Last updated

A traditional black biretta Biret.JPG
A traditional black biretta

The biretta (Latin : biretum, birretum) is a square cap with three or four peaks or horns, sometimes surmounted by a tuft. Traditionally the three-peaked biretta is worn by Roman Catholic clergy and some Anglican and Lutheran clergy. A four-peaked biretta is worn as academic dress (but not liturgically) by those holding a doctoral degree from a pontifical faculty or pontifical university or faculty. Occasionally the biretta is worn by advocates in law courts, for instance the advocates in the Channel Islands. [1]



The "Spanish version" of the biretta, from The Philippi Collection Bonete Sammlung Philippi.JPG
The "Spanish version" of the biretta, from The Philippi Collection

The origins of the biretta are uncertain. It is mentioned as early as the tenth century. One possible origin is the academic cap of the high Middle Ages, which was soft and square. This is also the ancestor of the modern mortarboard used today in secular universities. The biretta seems to have become a more widely used as an ecclesiastical vestment after the synod of Bergamo, 1311, ordered the clergy to wear the "bireta on their heads after the manner of laymen." [2] The tuft or pom sometimes seen on the biretta was added later; the earliest forms of the biretta did not bear the device.

Liturgical biretta

Catholic use

Cardinal Angelo Scola wearing a scarlet watered silk biretta AngeloScola.22-03-2009.jpg
Cardinal Angelo Scola wearing a scarlet watered silk biretta
Then-Archbishop Willem Jacobus Eijk (Utrecht) wearing an amaranth biretta Procession of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ-Bruges; nederlandse Bisschop 50.JPG
Then-Archbishop Willem Jacobus Eijk (Utrecht) wearing an amaranth biretta

The biretta may be used by all ranks of the Latin clergy cardinals and other bishops to priests, deacons, and even seminarians (who are not clergy, since they are not ordained). Those worn by cardinals are scarlet red and made of silk. After the Second Vatican Council the ceremony of giving the galero to cardinals was replaced with giving the biretta. The biretta of a bishop is amaranth in color, while those worn by priests, deacons, and seminarians are black. The pope does not make use of the biretta.

The Tridentine Roman Missal rubrics on low Mass require the priest to wear the biretta while proceeding to the altar, to hand it to the server on arrival and to resume it when leaving. [3] At solemn Mass the sacred ministers wear it also when seated. [4]


Cardinals bear no tuft or "pom" (they are given their birettas and zucchettos by the Pope who elevated them in a ceremony named a consistory – they will form a line, and kneel before him when receiving them), bishops bear a purple pom, priests who have been appointed as prelates to certain positions within the Vatican wear a black biretta with red pom, diocesan priests and deacons wear a black biretta with or without a black pom. It is often asserted that seminarians are only entitled to wear a biretta without a pom-pom, but there would seem to be no formal ruling on this point. Priests in monastic and mendicant religious orders that have their own habits (Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.) do not generally wear birettas: in most circumstances, even liturgical, the monastic hood took the place of the biretta. Canons Regular generally do—for instance the canons of the Order of Prémontré wear a white biretta. Clerks Regular (that is, post-Renaissance religious orders primarily dedicated to priestly ministry, for instance the Jesuits and Redemptorists) generally wear a black biretta with no tuft. Other priests who belong to various forms of community life, as the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri for instance, generally also wear birettas, but without a pom. The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest uses black birettas with a blue pom.

The liturgical biretta has three peaks (four peaks however are the norm in Germany and the Netherlands), with the "peak-less" corner worn on the left side of the head. According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia , "It was formerly the rule that a priest should always wear it in giving absolution in confession, and it is probable that the ancient usage which requires an English judge assume the 'black cap' in pronouncing sentence of death is of identical origin." [5]

The use of the biretta has not been abolished as a result of changes in the regulation of clerical dress and vesture following the Second Vatican Council and still remains the correct liturgical headgear for those in Holy Orders whilst "in choir", but its use has been made optional. Its use is prevalent among bishops and cardinals, and less so among other clergy. Some priests wear it during outdoor services such as burials or processions and, as is intended, during the celebration of Mass and other liturgical services. The biretta is also worn by a priest, deacon, subdeacon, and bishop in attendance at a Mass offered according to the rubrics for the Roman Missal of 1962.

