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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 up to and including Pope Paul VI, who was crowned in 1963. Though not worn by either of Pope Paul's successors, Popes John Paul I and John Paul II it remains the symbol of the papacy and the Holy See, featuring in the coat of arms of the Vatican and on many papal coats of arms. It remains possible that the next pope or any of his successors could decide to reinstate the use of the Papal Tiara for ceremonial use.

Table of contents

Shape of the Triple Tiara

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 'clovers' 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 photographs) 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, the most unusual was the final tiara 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.

Meaning of the Triple Tiara

Pope Pius XI (1922-1939)
wearing what appears to be
the 1871 Belgian Triple Tiara of
Pope Pius IX
Quite 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 Noonan2 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. Though a powerful symbol of the papacy, it has not always been respected even by its wearers. One mediæval pope, Innocent VIII even pawned his papal tiara.


The Triple Tiara was not used for liturgical ceremonial, such the 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 papal sedan 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 a pope-mobile[?] 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).

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)
wearing a Tiara often associated with Pope Leo XIII
Undoubtedly the most famous occasion when the triple tiara was used was the Papal Coronation, when, in a six hour long 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.

Not just one 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 II - designed by Ambrogio Foppa[?] - and Pope Saint Silvester) were destroyed, dismantled or seized by invaders (in particular by Napoleon's army in 1798), or by popes themselves; Pope Clement VII had all the tiaras and papal regelia melted down in 1527 to prevent their capture by the army of Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. However eleven triregnos exist, 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 Napoleon I of France (from elements of former papal tiaras destroyed by his soldiers), Queen Isabella II of Spain and the King of Belgium. Others were provided to a newly elected pope by the See which they had held prior to their election. In some instances, various cities sought to outdo each other in the beauty, value and size of the Triple Tiara 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.

The Papal Tiara and the '666' Myth

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958)
wearing the 1877 Triple Tiara
Seventh-day Adventists claim it
contains Vicarius Filii Dei on it
One common myth surrounding the papal tiara, particularly coming from Seventh-day Adventists, involves the claim that the words Vicarius Filii Dei exist on the side of one of the tiaras. The myth centres on the widely made claim that, when numerised (ie, when those letters in the 'title' that have roman numeral value are added together) they produce the number '666', described in the Book of Revelations as the number of the Antichrist (whom some have claimed would 'wear' a crown similar to a triple tiara). This claim has been made by some fundamentalist protestant sects who believe that the pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church is the antichrist.

Four definitive sources are sometimes given.

  1. A protestant woman visiting Rome said she witnessed Pope Gregory XVI wearing a crown with the words on it, in or around 1832; 3
  2. Pope Gregory XVI had worn a papal tiara with these words clearly visible on it at a Pontifical High Mass during Easter 1845;
  3. The 'existence' of a photograph of a papal funeral at the start of the twentieth century (which probably means the funeral of Pope Leo XIII in 1903 but could possibly be Pope Pius X's in 1914) showing the words on a papal tiara.
  4. The tiara (with the words mentioned) is always used to crown popes, but specifically was used in 1939 to crown Eugenio Pacelli as Pope Pius XII.

The claim is demonstrably false.

  • Whether or not the numerised total of the letters in Vicarius Filii Dei produce the total '666' is irrelevant because no such title actually exists for the papacy or the Holy See. While the words did feature in the Donation of Constantine (now known to be a forged document) they referred to St. Peter not subsequent popes.

  • In 1832, only two tiaras existed; one from the sixteenth century and one, given by Napoleon I to Pope Pius VII in 1804. Neither contain writing.

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978)
wearing his Papal Tiara
  • Pope Gregory could not have worn a triple tiara containing the alleged words during Easter Mass in 1845, because, as has been mentioned, papal tiaras were not worn during religious ceremonial, most especially not during Mass.

