The History, Forms and Symbolism of the Crosier

The crosier -- sometimes written 'crozier' -- or "pastoral staff" is, alongside the mitre, one of the most recognizable and iconic symbols of prelacy in the Church.  It is a liturgical ornament that is a sign of authority and jurisdiction and today we wished to consider a bit of the history of this object.

Before we do so, it should be made clear that not every staff constitutes a crosier. For example, archbishops have the privilege of what is called the archiepiscopal or patriarchal cross which may be carried in procession before them. What is it? The archiepiscopal cross is a cross with two horizontal bars; one in addition to the usual one. It can be seen here in the opening of the Holy Door in Santiago de Compostela:

It is worth noting there is also a triple bar version associated with the Roman pontiff, though it is thought to mainly be of 19th century origins in practice:

As majestic as these are, they are neither a crosier nor a ferula and thus they not our focus today. They are symbols of high rank and are effectively processional crosses. The only time they were seen carried by the prelates or pope in question are at times like crossing the threshold of a Holy Door -- as seen above.

In terms of the crosier proper then, its origins are somewhat lost in the mists of time, however, references are made to it in liturgical use by at least the fifth century -- though it is quite possibly of earlier vintage than that of course. It is clearly and definitively mentioned by the year 633 during the Council of Toledo. 

The specific form of the crozier, much like the mitre and chasuble, has been subject to a certain amount of evolution and variation. There is the classic "crook" which remains the dominant design in the Latin rite. Basically we refer here to staff that is curved at the top akin to a shepherd's staff. Another form was that of the ferula which, instead of the curved top, had an orb which was surmounted by a cross. This, of course, is what we see popes carry today (the cross being larger than the orb in this usage) and we also see another form of the ferula carried by minor prelates such as canons and other senior clergy within the Ambrosian rite (though it must be noted that the Archbishop of Milan himself uses the crook form of crosier like other Latin-rite prelates). Here you can see the aforementioned orb surmounted by a smaller cross:

In terms of the Roman pontiff, it should be noted that the regular use of the ferula (considered by some to be a symbol of temporal rather than spiritual power), as seen in papal practice today is a novel development as formerly its use by a pope was quite constrained. This development of more frequent usage came about with Pope Paul VI. It is also worth noting that there is some debate about whether the pope has ever himself carried a crozier. Certainly Pope Innocent III (+1216) didn't think so, for he wrote quite emphatically that "the Roman pontiff does not use a pastoral staff for both a historical reason and a mystical reason."

In addition to these there is also the Byzantine version of the pastoral staff which is effectively a Tau cross. Later versions saw the horizontal bars twisted upward, instead of downward, into the form of two serpents -- likely coming with reference to the rod of Moses and Aaron which, as Sacred Scripture notes, were both miraculously turned into serpents (see Exodus 4:2-4 and Exodus 7:10-12) before being turned back into rods once again.

This serpentine theme was not distinct to the East it should be noted as it was also commonly seen in some medieval Latin crook forms of the crozier, with the crook itself terminating in the serpentine head:

There is some disagreement about which basic form is the earliest; crook or cross. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests the crook form is the earliest, while Archdale King, in The Liturgy of the Roman Church, assigns that honour to the tau-shaped crozier. 

In terms of the crook, just as the Tau form underwent stylistic developments, so too did the crook form. Versions from the Hiberno-Saxon tradition dated to around the 1100's show a rather simplified form of the crook, as for example seen here in the Lismore crosier dated to circa 1100:

Other examples coming from the same period and region show a similar design. (See for example the "Clonmacnoise Crozier" and "River Laune Crozier.")

Very frequently the earliest croziers were made of wood, then gilt or cased in gold or silver and ornamented by precious stones. Others were made of ivory or other precious materials such as ebony. Later centuries would see them made entirely of metal. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the design of the crook form of crozier also became more ornate, often seeing the centre of the crook filled up with imagery -- whether of saints, symbols or floriated designs. 

Crosier designs from the 1400's, 1600's and 1700's showing some of the stylistic variations on the ornamentation of the crook

If these are some of the various forms and styles that surround the crozier over the course of its history, what of its meaning and symbolism?

As noted at the beginning of this article, the crozier is ultimately a symbol of jurisdiction and authority and in this regard it is not difficult to understand why its use would extend beyond the college of bishops and also be granted to abbots and abbesses who had jurisdiction over their respective monastic communities. This symbolism comes out clearly in the prayer from the Pontificale Romanum when the crosier is handed to a newly consecrated bishop:

Receive the staff of Pastoral Office, and in the correction of vice be mercifully severe, exercising judgment without wrath, soothing the souls of thy hearers by encouraging virtue, and in time of tranquillity relaxing not the rule of severity.

Durandus, the medieval liturgist and allegorist, also speaks of how the episcopal staff is a symbol of the doctrinal and disciplinary power of bishops who, like a shepherd, confirms his sheep in the faith and leads back those who have gone astray back into the fold.  He further likens it to the rod of Moses as a symbol of their divine commission. 

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