One thing you can bet on: the new pope will not have a beard
The history and evolution of papal beards explored and discussed.
- Christopher Howse
- February 25, 2013
Is it time we had a bearded pope? No question might sound more trivial, but the answer involves things still regarded as important.
The last bearded pope was Innocent XII (reigned 1691-1700). The 23 popes before him, from Clement VII (1523) onwards had beards.
The 17th century saw the arrival of the neat Van Dyck beard. In the 16th century papal beards were full. Clement VII was said to have grown his, when a prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo, in 1527, as a sign of mourning for the sack of Rome. The precedent was set by Julius II, as depicted by Raphael, who wore a beard only in the months following the loss to the Papal States of Bologna.
But we must also look at what was going on in England at the time. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, grew a beard in 1547, ostensibly in mourning for Henry VIII, but implicitly as reflection of his reforming zeal. It was the sort of thing intellectuals did.
For a priest to grow a beard was against Canon law, but it would be wrong to see Cranmer’s beardiness as cocking a snook at the Church of Rome – in 1547, Paul III was on the throne of Peter, and he was as bearded as could be. And Paul III, though a “bad” pope in the sense of fathering children (before his election), was an homme sérieux, as a patron of the arts and a reformer too, initiating the Council of Trent. If today’s pope, Benedict XVI had lived in the mid-16th century, he would have been bearded too.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury is clean-shaven, and the last one to be bearded, before Rowan Williams, had been Gilbert Sheldon (reigned 1663-77). His beard was of the Van Dyck kind, but what made it impossible for archbishops of Canterbury to continue with beards was their adoption of wigs. The two don’t mix.
William Wake, enthroned in 1716, wore a fine curly wig, quite unlike real hair. The next eight Archbishops of Canterbury all wore formal wigs, ending with William Howley as late as 1848.
But if Roman Canon Law forbade clerical beards, why did it? The last things to look at are practicalities. Rational canon lawyers of the 19th century saw a reason for forbidding moustaches, because priests drank from the chalice at Mass and must avoid any irreverence to the blood of Christ. Yet Canon Law did not apply to religious orders, some of which made beards obligatory.
Much earlier the great debate had been whether St Peter himself was bearded and whether he shaved his head. The point of the argument was that popes were the successor of Peter, so popes and their clergy should imitate what he did.
The late John Higgitt of Edinburgh University contributed a most learned chapter on beards and tonsures in Anglo-Saxon England to St Cuthbert: His Cult and Community (1989).
A key piece of evidence is tantalisingly absent, the missing face on the moulded silver depiction of St Peter on a portable altar found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (died 687). Was he bearded, or not?
Generally, St Peter was depicted as beardless in Anglo-Saxon art. But the tonsure was even more heatedly debated. When Theodore of Tarsus, an Asian, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 669, he had had to let his hair grow for months to convert his kind of tonsure into a Roman crown tonsure – a tuffet of hair on top, shaved at the sides.
So hair, on the head or chin, identified an affinity, with supposed Roman practice. Beards were an emblem in a wider battle between Greeks and Latins.
Today few cardinals with beards are eligible to join the conclave voting for the pope. Moran Mor Baselios Cardinal Cleemis, Catholicos of the Syro-Malankarese is one. Only 53, he has a flourishing beard and a striking hat resembling an onion-dome in Red Square, with a little gold cross on top.
But the beard remains an emblem of the East, and an Eastern rite bishop is unlikely to be elected Bishop of Rome. We may get a black pope but not a bearded one.
Full Story: Why we won’t get a bearded pope
Source: The Telegraph
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