The Last Tiara Used in a Papal Coronation (Made by Scuola Beato Angelico in Milan)

Recently while in Washington, D.C. for the 49th March for Life I was pleased to see once again the papal tiara of Paul VI.  This tiara was the last one that was used for the coronation of a pope.  I make a point to see it every time I am in DC not because I like this version, but because I like history.  My pastor Monsignor Richard Schuler related to me how he attended the outdoor papal coronation in 1963 where this tiara was first seen.  He watched the evening ceremony in St. Peter's Square from a window of the Vatican Curia overlooking Piazza Pio XII.  That was a time of great hope in the modern life of the Church.  See here and here for a glimpse of the lost solemnity of the ceremony of coronation.   

The tiara of Paul VI is on display in the crypt (Memorial Hall) of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where it has been kept since Feb. 6, 1968.

The tiara, de nos jours resembling something like a disarmed World War II artillery shell (the explosive projectile shot from a mortar casing), was made in 1963 by the Scuola Beato Angelico in Milan.  The futuristic design in streamline moderne was a severe indictment of the past.  The tiara used at previous papal coronations, called the Palatine tiara, was made in 1877 and certainly did not resemble military ordinance.  It was used for every papal coronation from 1877-1958 and was actually placed on the altar for the 1963 coronation.  

The Scuola obviously aimed for an innovative design with an aerodynamic emphasis, defined by curved form and long horizontal lines.  The finished product contributed to the development of a new visual identity for the papal tiara.  The mod version was deemed appropriate at the time, influenced by the atomic and space age (not to mention car culture and jets), a gift of the people of Milan to their Cardinal Archbishop who was elected pope on June 21, 1963.  Below is an image of the SBA students making the tiara in June '63.  

When John XXIII died of cancer on June 3rd, election of the Archbishop of Milan was not unexpected.  In less than a month the new tiara was hastily made.  The design is said to have been approved by the newly elected Pope himself. Who knew it would become "l'ultimo triregno indossato da un papa?"  

The coronation was held in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 1963, seen in a news video here.  Sadly, that was the last papal coronation.  The tiara was worn once in four months before the Pope renounced it on November 11, 1963, seen in a video here.  The media applauded the decision, to cut down regal splendor in a move to quell criticism of pomp in the Church.  The NYT reported on the event with a front-page spread on Nov. 14th.    

The tiara is a cone in shape that measures 16 inches high and is said to weigh 10 pounds.  It has 3 18-karat gold bands set with precious gems.  The golden gallery band at the bottom of the tiara is in the shape of a fleurs-de-lis lily crown, set with 24 elliptical oval-faceted aquamarines.  The ogive at the top is surmounted with a shining cross.  Two extra long silk infulae lappets trail down the back of the tiara, embroidered with the papal coat-of-arms, with gold threads holding 20 pearls.  Legend has it, the previous Pope, John XXIII, requested that his new tiara - given to him in 1959 - would be lightweight with half the number of jewels originally planned, with the savings donated to the poor.  His tiara is said to have weighted 2 pounds and he wore it along with the Palatine tiara and the tiara of Pius XI.  

From Wikipedia:

Paul VI did away with much of the regal splendor of the papacy. He was the last pope to date to be crowned on 30 June 1963; his successor Pope John Paul I substituted an inauguration for the papal coronation (which Paul had substantially modified, but which he left mandatory in his 1975 Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontefici Eligendo). At his coronation Paul wore a tiara that was a gift from the Archdiocese of Milan. At the end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, Paul VI descended the steps of the papal throne in St. Peter's Basilica  and ascended to the altar, on which he laid the tiara as a sign of the renunciation of human glory and power in keeping with the renewed spirit of the council. It was announced that the tiara would be sold and the money obtained would be given to charity.  The purchasers arranged for it to be displayed as a gift to American Catholics in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Cardinal Spellman, who rescued the tiara and kept it in Catholic hands, is depicted in the Cardinal's Palace in NYC upon his return with his new prize.  In later years tiaras were made as gifts for Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, seen here with other tiaras.  Needless to say, there are different interpretations of the crowns seen on the tiara.  They are said to symbolize the triple power of the Popes: Father of Kings, Governor of the World, and Vicar of Christ.  Another interpretation is the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant.      


When the tiara was made by the Scuola Beato Angelico, they aimed for it to be light weight -- it is said to be half the weight of the Palatine tiara.  The Scuola had a rich history, a school of liturgical arts founded in the Lombard capital in 1921 by Monsignor Giuseppe Polvara.  The school was an early expression of the Italian involvement in the liturgical movement during its beautiful interwar stage of development before modernist art became the unum necessarium.  

From the beginning the school has been a major force in Italy for the production of liturgical furnishings, the design and construction of new churches, and the restoration/enhancement of ecclesial architectural heritage.  A generation earlier in 1922 the Scuola also made the tiara for Pius XI, donated by the Archdiocese of Milan, decorated with some 2,000 precious inlaid stones. 

By the time the 1960s came around, the organization was at the forefront of the Church's "dialogue" with the modern arts, reflected in the tiara's Googie design.  Over the decades the school has built, restored, adapted, and deformed many new and old churches in Italy and abroad.  Further, hundreds of student artists have found their training here, including architects, sculptors, and painters.    

Today the Scuola Beato Angelico is a Foundation of Worship linked to the Diocese of Milan and chaired by an auxiliary bishop, the Most Rev. Luca Bressan.  It still promotes the training and study of Christian art, the production of art for the liturgy, and the restoration of local liturgical arts heritage. 

Let us hope and pray for a renewal, that the Scuola gets back to the important work of Blessed Schuster, producing only the finest of liturgical arts in the classical footprint.  Since the 1960's a faulty theological concept has prevailed, the conviction that the Vatican Council is the lens through which all liturgical arts, doctrine, and discipline must be reinterpreted and simplified.  

Many people saw the tiara when it was displayed at the 1964/1965 World's Fair in New York at the Vatican Pavilion.  It was placed there for the 1965 season, visited by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1965.

As a side note, some readers may be interested to know something of the "Knight Kadosh" ceremony of initiation for the 30th Degree of Scottish Rite Freemasons.  This is in part what the Wikipedia page has to say on the subject of this "secret" ceremony in relation to the papal tiara as reported from a reliable Catholic source:
"The 1918 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia stated that, in the ceremony in use in the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in the United States, purported to have been written by Albert Pike, the Papal tiara is trampled during the initiation."  

In 1997 a new copy was made of the original tiara, kept today at the Diocesan Museum in Brescia and recently displayed for public viewing, seen below in a recent temporary exhibit at the ADI Design Museum in Milan. It is similarly made with silver, satin, gold, diamonds, aquamarines, emeralds, and rubies.  

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