What’s that on bishop’s head?

Bishops wear various head coverings on various occasions

A bishop’s miter in stained glass. The image also show the fiocchi, the tassels that hang down from the back of a miter. (Bigstock.com)

Sometimes people ask about “the beanie” a bishop wears: what it’s called and why he wears it.

Any woman who went to a Catholic school, at least a few years ago, will laugh at the question because, for many years, we had to wear a “beanie” at Mass. The two aren’t the same.

The small, round head covering, like a skull cap, that bishops wear at Mass — except during the eucharistic prayer and the consecration — is called a zucchetto. Bishops wear purple ones — actually a reddish-purple color called “amaranth red.” In earlier times, the bishop’s zucchetto was green, but that changed in the 16th century. You can still see that history in the green used on a bishop’s coat of arms. Cardinals wear red zucchetti and the pope wears a white one.

The word “zucchetto” comes from an Italian word zucha meaning “gourd” or from the Latin zucca for “pumpkin.” It is also, less often, called a calotte or a pileolus. It is a form of a beret, and while it looks like a Jewish kippah or yarmulke, it did not originate in the same way as those head coverings.

The zucchetto’s origin as a liturgical vestment came about in a way much like the advent of other vestments: as a practicality. It began as a head covering that kept the cold off the tonsure of a priest or bishop. A tonsure was a shaved part of the head, done to show one’s commitment to religious life. Some religious orders still use the tonsure as a sign of humility and submission to God’s will. (Think of pictures of St. Francis of Assisi.)

Later, the zucchetto developed a ceremonial use and that is why it is worn today. It is a sign of the rank of the bishop or cardinal. Technically, a priest could wear a black zucchetto, but that is not commonly done.

Zucchetti were originally made of wool and were larger than they are now. At one time, they were lined with chamois to help keep their shape. Today, they are made of silk, usually lined with cotton. They may also have a small strip of velvet inside to help them stay in place. Each zucchetto is formed from eight, equal-sized triangular pieces of cloth sewn together.

A zucchetto also has a small silk loop at the top. While this makes it easier to take on and off, church protocol expert John-Charles Noonan Jr. says that the loop is a remnant of the tuft found on a biretta, another head covering for priests not seen as often now.

During the Mass, the bishop wears the zucchetto under his miter.

A bishop’s miter is a taller head covering, made of two panels of stiffened cloth, connected by a band. It also has two lappets (trailers) down the back — symbolizing a bishop’s sanctifying power. (A bishop also has the powers of teaching, as chief teacher in his diocese, and of governance in church matters. Usually white in color (since white vestments symbolize Christ’s resurrection), a bishop’s miter is worn at all liturgical celebrations. It will often be decorated as well.

The word “miter” comes from a Greek word mitra, meaning a headband or turban. This head covering also started for a practical reason, in Asia Minor. There it, too, was a head covering among those living in Phrygia, a country which we find mentioned in Acts of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Phrygia is now part of Turkey.

Miters were not always worn by bishops — and probably started out as only a soft, round cap worn in Byzantine times. Historians cannot agree as to whether miters developed into the papal tiara (no longer used) or if that tiara was the basis for the miter. However, by the ninth century, all bishops wore some type of miter.

Unlike the zucchetto, miters do share history with our Jewish ancestors in faith. Aaron and his sons were instructed to wear miters as part of their priestly attire. Over that miter, they also wore a plate inscribed “sacred to the Lord” (Ex 28:36-38). However, there is no direct link between those ancient Jewish miters and the miters bishop wear today — one did not lead directly to the other.

Besides the miter, there is another head covering that bishops no longer wear today. It can, however, be seen on a bishop’s coat of arms. It is the ecclesial hat, called the galero or “pilgrim’s hat.” 

Bishop Ricken’s coat of arms, with the green galero, can be seen above his bishop’s chair in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay. The galero is red for cardinals and green for bishops. The cords and tassels (called fiocchi), hanging down both sides of the coat of arms, are the same color as the galero and vary in number: 15 for cardinals, 10 for archbishops and six for bishops.

The 13th anniversary of Bishop David Ricken’s installation as the bishop of Green Bay is Aug. 28.


Sources: “The Symbolism of Heraldry”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Vatican.va; catholicnews.com; Green Bay diocesan records; “The Church Visible”; aleteia.org; The Society of Catholic Priests at thescp.org; and etymology online at etymonline.com.