Papal Miter of John XXII


In some Christian denominations, the miter is the ceremonial headdress, with its bicuspid and elongated design, worn by bishops during liturgical celebrations. In particular, the miter of the Latin rite is formed by two pieces of rigid cloth shaped approximately like a pentagon. They are partially united on the lateral side in a way that allows the highest point to be free and the lower parts to form the opening to be worn on the head. The two peaks are symbolic of the authority which arises from the Old and New Testaments. The miter also has two cloth ribbons or banners that descend from the back to the shoulders. The present example, known as the “Miter of John XXII,” was discovered in Avignon in the Pontiff’s tomb. The inscription on the frame which once enclosed it between glass, transcribed by De Rossi at the end of the 1800’s read, “Miter of John Paul XXII, found in Avignon in his tomb, year 1759;” and by adding the words “Munificent PII VI Pont. Max,” we find an allusion to the generosity of the Pope for this gift.
The miter is a trapezoidal shaped hat, with decorations of birds and quadrupeds alternating between palms designs. Parrots with a raised claw are posed amongst a large palm and vines.
They have turned heads and wings decorated with circles. The treelike forms have instead a double border and, within the oval half, more imagery of leaves and palms. The shape of the miter corresponds to the other similar items of the late 13th century and early 14th, such as miters from the Anagni treasury. The fabric itself comes from a particular form of silk named “di Lucca,” defined in the Middle Ages as “diasprum.” It is a medieval term for a patterned silk weave in which the pattern and ground are distinguished by texture rather than color.
The papacy of John XXII was anything but dull. Jacques Duèze (or d’Euze) was born in 1243 in Cahors in south-central France. He later became bishop of Fréjus (1300), and simultaneously of Avignon (1310). He was named cardinal in Porto in 1312 by Pope Clement V, and after Clement V’s death, succeeded his appointer as Pope himself, taking the name John XXII on August 7, 1316. He ruled for 18 and a half years, widely considered the most important amongst the Avignon Popes. His views on spirituality faced controversy, as he opposed the absolute poverty of Christ according to the Franciscan understanding, and at a time argued that souls may not enjoy the Beatific Vision in heaven. For this reason, Pope John XXII is obliquely yet recognizably represented in Dante’s critical portrait of him as someone contrary to the apostolic ideal in his Paradise (XVIII, 130-136 and XXVII, 58-59). The Pope declared he never meant to teach in contradiction to Holy Scripture and actually withdrew his former opinion before his death.  This austere Pope of great character, strength, and tenacity died on December 4, 1334.