The History and Development of the Mitre

The mitre is one of the most recognizable symbols of prelates of the Church, specifically of bishops up to the Roman pontiff himself -- though, traditionally, it must be noted that it was also utilized as a special privilege given to certain minor prelates such as select cathedral canons, abbots and some others. What some many not be familiar with however is how the mitre was not originally used liturgically and how, like the chasuble itself, it has been subject to development throughout its history -- but whereas the chasuble decreased in its proportions, the mitre increased. 

A Brief History of its Origins and Use

The mitre as we know it today is something that has mainly found definitive expression from about the tenth century onward -- thought some would suggest an earlier use than this. Regardless, what we know for certain is that its use was seen in Rome by the middle of the 900's, and about a century after that it was found in general throughout the Christian West. 

From this period forward, the mitre was used liturgically, but prior to this, the mitre was actually not of liturgical use but was rather an outdoor, non-liturgical head covering worn by the Roman pontiff called the camelaucum -- worn at least as early as the eighth century by Pope Constantine (+815) though possibly earlier. This garment was made of white and given a shape akin to a cone (and if one is also thinking now of the proximity here to the papal tiara, you wouldn't be incorrect).

Originally the camelaucum was worn by the pontiff during solemn processions, however by the tenth century this was extended to include the liturgy proper inside the churches. From there its use would expand from the Roman pontiff to the cardinals and eventually other prelates, including abbots and the like. 

Development of Form

The earliest form of the mitre amounted to a soft cap which frequently contained an ornamental band, called the circulus, at its base. By the 1100's  the mitre took a curved, rounded shape, which in some cases saw a depression in the middle. 

By about the year 1125 this general shape developed into formalized 'horns' called cornua which terminated in stiffened points.  
It was after this point that the mitre developed in such a way that it took an appearance similar to that which we are familiar with today. Effectively it was the same form, but turned sideways in such a direction that the points, or cornua, where now no longer on the sides but rather on the front and back.

By 1150 we see the lappets of the mitre -- what looks akin to two small stoles hanging from the back of the mitre,-- and it also included an ornamental vertical band, called the titulus, in addition the horizontal one at the base, the aforementioned circulus

Halberstadt Mitre, 13th century

Over time, the mitre would gradually grow in height and width, the apex of which was to be found in the baroque period. 

We should add that the earliest forms of these mitres were made of linen. By the thirteenth century silk was more common.  The ornamentation of mitres with embroidery, precious stones and even painting, was common from its earliest medieval use -- as seen, for example, in the Halberstadt mitre shown in this article.

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