Use by Anglicans

Birettas are also occasionally worn by Anglo-Catholic Anglican clergy, though is it generally considered a Romanism. Canons and deans could wear a black biretta with a red pom.

The Canterbury cap is of similar origin to the biretta, and, although seldom used since the early 20th century, has been considered a more authentically Anglican alternative to the biretta. The Canterbury cap has a soft, square top rather than the rigid horns that developed on the biretta.

Academic biretta

Spanish rector (college president) in full academic dress, wearing the round birrete (bireta) that is the academic cap in Spanish universities. Rector univ.jpg
Spanish rector (college president) in full academic dress, wearing the round birrete (bireta) that is the academic cap in Spanish universities.

Doctoral degrees

Use in medieval universities

In the medieval university, the ceremony by which a new master or doctor received his degree included the birretatio, or imposition of the biretta. This was often given with a token book in recognition of the person's scholarship. [6] The academic biretta developed into various styles of academic headgear on the European continent and in the British Isles. Today some secular universities still use the term, if not the actual biretta, to name their academic cap.

Use by pontifical universities

For those holding doctoral degrees from a pontifical university or faculty, whether ordained or lay, "the principal mark of a Doctor's dignity is the four horned biretta." [7] In commencement ceremonies and other academic settings, doctors of the four ecclesiastical disciplines (Philosophy, Theology, Canon Law, and Sacred Scriptures) from pontifical faculties and universities have a canonical right to wear the doctoral biretta as stated in the Codex Iuris Canonici, 1917, can. 1378, and explained in commentary 262 of the Commentarium Codicis Iuris Canonici as follows:

"262. Doctoratus ac Scentiae effectus canonici sic recensentur can. 1378...doctoribus seu gradum academicum in una ex quatuor supradictis facultatibus <<vide 261: philosophia, theologia, ius canonicum, Sacra Scriptura>> supremum obtinentibus, rite creatis, seu promotis regulariter post examen, iuxta "statuta a Sede Apostolica probata" (can. 1376, § 2) saltem quoad usum validum "facultatis ab eadem Aplca. Sede concessae" (can. 1377, § 1), deferendi, extra sacras functiones, (quarum nomine ad hunc eflectum non-venit ex usu sacra praedicatio), nisi aliunde amplietur eis hoc ius quoad a) annulum etiam cum gemma "ipsis a iure huius canonis concessum" (can. 136, § 2), b) et biretum doctorale, (idest: cum quatuor apicibus) utpote insigne huius gradus ac diverso colore ornatum pro Facultate.: [8]

The sections concerning the 1917 edition of Canon Law in relation to the academic biretta were abrogated by the updated edition in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Colors of doctoral birettas

The color of the doctoral biretta given by ecclesiastical universities and faculties is normally black, with colored piping corresponding to the faculty of study in which the degree was granted:

  • Theology (S.T.D., D.Min.): Red
  • Canon Law (J.C.D.): Green
  • Philosophy (Ph.D.): Blue
  • Social Sciences (H.E.D., S.I.C.D, etc.): Orange

At one time, different universities had different practices concerning the color and style of the biretta itself. One author, nearly a century ago, reports that in his day the Roman universities gave a doctoral biretta in black silk,[ citation needed ] Louvain gave a biretta with a colored tuft according to the academic discipline in which the doctorate was awarded,[ citation needed ] and the Catholic University of America gave a velvet biretta with red tuft and trim to doctors of theology. [9] [10] The 'traditional' biretta at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, is white, to correspond to the white Dominican habit. [11] Also, the academic senate of the Angelicum in its May 2011 meeting indicated that the black biretta may be used with trim and pom in the color of the particular faculty. [12]

A three-peaked black biretta with appropriately colored piping may be similarly used by those receiving the licentiate degree (S.T.L., Ph.L.).[ citation needed ]

Depictions in art in Catholicism

The doctoral biretta is sometimes seen in depictions of St. Teresa of Ávila, because she was declared a doctor by the University of Salamanca. [13] This recognition is distinct from her status as a Doctor of the Church. The doctoral biretta has been borrowed for depictions of another doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse de Lisieux. [14]

