Welcome to: Why are you dressed like that? Part 5 – What is on your head? This is a series of entries motivated by a young girl who visited us at St Francis Church and said to me: Why are you dressed like that?
First, I invite you to Part 1 where you will you can read my disclaimer as to the accuracy of any assigned values to vestments. If you do not want to go to that entry, the disclaimer is also copied at the end of this installment.
In Part 4, I discussed the Chasuble – that poncho-like garment the priest wears when celebrating the Eucharist. In this installment, I will discuss the zucchetto and biretta.
The zucchetto is the small skullcap which is nearly identical to the yarmulke worn by those of the Jewish faith. It can be Black – priests and deacons, Purple – bishops, Red – Cardinals, or White – the Pope (those are the standards – other colors may be in use based on denominational norms).
The zucchetto traditionally covers the bald spot created when a priest was “tonsured” (meaning shaving the top of the head as part of his becoming a priest. The practice of tonsure is almost extinct at this point but many members of clergy continue to wear the zucchetto. When your priest wears the zucchetto, it is to be removed during the “Sanctus” (the part beginning Holy, Holy, Holy), when reverencing (bowing before) the Altar, while in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (the Eucharist), and during the veneration of / blessing with a relic of the True Cross.
Personally, I find the Biretta much more interesting. The biretta is a squarish cap with three or four “blades” (AKA “fins” and “horns”) and a pom. If the biretta has four blades it is a “doctoral biretta” and is intended to be worn in academic settings only. It will likely be piped with red and have a red pom. For all sacramental usages, the three-bladed biretta is the correct choice. As with the zucchetto, you will find birettas in a variety of colors – but much more variation than the zucchetto. All of the colors above and more plus variations in the colors of piping and poms (a partial explanation can be found here).
The biretta is easily mis-worn and your priest must take care that there is a blade facing front, back, and right side (leaving the left side without one).
A wonderful explanation of the biretta is provided by Charles Walker in The Ritual Reason Why.
The biretta is the non-episcopal form of the mitre, and both
signify the helmet of salvation and the glory of the Priesthood.
Additionally, the three blades of the biretta are taken by many to represent the Trinity – the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
There is also a Spanish version of the biretta known properly as the Bonete which has four horns and a pom. The bonete is also worn in a variety of color combination.
When considering the four horns of the bonete a good piece of symbolism to attach is the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Great Commission to carry the Gospel to the four corners of the Earth.
Pax et Bonum,
First a big disclaimer: You need to know up front that the majority (possibly all) vestments and other clerical wear got their start in something quite practical (such as keeping the priest warm in ancient churches without the benefit of modern HVAC systems). Once worn, however, various traditions of sacred symbolism have been assigned to the many different things worn. The next thing you need to know is that the various traditions of sacred symbolism are not all the same. You may find one person say a particular piece of vestiture means one thing when somebody else says it means another. It is not (necessarily) that one is wrong, and the other right (although possibly so) but that they are both “right” in that either explanation of sacred symbolism is a valid way of interpreting the item. In this series, over the next few days or weeks, you will learn the symbolism as I learned it. I encourage to read about vestments and their meanings and see what else other people have to say as well.