When we mention Mitre in the liturgical framework, we refer to something that is quite far apart from the common association with Asian divinities or weapons. In fact, the term designates a solemn vestment and, particularly, the head-dress used by bishops and archbishops during celebrations.
One item stands out among others preserved in the Duomo di Milano Treasury for its rare material, precious features and origin, it is the so-called Mitra di Colibrì. It is a precious Mexican artefact made by native Amerindians and gifted by Catholics of the Company of the Indies to Pope Pius IV (1499-1565).
The Pope later gifted it to his nephew, Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (1538-1584), and this is why it is also known as the Mitre of St. Charles.
Depicted on the front and back of the mitre we find the monograms of Christ (IHS) and of the Madonna (MA). The mitre features Stories of the Passion of Christ, from Judas’ kiss to the Crucifixion, besides a Mass of St. Gregory. Outside the monogram we see the Evangelists with their respective symbols, while the Redeemer with hand uplifted in a blessing is placed at the tip of the vestment.
These works were created by the amanteca, artists specialised in creating mosaics with feathers. They decorated and combined minute features of tropical birds, assembled them on agave paper reinforced with cloth on which the preparatory drawing was previously outlined, ready to be “plumed”. A recent renovation of the mitre revealed various types of fabrics in the unstitched parts: an indigo coloured linen fabric glued onto the back of the agave paper, a yellow silk protective layer, probably part of the original lining of the vestment, and crimson red silk organza.
The Milanese mitre is one of the seven such items in the world to have survived since the 16th century. The others are preserved in New York, Madrid, Florence, Lyon, Toledo and Vienna.
The Mitre of the Duomo di Milano Treasury is a unique masterpiece. Only close observation reveals the technical details. Indeed, feather art is compared to embroidery. The handcrafting quality and designs of the mitre are further enriched by the type of features used. In fact, some of them have changing colour reflections that enhance the dramatic effect of the events depicted.