  • By 1845 the pope had received a new tiara, which like the earlier two does not contain any writing. The picture of Pope Pius X above shows him wearing that tiara. Only one tiara has any major writing at all, the Belgian tiara of 1871 - shown above, being worn by Pope Pius XI - but it does not feature Vicarius Filii Dei or words even remotely similar. It reads Christi Vicario in Terra Regum, with the words spread out over three lairs. Only one word of the alleged writing appears in the actual words on the 1871 tiara, and even there the word is in a different grammatical case.

  • All of the tiaras in existence at the time of the creation of photography and hence in the timeframe for the mysterious 'photographic evidence' still exist and have been accounted for, through receipts, repair records, valuations, etc. No tiara other than those currently in existence has existed since the destruction of early Tiaras by Napoleon's soldiers at the beginning of nineteenth century.

  • Though the evidence supposed 'exists' in the form of a photograph, in nearly one hundred years no-one has been able to produce the photograph, or even give definitive evidence of its existence, such as stating where exactly it was published.

Coat of Arms of Pope Paul VI
Paul's distinctively shaped crown is clearly visible

  • While 'promoters' of the story constantly demand that the tiaras be 'released so that they can be inspected', that has in fact long been happening. One tiara is on public display in St. Peter's basilica itself on June 29th every year, where it is placed on the head of a statue of St. Peter. Pope Paul VI's tiara is on permanent display in Washington, DC. All the other tiaras have been displayed either separately or in groups, not just within the Vatican but even in the United States, where the 'story' first originated. They have also been displayed around Europe. Having been seen by large numbers, no-one has seen the words Vicarius Filii Dei on the side of a papal tiara, as is the claim.

  • There is not one Papal Tiara but many, with numerous ones being used for different popes, often with the decision on which one to use being decided on the basis of which one corresponded most closely to papal head size. Yet some websites promoting the myth speak of the same tiara always being used. Pictures on this page show Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII and Paul VI wearing the triregnos they were crowned with. They all used different crowns, contrary to claims on some Seventh-day Adventist websites.

  • The papal tiara used in the coronation of Pope Pius XII, which was explicitly stated in one Seventh-day Adventist website as being the tiara with the Vicarius Filii Dei words spelt out in jewellery and diamonds was in fact manufactured in 1877 and so could not have been the tiara with those words supposedly seen in 1832 or 1845. As Pope Pius XII's coronation was filmed and shown in cinemas around the world, had his papal tiara contained such words, they would have been captured by the camera and seen by millions worldwide in theatres. Even if the actual placing of the crown on Pius's head was not seen clearly from a distance by film cameras, photographers were allowed unprecedented access, being able to photograph the coronation from within a few feet of the Supreme Pontiff. Pius as a result was pictured from every angle up close. If lettering existed on Pius's crown, it could not but have been seen and pictured.

  • In the absence of any evidence of Vicarius Filii Dei on any papal crown, it has been suggested that it exists on a papal mitre[?]. Again the words do not appear on any of the vast number of mitres in existence in the Vatican. Furthermore, references have been made to a "triple tiered mitre". Mitres are not and never have been triple tiered. Only the papal crown is triple tiered.

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)
wearing his own Tiara
given by the people of Milan in 1958

  • Even if, contrary to all the evidence a triple tiara with those words on it did exist and had been photographed (presumably placed on the coffin of the late pope), in the absence of modern photographic technology or even zoom lens, with constant movement during the funeral ceremony and slow shutter speeds, the chances a camera being able from a distance (and given the restrictions imposed on photographers during a papal funeral, it would have to have been at a distance) to capture lettering on a tiara are remote in the extreme. (One of the websites 'claiming' such a photograph exists shows a photograph of a papal tiara placed on top of the glass-sided coffin of Pius X at his canonisation. Even in the 1950s when that picture was taken, the photographic technology was so poor neither the pope's remains nor the tiara could be clearly seen.)

