Although it is rarely if ever referred to as a hat, the Papal tiara certainly ranks among the world’s most valuable and elite headwear. It was worn by Popes of the Catholic Church from as early as the 8th century until the mid-20th century. It was last used by Pope Paul VI in 1963 and only at the beginning of his Papacy. The name tiara refers to the entire headpiece, no matter how many crowns, circlets or diadems have adorned it through the ages. The three-tiered form that it took in the 14th century is also called the triregnum or triple tiara. Although often referred to as the Papal Tiara, historically there have been many and twenty-two remain in existence. The value of such a collection makes one’s head spin, as some examples are priceless.
From 1143 to 1963, the Papal tiara was solemnly placed on the Pope’s head during a Papal coronation. The surviving tiaras are all in the triple form, the oldest dating to 1572. A representation of the triregnum combined with two crossed keys of Saint Peter continues to be used as a symbol of the Papacy and appears on Papal documents, buildings and insignia.
A circlet of linen or cloth of gold at the base of the tiara developed into a metal crown, which by about 1300 became two crowns. When the popes assumed temporal power in the Papal States, the base crown became decorated with jewels to resemble the crowns of princes. The second crown is said to have been added by Pope Boniface VIII as signifying both his spiritual and temporal power, since he declared that God had set him over kings and kingdoms. He also added some precious stones to the tiara. The final count included 72 large sapphires, 66 large pearls, 48 rubies, 45 emeralds, a lot of little rubies and emeralds and at the summit, an enormous ruby. The addition of a third crown is uncertain. It was one of Boniface’s successors, either Pope Benedict XI (1303–1304) or more likely, Pope Clement V (1305–1314). We know that much because when the tiara was listed in an inventory of the Papal treasury in 1316, it caused a quite a scandal. It seems that the enormous ruby Boniface VIII had added went missing!
When Pope Paul VI was crowned, a new tiara was used. It was donated by the city of Milan, where he was Archbishop before his election. It was not covered in jewels and precious gems and was sharply cone-shaped. It was also distinctly heavier than the Palatine Tiara previously in use. Near the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council in 1964, Paul VI descended the steps of the Papal throne in St. Peter’s Basilica and ascended to the altar, on which he laid the tiara as a sign of the renunciation of human glory and power in keeping with the renewed spirit of the council.
It was announced that the tiara would be sold and the money obtained would be given to charity. The tiara was purchased by Catholics in the United States and is now kept in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It is on permanent display in Memorial Hall.