Use by women

The biretta was considered as possible headwear for female barristers in England and Wales. In 1922, immediately prior to the first lady being called to the Bar, there was discussion among the senior judges about what she should wear on her head. Darling J and Horridge J suggested the biretta, but were outvoted by the other nine judges present. As a result, female barristers wear the same unpowdered men's wig as male barristers, which completely covers the hair.[ citation needed ]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Biretta Definitions
  2. Herbert Norris, Church Vestments: Their Origin and Development, 1950, 161.
  3. Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, II.2 and XII.6
  4. Thurston, Herbert (1907). "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Biretta". Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  5. Herbert Thurston (1913). "Biretta"  . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia . New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  6. Olmert, Michael (1996). Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History, p.178. Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN   0-684-80164-7.
  7. John Abel Nainfa, Costume of Prelates of The Catholic Church: According To Roman Etiquette, 164.
  8. Codex Iuris Canonici, 1917, can. 1378; Commentarium Textus Codicis Iuris Canonici, 1923, comm. 262: Commentarium Codicis Iuris Canonici, 1922, Liber III, Pars IV, Tit. XXII, 262
  9. John Abel Nainfa, S.S., Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church: According to Roman Etiquette (Baltimore: John Murphy Company, rev. ed. 1926).
  10. Codex Iuris Canonici, 1917, can. 1378, and Commentarium Textus Codicis Iuris Canonici, 1923, comm. 262, p. 320: "biretum doctorale, (idest: cum quatuor apicibus) utpote insigne huius gradus ac diverso colore ornatum pro Facultate".
  11. papabear (26 April 2008). "Accessed 3-25-2011". Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  12. "Ring, Biretta and Gown for Graduates". 15 June 2011. Archived from the original on 28 July 2013. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  13. Paul Rhetts, Saint Teresa in New Mexico Archived 10 May 2006 at the Wayback Machine . Tradicion Revista, Volume 7, No. 1, Spring 2002. Accessed 2006-11-26.
  14. Portraits/Chicago Inc. Accessed 2006-11-26.


Related Research Articles


A surplice is a liturgical vestment of the Western Christian Church. The surplice is in the form of a tunic of white linen or cotton fabric, reaching to the knees, with wide or moderately wide sleeves.

Cassock Christian clerical coat

The cassock or soutane is a Christian clerical clothing coat used by the clergy of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, in addition to certain Protestant denominations such as Anglicans and Lutherans. "Ankle-length garment" is the literal meaning of the corresponding Latin term, vestis talaris. It is related to the habit, which is traditionally worn by nuns, monks, and friars.

Academic dress Attire worn by students and officials at certain schools and universities for commencement

Academic dress is a traditional form of clothing for academic settings, mainly tertiary education, worn mainly by those who have obtained a university degree, or hold a status that entitles them to assume them. It is also known as academical dress, academicals, subfusc and, in the United States, as academic regalia.

Vestment Clothing prescribed for clergy performing specific roles

Vestments are liturgical garments and articles associated primarily with the Christian religion, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Many other groups also make use of liturgical garments; this was a point of controversy in the Protestant Reformation and sometimes since, in particular during the Ritualist controversies in England in the 19th century.

Cope Religious garment

The cope is a liturgical vestment, more precisely a long mantle or cloak, open in front and fastened at the breast with a band or clasp. It may be of any liturgical colour.

Monsignor Honorific form of address for certain Catholic clergy

Monsignor is an honorific form of address for some members of the clergy, usually of the Roman Catholic Church, including bishops, honorary prelates and canons. "Monsignor" is a form of address, not an appointment: properly speaking, one cannot be "made a monsignor" or be "the monsignor of a parish". The title or form of address is associated with certain papal awards, which Pope Paul VI reduced to three classes: those of Protonotary Apostolic, Honorary Prelate, and Chaplain of His Holiness.

Episcopal sandals

Episcopal sandals, also known as the pontifical sandals, are a Roman Catholic pontifical vestment worn by bishops when celebrating liturgical functions according to the pre–Vatican II rubrics, for example a Tridentine Solemn Pontifical Mass.

