The Penitential Symbolism of the Train and Cappa Magna

In today’s day and age, whenever one comes upon images of prelates using the Cappa Magna, the comments will commonly include words like luxury, pomp, magnificence, dignity, vanity… It seems that in our common imagination extra long pieces of clothing have become a symbol of high status. This perception is of course true, but only in part. Indeed, fabric has been, until recently, a very precious material, and the displaying a superabundance of it was often considered a sign of status and wealth. In this article, however, I would like to explore the deeper symbolic meaning associated with the train: an expression of mourning, grief, and penance.

The Funeral Procession for emperor Charles V. King Phillip II, chief mourner.
The use of black today as the color of mourning in western cultures dates back at least to the Roman empire. Citizens would wear the toga pulla, a black, dark, or dirty toga, in this last case, and presumably in its origins, soiled from dragging on the ground. Indeed, abstaining from washing or wearing clean clothes is a very extended external sign of mourning.

The apparition of the train in liturgical and ceremonial use takes place during the middle ages. Beyond de sumptuary use, reserved to kings and princes, it is also found as part of mourning dress. Context is important, and one might consider that wearing a train in a nicely swept palace would be very different from dragging one through unpaved streets with open sewage.

Lay Use

Contemporary depictions of funerary processions show the mourners all dressed in black, wearing cloaks with long trains. Furthermore, the figure of the Chief Mourner, wears the longest train and commonly covered head. The symbolism is quite self-evident- the longer the train, the bigger the pain.

This strong symbolism would soon be adopted by laymen engaged in public penance, as a representation both of one’s guilt and, in the context of Holy Week, as part of Christ’s own funeral committee. Instances of the continued use of the train by laypeople, both men and women can still be found in Spain, Italy, the Americas and perhaps elsewhere.

Penitents in Cuenca, Spain. 1940.
 Dramatic photograph by José Ortiz Echagüe.

The procession of the Pie Donne of Varallo, Italy
Picture by the Diocese of Novara

18th century engraving of the Palm Sunday Procession in Barcelona, Spain.
Note that the penitents were forbidden from wearing face coverings during this period.

Good Friday procession in Olivares (Seville). The penitents wear unfurled and pleated trains.
Picture by Fernando Garcia.

Clerical Use

According to the 16th century scholar Francesco Torrigio, the introduction of the train in the vesture of cardinals and prelates seems to date back to the pontificate of Nicholas III. The ceremonial usage in the Papal Court if likely the best guide for its symbolic interpretation. The Cappa Magna was prescribed for cardinals during the celebrations of the Papal Chapel. However, it was worn with the train gathered under one arm, except on certain occasions. During the adoration of the Cross, the cardinals would process barefoot, dragging their trains behind before prostrating themselves.

Liturgy of the Presanctified in the Sistine chapel.
The college of Cardinales with unfurled cappas precede the celebrant and the Pope, under the canopy, who carries the Most Blessed Sacrament back from the Pauline Chapel.

St Charles Borromeo carries the relic of the Holy Nail in procession against the plague in 1576. Both the Saint and the Canons drag the cappa in sign of penance.
Painting by Gian Battista della Rovere, Duomo of Milan.

A little known fact is that the Pope himself used the Cappa, albeit on very few but significant occasions: for the prayer of the Matutinum of Christmas, Tenebrae and the Office of the Dead. The pope used two additional oversized items of vesture: the Falda and the Mantum. On this subject believe that I could never top Fr Athanasius McVay’s beautiful words:

As Celebrant (especially if a bishop), you are not meant "to move" at liturgical functions. You are led by others as hodie Christus, as the victim to sacrifice. The bishop is the sacramental personification of Christ the High Priest. Nothing that happens at the liturgy is functional.

The use of the unfurled cappa and train during public manifestations of penance by the clergy is well attested, its symbolism clear: the priest drags behind him the sins of the people. While some traditions have been extinguished in the last few decades, some have retained them, such as the cathedral chapters that still today celebrate the ceremony of the Seña.

Holy Friday procession in Paternò, Sicily. Canons wearing the cappa magna. 

Quito Cathedral, the Seña on Spy Wednesday.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.