The story seems to owe its modern origins to an inaccurately written story in an american Roman Catholic magazine, Our Catholic Visitor of November 15, 1914, in which the author erroniously referred to the mythical title. Others inside and outside Catholicism repeated the claim as fact, based on the article. The article was subsequently corrected twice in issues of the magazine published in September 1917 and August 1941. Historically, where this story first developed remains unclear. It did however spread, being accepted as 'fact' by catholics and non-catholics alike (though with each side attaching different meanings to it). Historians, academics and mainstream religious leaders view the story as a classic anti-catholic urban myth, a story for which not the slightest shred of evidence has been found, even by the Seventh Day Adventists who have spent over a century extensively searching for the evidence. 4

Pope Paul VI: The last Crowned Pope

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978)
Last papal coronation, 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 to earlier tiaras. It was not covered in jewels and precious gems, but was sharply cone-shaped. It was also distinctly lighter 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 and 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 Dominguez y Gomez, 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 what a 'new' 'papal tiara', showing the power of its symbolism. (See picture below). However not all self-proclaimed rival 'popes' have opted for a 'tiara'. Reverend Father Lucian Pulvermacher, OFM Cap., who was 'proclaimed' as 'Pope Pius XIII' in the United States in 1998, did not opt for a 'coronation', possibly because his 'church', unlike the Palmar de Troya movement, seems to lack the sort of major resources required to mount such a ceremony; only 28 of the 'faithful' attended the raising of the new 'pope', who had previously just been a priest, to the episcopy, at a ceremony held in a hotel ballroom. The new 'pope' instead took a papal Oath of Office. But his coat of arms does use the papal tiara image. (See image below)

Pope Paul's tiara was presented to the National Shrine of the Basilica 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 Final End to the Triple Tiara?

Pope John Paul II after his Inauguration
Around his neck he wears a lamb's wool pallium instead of a papal tiara. He controversially did not take the Papal Oath either

Coat of Arms of
Blessed John XXIII

In 1978, one of Pope John Paul I's first decisions on his election was to dispense with the millennium-old papal coronation and the use of a papal tiara. Though perhaps understandable, given Pope Paul's gesture a decade earlier (Paul VI never wore a Triple Tiara again) it still caused some surprise. Instead the new pope was installed in a new low key 'inauguration' ceremony, 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 low key inauguration. 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. With the disappearance of the papal coronation, the British Monarch now remains the only major monarch to receive a coronation.

Coat of Arms of Pope John Paul I (1978)
Tiara used on the Arms though he was uncrowned

All others, like modern popes, are inaugurated into office. Though a future pope could decide to be crowned and wear one of the Triple Tiaras, such a development seems unlikely, with the Papal Crown, like the crowns of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Spain, remaining an unworn symbol of their office, confined to a museum.

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

List of Papal Tiaras still in existence

Coat of Arms of
Pope John Paul II

See also:

Antipope Gregory XVII (1978-present)
wearing the specially produced 'triple tiara' with which his supporters crowned him in 1978 in Seville

Footnotes 1 Some accounts of the papal tiara call it the Triregno, others the triregnum. The Holy See's press office uses the latter name.
2 James-Charles Noonan, The Church Visible, (ISBN 0670867454)
3 Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical on the Book of Revelation (published in 1865 by the Seventh Day Adventists)
4The Seventist-day Adventist Church all but abandoned the search for the 'evidence' after years of fruitless searching, while never abandoning the belief that such a tiara with such a title existed. The search was resurrected when a member of the Church managed to get access to the original Our Catholic Visitor article, the article itself being treated as evidence that efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to 'supress' the truth had failed. Though no other evidence apart from one article in one magazine in 1914 (which subsequently stated twice that it had got its facts wrong) has ever been produced, the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues trying to prove both existence of such a papal title and of a tiara bearing the title. It also claims that all popes are crowned with the tiara with the words Vicarius Filii Dei on it. When a Roman Catholic Church denial was issued, it was suggested that the words might have appeared on some mitre rather than a crown, or on some crown deliberately hidden from view.

External links

Coat of Arms of Antipope Pius XIII
though 'Pope Pius' was not crowned, the tiara is used in his coat of arms

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