In the coat of arms of the Vatican, we see, on a field of gules, two crossed keys tied with a cord; one is made of gold and the other of silver, and they represent the dual power, spiritual and earthly, of the Church. But what interests us here is the element above them: the papal tiara, a triple crown worn by the new pontiffs after their election. Twenty-two tiaras are preserved, and probably the most peculiar of them all is known as the papier-mâché tiara, because it is made of that material and has a unique history behind it.

The design of tiaras varied a bit since their establishment in the year 1143 (although the first mention appears in the Vita of Pope Constantine in the Liber Pontificalis in the 8th century). The current form of three superimposed crowns around a cone, called the trirregnum, was introduced during the Avignon papacy (14th century) and seems to be based on the Phrygian cap, like the episcopal mitre.

The growing power of the Church at that time led to the addition of precious inlays and noble metals to the tiaras, so that their wearer would be equated with a prince (which he was, in fact, ruling over the Papal States).

The oldest one preserved is that of Gregory XIII, whose pontificate extended from 1572 to 1585. The previous ones – and others later until the 19th century – were lost in the looting carried out by Napoleon’s troops, then still in the service of the French Directory, when they invaded Italy.

Napoleon legally looted as much heritage as he could from the countries he subdued with the idea of ​​enriching the collections of the museum that the French Revolution had created in the Louvre Palace.

For that reason, with the Papal States occupied, the conclave gathered to choose a new pope after the death of Pius VI had to be held outside of Rome, in Venice, a city chosen because it provided the largest number of cardinals. Like almost all – with extreme cases like the one in Viterbo in 1268-71 – it was a difficult process, which began on November 30, 1799, and did not end until March 14, 1800, due to the lack of agreement among the thirty-five cardinals and because one of them, the commissioner of the Holy Roman Empire – whose titular, Francis II, covered the expenses – had the right to veto the final decision and exercised it twice.

Finally, given the impossibility of one of the two favorite candidates coming out, a third way was chosen in the person of the Romagnol Barnaba Chiaramonti, a Benedictine monk who was the bishop of Imola and chose the name Pius VII.

There were problems, as three years earlier he had given a conciliatory Christmas homily in which he said that one could be a good Christian and a democrat at the same time, which led Napoleon to label him a Jacobin; in addition, the Austrians prohibited him from being crowned in the Basilica of San Marco, resentful for not being able to impose their favorite.

The ceremony took place, therefore, in a small chapel attached to the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, in whose winter choir the conclave had taken place. And then another setback occurred: among other treasures, the French soldiers had taken the tiaras, and there was none to cover the head of the new pontiff.

It was necessary to quickly commission the making of one of papier-mâché (paper paste, an ancient technique imported from the Far East that would allow obtaining a lightweight piece much faster than working with goldsmithing).

Covered with silver fabric and adorned with jewels and gems donated by ladies of the Venetian aristocracy, the tiara fulfilled its function of crowning Pius VII. It was not expected to have much more life, given its characteristics, but circumstances changed that.

First of all, the Pope had to leave Venice because Napoleon also annexed the Veneto after his brilliant victory at Marengo. However, the French leader recognized his legitimacy and allowed him to return to Rome, perhaps remembering the famous homily and satisfied that Pius VII declared himself neutral.

However, upon arriving in the City, the Pope found the coffers empty and the riches of the Church plundered, mostly by the French but also by the Neapolitans.

So, the papier-mâché tiara unexpectedly gained a couple more decades of life – as that pontificate lasted until 1823 – even after it was discovered that Gregory XIII’s tiara had managed to escape plunder. However, that does not mean it was the only one that the Holy See would have.

And it is that, on the occasion of his coronation as emperor in 1804, Bonaparte made an unusual gift to the Pope: a sumptuous tiara that he commissioned from the jewelers Henri Auguste and Marie-Étienne Nitot, from the prestigious Chaumet Jewelry, made with some of the jewels stolen some time ago.

There was a small trick, though: it was intentionally made too small and heavy – five times more – to wear, since one thing was for the Pope to be present at the ceremony and another to take the spotlight away from the emperor, who made sure of it doubly by snatching the imperial crown from his hands and self-crowning.

Its presence can be seen in the painting that Jacques-Louis David painted on the subject in 1807. Nevertheless, Pius IX wore it at his coronation (in 1846), after modification to adapt it for various aspects (lightening, replacing the names of the Napoleonic victories inscribed on it with Bible verses…).

Before that, there were two other popes, Leo XII and Pius VIII, who had a third option: a silver tiara that was made in 1820 to, in principle, replace the papier-mâché one. As we saw, it was not done.

In 1834, Gregory XVI considered it inappropriate for the Vicar of Christ to use one made of such modest material and crowned himself with a new tiara, made of silver and with diamonds embedded. Nevertheless, his successor, Pius IX, used to resort to the papier-mâché one for various events since it was a poor but also more comfortable ornament to wear on the head, especially if he had to do it for a long time, ensuring that the public was at a distance that could not appreciate the details. However, this Pope commissioned another much more luxurious tiara in 1854, which had thousands of diamonds and precious stones.

In this way, the papier-mâché one was definitively retired; after all, techniques advanced and allowed them to be made lighter. The list of tiaras continued to expand with commissions, donations, and gifts from popes themselves, kings, emperors, municipalities, wealthy Catholics, etc.

Some were used, and others were not, with Paul VI being the last to wear one, back in 1963. From then on, the popes opted for the mitre, which ironically is made with such sober and cheap materials as cardboard, fabric, and… papier-mâché.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 19, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando el papa tuvo que coronarse con una tiara hecha de papel maché, porque Napoleón se había llevado las de oro y plata


Joseph Braun, Tiara (en The Catholic Encyclopedia) | John-Peter Pham, Heirs of the Fisherman. Behind the scenes of Papal death and succession | Rodri Mardsen, Rhodri Marsden’s interesting objects: Pope Pius VII’s paper crown | Wikipedia

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