Clerical clothing is non-liturgical clothing worn exclusively by clergy. It is distinct from vestments in that it is not reserved specifically for services. Practices vary: is sometimes worn under vestments, and sometimes as the everyday clothing or street wear of a priest, minister, or other clergy member. In some cases, it can be similar or identical to the habit of a monk or nun.

Pectoral cross

A pectoral cross or pectorale is a cross that is worn on the chest, usually suspended from the neck by a cord or chain. In ancient and medieval times pectoral crosses were worn by both clergy and laity, but by the end of the Middle Ages the pectoral cross came to be a special indicator of position worn by bishops. In the Roman Catholic Church, the wearing of a pectoral cross remains restricted to popes, cardinals, bishops and abbots. In Eastern Orthodox Church Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches that follow a Slavic Tradition, priests also wear pectoral crosses, while deacons and minor orders do not. The modern pectoral cross is relatively large, and is different from the small crosses worn on necklaces by many Christians. Most pectoral crosses are made of precious metals and some contain precious or semi-precious gems. Some contain a corpus like a crucifix while others use stylized designs and religious symbols.

Choir dress

Choir dress is the traditional vesture of the clerics, seminarians and religious of Christian churches worn for public prayer and the administration of the sacraments except when celebrating or concelebrating the Eucharist. It differs from the vestments worn by the celebrants of the Eucharist, being normally made of fabrics such as wool, cotton or silk, as opposed to the fine brocades used in vestments. It may also be worn by lay assistants such as acolytes and choirs. It was abandoned by most of the Protestant churches that developed from the sixteenth-century Reformation.

Doctor of Canon Law is the doctoral-level terminal degree in the studies of canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. It can also be an honorary degree awarded by Anglican colleges. It may also be abbreviated ICD or dr.iur.can., ICDr, DCL, DCnl, DDC, or DCanL. A doctor of both laws is a JUD or UJD.

The canon law of the Catholic Church is the system of laws and legal principles made and enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic Church to regulate its external organization and government and to order and direct the activities of Catholics toward the mission of the Church. It was the first modern Western legal system and is the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the West, while the unique traditions of Oriental canon law govern the 23 Eastern Catholic particular churches sui iuris.

Canterbury cap

The Canterbury cap is a square cloth hat with sharp corners found in the Anglican Communion. It is also soft and foldable, "Constructed to fold flat when not in use ..." The Canterbury cap is the medieval birettum, descended from the ancient pileus headcovering. It is sometimes called the "catercap".

Ferraiolo Cape of Catholic priests

The ferraiolo is a type of cape traditionally worn by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church on formal, non-liturgical occasions. It can be worn over the shoulders, or behind them, extends in length to the ankles, is tied in a bow by narrow strips of cloth at the front, and does not have any 'trim' or piping on it.

Bishops in the Catholic Church Ordained minister in the Catholic Church (for other religious denominations, use Q29182); catholic bishop

In the Catholic Church, a bishop is an ordained minister who holds the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders and is responsible for teaching doctrine, governing Catholics in his jurisdiction, sanctifying the world and representing the Church. Catholics trace the origins of the office of bishop to the apostles, who it is believed were endowed with a special charism by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Catholics believe this special charism has been transmitted through an unbroken succession of bishops by the laying on of hands in the sacrament of holy orders.

Pontifical vestments, also referred to as episcopal vestments or pontificals, are the liturgical vestments worn by bishops in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches, in addition to the usual priestly vestments for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments. The pontifical vestments are only worn when celebrating or presiding over liturgical functions. As such, the garments should not be confused with choir dress, which are worn when attending liturgical functions but not celebrating or presiding.

Dimitri Salachas

Dimitri (Dimitrios) Salachas was the Apostolic Exarch of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church.


A pom-pom – also spelled pom-pon, pompom or pompon – is a decorative ball or tuft of fibrous material.

Edward Neal Peters is an American Roman Catholic canonist and serves as a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura. He is professor of canon law at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines uses a system of academic dress at ceremonial occasions for its degree candidates/holders. The customs and styles are heavily influenced by the traditions of the Spanish universities. UST also follows the traditions and canon of a pontifical university.