The nineteenth-century American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was extraordinarily talented. His etched illustrations could cut themselves into your memory just as keenly as they cut the plates they originated from. He had a pen that could wound his pictured subjects like a knife. Unfortunately, his pen at times made stabs at the Catholic Church, manifesting the nativist bigotry prevalent at the time.
One of his most famous cartoons, “The American River Ganges,” shows an invasion. Denizens of a foreign power sinisterly lumber from the sea, advancing with a reptilian pace toward a defenseless American public.
These invaders are Catholic bishops, depicted as crocodiles crawling out of the water. The miters on their heads appear like great tooth-filled maws about to tear and swallow the country. The miter, a symbol of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, is made a symbol of terror by Nast. Indeed, the miter seems strange and even hostile to non-Catholics. They legitimately ask where it came from.
Throughout the centuries men have worn some form of headdress. News footage from the Middle East and Central Asia shows distinctive caps and turbans still being worn today. Fedoras are sported by leaders of the former Soviet Union. But in the west the wearing of hats, since the 1950s, has fallen out of fashion, except among orthodox Jews and the military.
In many cultures, at many times, the tall hat was a mark of special dignity. Because of its height, the tall hat showed the location of the chief dignitary at an assembly. (American presidents-elect wore top hats to their inaugurations as late as 1960.)
In the later Roman Empire secular dignitaries wore caps or crowns; there were variations designating ranks, functions, and social and religious standing. It isn’t difficult to imagine bishops acquiring distinctive apparel very early on.
The word miter (or mitre) in English is derived directly from the Greek and Latin word mitra, meaning crown. There are many uses in the Greek New Testament of mitra. We see in 2 Timothy 4:8 and 1 Peter 5:4 that on judgment day crowns will be awarded and in James 1:12 and Revelvation 2:10 that these crowns are a reward for perseverance.
The miter’s origins in the Church aren’t precisely clear, but we do know, from the New Testament itself, that men were wearing some sort of headdress, at times inappropriately, in the early Church. In 1 Corinthians 11:4 Paul says at prayer men are to remove their hats, a rubric that continues to this day. (Men remove their hats as they enter a church, and a bishop removes his miter when he prays at a liturgy).
If we look at pre-Christian times, we see crowns, headdresses, and turbans of various sorts described and prescribed. Speaking of the high priest, Exodus 29:6 and Leviticus 8:9 say, “Put the miter on his head” In Exodus 28:3-4 the Old Testament is emphatic on what a high priest is to wear: “[Y]ou shall give instructions to make such vestments for Aaron as will set him apart for his sacred service as my priest.” These vestments include a linen miter (Ex. 39:28).
The miter of a Catholic bishop may not be derived specifically from this, but it does recollect it. We see a continuity, not necessarily in style, but in meaning. The miter is a ceremonial headdress for prelates which only the pope, cardinals, and bishops (all of them “higher priests,” though not the High Priest) can wear.
There are a few mentions of miters among early Church writers. Tertullian, writing about 220 in his De corona, refers to crowned apostles, evangelists, and bishops. The apostles James and John were said to have worn a headdress like that of the high priests of the Old Testament.
Eusebius, in his History of the Church (III, 31), speaks about the apostle John and says “Again there is John, who leant back on the Lord’s breast, and who became a priest wearing the miter.” James appears to have worn a priest’s miter, according to Epiphanius and Hegesippus.
Although they mention the miter, early texts don’t give us any details on the design. The material of the miter and its shape were changeable. Different styles arose in different rites.
In the Latin Rite, the miter would become a large linen hat folded in the middle and producing two stiff peaks. Two lappets (sometimes called fannons) were attached at the back and at first probably derived from ribbons or strips of cloth sewn to the miter and the vestment’s back to prevent the miter from falling to the ground in a quick breeze.
The symbolism attached to this shape became elaborate. As a whole the miter was seen as a helmet of salvation (Eph. 6:17, Thess. 5:8). The two folded peaks symbolized the Old and the New Testaments, and the two lappets were reminders to keep both the spirit and letter of the Bible.
The Catholic Church is a visible church. Where the bishop is, there is the Church, and the miter makes the presence of the bishop clear. It’s a symbol of the episcopate, an enduring office instituted by Christ himself to teach, sanctify, and govern.
The miter symbolizes our belief in God’s promise: “Because you have kept my message of endurance, I will keep you safe in the time of trial that is going to come to the whole world to test the inhabitants of the Earth. I am coming quickly. Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may take your crown” (Rev. 3:10-11).
Today a pope who has twice “invaded” America conspicuously wears the miter, one of the marks of his office, but Thomas Nast’s pen is still and dull.