Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ask Tony: Where did the bishop's mitre come from?

Pope St. Gregory the Great w/ camelaucum
While I was traveling to Indianapolis, I missed my connector due to a flight delay and ended up spending the night in Denver. While I was there, I had breakfast with Bob and Jo Anderson, my buddy's parents and good friends of mine.

At one point, we got on the subject of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the ordinary of Denver. "That's something I've been meaning to ask you," Jo exclaimed. "You know those funny hats bishops wear—"

"Mitres," I supplied.

"Yeah. You know, Bob and I have always wanted to know where those came from."

Glad you asked, and here's your answer:

Pope Benedict XVI with mitre




The mitre probably stemmed from a cap worn by officials of the Eastern Roman Empire, the kamelaukion or camelaucum, which was itself an adaptation of a common cap of the Greco-Roman world, the Phrygian cap (frigium), a conical cap (see the picture of Pope St. Gregory the Great). But the word mitra doesn't actually show up until a papal bull issued by Leo IX in 1049.

According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), the peak of the camelaucum began to round off about 1100; then the cap began to show up with a depression running from forehead to the occiput similar to the one on a cowboy hat or a fedora, occasionally with a decorative band running down its center. The twin puffs this created eventually took on the appearance of horns. Then the horns eventually were oriented fore and aft. All in all, the transition occurred in about a century, although it didn't take place everywhere in the west at the same time. Finally, the peaks of the horns grew over the next few centuries, taking on its current shape probably in the last couple of centuries.

Eastern mitre (from catalogue-four views)
The mitre has two fringed bands, called infulae or lappets, hanging down in back. The origin of these bands isn't precisely known; there's some speculation that it refers back to the headband Greek runners used to wear, and suggested by the metaphor of the race St. Paul uses in 2 Timothy 4:7-8. However, this may be a retrojected explanation, so don't take it too seriously.

Not Catholic bishops!
The Latin-rite Church has three kinds of mitre: the mitra simplex, an ordinary white mitre with red fringes on the lappets; the mitra pretiosa, usually made of gold cloth, often with plenty of decorative stitching, very rarely with precious stones; and the mitra auriphrygiata, a white mitre with decorative bands, usually of gold or the appropriate liturgical color. The Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, also have a mitre; however, it more closely follows the shape of an Eastern crown. The Oriental Orthodox's mitre looks a bit like a turban.

 In the Catholic Church, the mitre is worn by bishops, cardinals and abbots only. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, a priest may be awarded the right to wear a mitre with the cross on its top lying flat rather than standing upright.

Of course, the larger mainstream Protestant churches also have bishops, who also wear the mitre. Unfortunately, like other vestments, the mitre is often decorated and colored with no sense of liturgical propriety; a site called Bad Vestments, run by an Anglican, is dedicated to outstanding examples of ecclesial bad taste, and is ecumenical in its ridicule.

There's a lesson in here for bloggers: You never know what ideas you may get and where you might get them. And for Christians: Had I not had the misfortune of having been delayed in my travel, I wouldn't have gotten to meet up with Bob and Jo, which in itself was a great blessing.

10 comments:

  1. Great post Anthony but I was also under the impression that the mitre symbolizes flames, that is, the Holy Ghost. Now I don't know where I got that from, have you found any record of that?

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  2. Didn't see it in either of the articles that served as my primary sources. That might be a case of retrojected symbolism, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

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  3. I believe in the recent book about the Sudarium of Ovieta, it was proposed that the origins of the mitre might be in the Sudarium-the cloth that wrapped Jesus' head in the tomb, which Peter used, wrapping the bloody cloth around his own head, and used it also to heal. This makes so much sense to me--I like to think it's true anyway!--have you ever worn a handkerchief scarf? I had one that had a quilted area in the front that gave it definition, and when the wind blows--it puffs up looking exactly like a mitre. There are even the pieces of cloth hanging in the back where you tied it. I can picture St. Peter going about with the Sudarium on his head, and how it looked in a wind.....love this interpretation!

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  5. In Kerala, India, we have a Rite called Syro Malankara Catholic Rite. Their bishops wear a different headwear. It is just a headshaped black cloth with few pictures of cross imposed on it

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  6. @ K.C. Thomas: Thanks for the additional information! If you've got a picture of it, I can add it to the post.

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  7. @ dachsiemama: I can't say I've ever worn a scarf ... not while conscious, anyway. Just not into the metrosexual look. :^)=)

    My sources didn't even bring up the Sudarium of Oviedo, and I don't think it's really probable, since that particular cloth—if it's what it purports to be—went over Our Lord's face; other sources suggest the soudarion was used to tie the jaw shut, which would have meant the cloth went under the jaw from the top of the head, rather than from forehead to occiput. The kamelaukion, on the other hand, seems to have been inspired by a combination of the Phrygian hat and the old Greek diadem, which was a simple band tied around the head in the same manner as the Japanese hashimaki you see in karate films, and which was worn by the Ptolemaic kings of Alexander's empire.

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  8. I'm sorry, what did Jesus wear?

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  9. @ trebert: According to Answers.com, "The simple clothing of a person in the first century was a loin cloth, covered by one or more body-length tunics, the outer cloak, a girdle acting as a belt, a head covering and sandals. The "tunic" (chiton) was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. The cloak (himation) was the outer robe, which was an indispensable piece of clothing." As Jesus was Jewish, I presume he wore a tallith, and prayed with phylacteries. The only other thing we know he wore was a crown of thorns.

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