It was 54 years ago, on Nov. 13, 1964, when the pope last wore a crown.
During the third session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), just about a week before the council released its great document on the church (Lumen gentium, Latin for “Light of the Nations”), there was a council Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. After Mass (celebrated in the Byzantine rite), St. Paul VI (canonized on Oct. 14, 2018) came down from his throne to the altar. There, he removed the papal tiara and placed it on the altar. He never wore it again and later asked that it be auctioned off with the proceeds given to the poor.
Since then, no pope has worn a papal tiara. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI even had its image removed from his coat of arms. Pope Francis did not use a tiara on his coat of arms, choosing instead to show a bishop’s mitre. (The tiara does remain on the coat of arms of the Vatican City State and on the Vatican flag.)
The tiara is a beehive-shaped crown adorned with three diadems around a central core. The diadems give the crown its name: triregno. Every year, on the feasts of the Chair of Peter (Feb. 22) of SS. Peter and Paul (June 29) and of the Dedication of the Basilicas of the Apostles Peter and Paul (Nov. 18), the statue of St. Peter Enthroned in his namesake basilica is crowned with a papal tiara.
Of course, the first pope never wore a crown, much less a triregno. The papal tiara developed gradually. The first official head covering worn by popes seems to have been a cap called a camelaucum (camel skin hat) that resembled head covering in the Byzantine court. It is noted by the 8th century in a written work about the life of Pope Constantine (708-15). There is some artwork depicting earlier popes wearing a similar head covering.
A single diadem — a true crown — was added to this cap in the early 12th century by Pope Paschal II. The Vatican Press Office notes that a second crown was added during the reign of Pope Boniface VIII in the early 14th century, with the third added by 1314. This was during the time of the Avignon Papacy (1309-75), when seven popes in succession resided in France; the first was Pope Boniface who had been arrested by King Philip IV of France. Boniface’s successor, Pope Clement V, refused to move back to Rome.
The papal tiara also had two caudae, or bands of fabric, that hung down the back — similar to a mitre. The tiaras were often topped with a cross and globe to symbolize both spiritual and temporal power.
The triregno’s three crowns have been given various meanings over the centuries. The most recurrent has been to symbolize the pope’s power in the universal, spiritual, temporal authority. Today, it is more common to attribute the three crowns as symbols of the three states of the church: militant (those on earth), suffering (those in purgatory) and glorious (those in heaven).
During these earlier times, the pope was a true governmental ruler. He headed the Papal States, which were a series of territories along the Italian peninsula. The pope ruled these as a de facto king from the 8th century (thanks to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne) until 1870, when the Kingdom of Italy took over the last of them. The Lateran Treaty of 1929, signed by Benito Mussolini, for Italy, and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, for Pope Pius XI, created today’s independent Vatican City State, completely within the country of Italy.
The use of the tiara continued until St. Paul VI.
Various papal tiaras still exist, including the one St. Paul VI donated. That now rests in museum at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
And, of course, new papal tiaras continue to be made — even though the popes don’t wear them.
For example, Pope Benedict XVI received one from visiting German pilgrims in May of 2011. In 2016, Pope Francis also received a tiara from the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia. It had been made by the nuns of the Rajcica (Orthodox) Monastery of St. George Victorius. These, as with most valuable gifts given to the popes, go to the Vatican Museums.
Sources: Catholic News Agency, lastamp.it; press office at vatican.va; the Arlington Catholic Herald; Our Sunday Visitor; archives of The New York Times; unamsanctumcatholicam.blogspot.com; and the Catholic Encyclopedia