Paper Crown

03 21 pius viiOn this day in 1800, Barnaba Chiaramonti was crowned Pope Pius VII. Unusually, he was not crowned in Rome. Even more unusually, his papal tiara was made from papier-mâché. The problem was that the previous Pope had been stolen and his crown had been lost at the same time.

In 1789, the French Revolution had caused a great deal of trouble for his predecessor Pius VI. For a start his effigy had been burned outside the Palais Royal. Then, in 1790, all the lands and possessions of the Roman Catholic Church were sold off to the highest bidder and all religious orders were dissolved. The following year, he broke off diplomatic relations with France. When King Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, his daughter petitioned Rome to have him made a saint. Pius VI was all in favour, he saw the king as a martyr.

Napoleon saw the Pope as an enemy. In 1798 his troops entered Rome and demanded that he renounce his temporal authority. When he refused, they looted his residence, not even the doors were left in place. They also took him prisoner. Pius VI died in exile in 1799. Chiaramonti was made Pope in 1800, but the upheaval made a ceremony in Rome impossible. Also, there was no longer anything to crown him with. They would need to improvise. A new papal tiara was made from papier-mâché and, covered with silver cloth and jewels donated by the aristocratic ladies of Venice, it looked okay.

In 1804, Napoleon presented the Pope with a new tiara. It was partly made up from the bits of previous papal crown which the French had looted and smashed up. It’s hard to see at as anything but a snub. Your average papal triple crown weighed anywhere between 2 lb and 5lb. That sounds quite heavy for a hat, but the one Napoleon had made for Pius VII weighed 18 lb. Also it was too small, and it had inscriptions inside saying how great Napoleon was. The Pope never wore it. If you look at this painting of Napoleon arrogantly crowning himself Emperor, you can see Pius VII seated and someone behind him holding the crown.

03 21 coronation of napoleon detail

It is not surprising that, given the alternative, the Pope quite liked his paper crown. Even when he was given a new, silver one in 1820, he still preferred it. Other subsequent Popes liked it too. It was much more comfortable, especially during long ceremonies. Then, in 1834, Pope Gregory XVI had a new one made because he thought it was a bit demeaning for the Vicar of Christ to be wearing a paper crown. Though his successor, Pope Pius IX, dusted it off and wore it sometimes, when he thought no one would notice.

03 21 suleiman the magnificentThe triple crown was abandoned altogether in 1963 and while I was researching the paper crown, I started to wonder why the Pope ever wore a hat made out of three crowns in the first place. I couldn’t come up with a definitive answer. Papal headgear seems to have started out with only one crown in the ninth century, increased to two around the thirteenth century and then a hundred years later they added another. No one seems clear about what they represent but it’s a good job they stopped at three. I did find this rather splendid picture of Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent though. He had a four tiered crown made for himself, just to prove that he was more powerful than the Pope. He also added a large plume to the top and it seems very suitable for someone called ‘the Magnificent’. I don’t think he wore his either, he just kept it beside him while he was receiving important visitors.

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