieth century while Tridentine Masses have been allowed (though not yet on the main altar) in St. Peter's Basilica, an act facilitated by the retirement of Cardinal Noe, who had been the prelate who championed the abandonment of the papal tiara and who designed the replacement inauguration ceremony. Most dramatically of all, it was revealed in 2002 that Pope John Paul II had on occasion celebrated the traditional Latin Mass in his private chapel in the Vatican, rather than the Novus Ordo Missae vernacular Mass introduced by Pope Paul VI.

Additional Reading

Coat of Arms of Pope John Paul I: The tiara is used on the Arms even though he was uncrowned.
Coat of Arms of Pope John Paul I: The tiara is used on the Arms even though he was uncrowned.
  • Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of our Time (Transworld, 1996) (ISBN 0385405383)
  • John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999) (ISBN 0670876208)
  • John Cornwell, A Thief in the Night: The Death of Pope John Paul I (Harmondsworth, 1990)
  • R. de Cesare, The Last Days of Papal Rome 1850-1870 (London, 1909)
  • R. Davis (ed) The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis) (Liverpool 1989)
  • Eamon Duffy, Saint & Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene, 2002) (ISBN 0300091656)
  • Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution (Palgrave) (ISBN 0333601394)
  • E.E.Y. Hales, Pio Nono (Londom, 1954)
  • Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI (London, 1993)
  • Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London, 1984)
  • Peter Hebblethwaite, The Year of Three Popes (London, 1978)
  • Dean Hobsworth From True Cross to True Crown: Papalism and Its Evils (1884)
  • P. Levillain, Dictionnaire Historique de la Papaute (Paris, 1994)
  • F Neilson, The History of the Papacy in the XIXth Century (London, 1906) Vol.I
  • James-Charles Noonan, The Church Visible, (ISBN 0670867454)
  • George Rude Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815 (Fontana History of Europe series) (ISBN 0006321259)
  • Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical on the Book of Revelation (published in 1865 by the Seventh-day Adventists)
  • Jefferson Smithe, Roman Catholic Ritual (London, 1902)
  • David Willey, God's Politician: John Paul at the Vatican (Faber & Faber, London, 1992) (ISBN 0571161804)
  • David Yallop, In God's Name: An investigation into the murder of Pope John Paul I (Corgi, 1985) (ISBN 0522126403)

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 05:21:13
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04