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Church Vesture as Art

by Erwin M. Soukup

Erwin M. Soukup is the archdeacon of Chicago’s Episcopal Diocese. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 19-26, 1986, p. 309. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Whether it be the garish uniforms of 18th-century European soldiers or the drab, sometimes threadbare dress of medieval monks, clothing and uniforms have always served as signs of identity. Even today, the serviceable khaki of a Boy Scout marks an individual as belonging to that organization, just as the dress of a policeman or bus driver serves to identify the wearer with a particular profession.

Similarly, in some of the major jurisdictions of the Christian church, clergy are identified by particular kinds of dress or vestment. In the Western church, this is particularly true in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, and to some degree in the Lutheran churches as well.

It is commonly supposed that these forms of clothing were deliberately chosen to mark the individual as a member of a particular order of clergy and to set the clergy apart from the laity. There is some truth in this assumption, especially since clericalism has historically been a dominant feature of church life. But the growth of vesture as a matter of distinctive attire and, indeed, as a fine art was not originally a deliberate choice on the part of the church.

In fact, in the earliest centuries of Christianity there was no official dress for clergy. They wore the ordinary dress of the time. It was not until the 13th century that liturgical vesture, which had been a matter of tradition, was incorporated into liturgical law.

In the first centuries A.D., the common public garb of Roman citizens was the toga, a loose, wraparound outer garment. This rather bulky wrap was gradually replaced by a linen robe with close sleeves cailed the linea, which covered the body from head to foot. Over this was worn a tunica, a simple slip-on garment, often belted and with or without sleeves, which reached the knees. On ceremonial occasions, a casula would be worn. This was a circular piece of cloth with a hole in the center so that it could pass over the head.

After the Roman Empire fell in 476, a new attire was adopted by the populace. The clergy, however, retained the older form of dress, perhaps out of a conservative reaction to change or an emotional investment in the older forms. The clergy became an identifiable class of citizens set apart from the worshiping congregation. Often, however, the ceremonial dress of a cleric was merely a second set of clean clothes. Thus the traditional clerical dress received its initial form: the alb, the long white undergarment; the tunicle, reserved today for the dress of deacons; and the chasuble, the sleeveless outer garment worn by the celebrant of the Eucharist.

The stole, too, had its origins in the secular world. It was originally a "scarf of office," used by the emperor and consuls. It was granted to various other officials during the fourth century and then adopted by the clergy. The version of the stole worn by popes and archbishops is called the pallium. The maniple, a silk band that hangs over the left forearm, descended directly from the mappula, a large handkerchief carried in the hand or laid across the arm by magistrates and other officials in ceremonial dress.

What catches the eye in modern liturgical dress is, of course, the panoply of watered silk, furs and lace. But these elements are not, strictly speaking, part of Roman Catholic liturgical vesture, and they are laid aside during the performance of sacramental acts.

Rules on vestments in the Roman Catholic Church these days are summarized in "The Sacramentary" of the Roman Catholic Missal published in 1974. It notes that "the diversity of ministries is shown externally in worship by the diversity of vestments. The Sacramentary" prescribes the alb; a cincture, which is tied at the waist; an optional amice, or neck scarf; and a chasuble as the normal vesture of a priest when celebrating the mass. The cope, developed, again, from a common cloak (as worn in France) may be used for processions or ceremonies other than the mass. Vestments may be made from fabrics common to the region or artificial fabrics which are "in keeping with the dignity of the sacred action."

The colors of vestments are white, red, green, violet, black, rose and blue, according to the season of the church year. One caveat is given: "The beauty of a vestment should derive from its material and form rather than from its ornamentation. Ornamentation should include only symbols, images, or pictures suitable for liturgical use, and anything unbecoming should be avoided." Supervision in these matters is given to each conference of bishops in the local area.

The argument over vestments has since waxed and waned in the Anglican community, adding fuel to the debate between "high church" and "low church." For example, in 1985 the bishop of Pittsburgh received a letter from a priest of his diocese bitterly complaining about the decorative sacred vestments used at a service he attended. From the priest’s "low church" perspective, the importance given to vestments was highly objectionable. "It was indicated to [ordinands at an ordination service] that while kneeling and prior to the stole being placed about them, they were to kiss it, as if this were a routine ceremony. From the inclusion of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the prayers to all the celebrating priests wearing chasubles during the Eucharist, while it may be hard for you to comprehend, I was filled with indignation."

In American Protestantism, the regular use of some form of special clerical garb has been confined to certain Lutheran, Methodist, and Calvinist groups. Even in these bodies, the use of sacred dress has varied widely from congregation to congregation. Partly out of a rejection of a priestly description of ministry, and the absence of a tradition of vested clergy among such denominations as Baptists, Congregationalists and the Society of Friends, Protestants have largely rejected sacred vestments. At least the Protestant concept calls for little insignia other than an academic or tradition-related distinction. However, some Protestant congregations have been influenced by other traditions’ use of stoles, tabs, cassocks, bands and hoods -- no doubt the result of ecumenical encounters which have already resulted in a common church year, a common lectionary and deeper dimensions of liturgical conformity.

Concerning the artistic efforts employed in the conception and creation of sacred clothing, the determination of many generations, back to the time of Solomon, has been to offer the best to God. Of course, the motivations behind this offering have been varied: fear, praise, worship, idolotry and sometimes plain greed have played a part. Nevertheless, some of the finest brocade, velvet, embroidery, silk, cloth-of-gold, cloth-of-silver, linen, damask, satin, appliqué and jewelry and the finest skills of weavers, painters and needleworkers have gone into the making of vestments. Excellent examples of this work can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

It may be fair to ask: do the vestments foster art or does art encourage the use of vestments? Historians and liturgical specialists have not always agreed on the matter. The process that produced vesture, and moved from simple, amply-cut clothes of everyday life to the elaborate, almost distracting, robes and garments of ceremonial dress, has also moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps the most violent alternation occurred in the 19th century, when a flowering of ornamentation was accompanied by a sharp and didactic resistance to its use.

Ultimately, it is not a question of either/or. The norms of ceremony and rite encourage the use of the finest materials to express the intangible. The use of artistic expression to enhance the words and movements of the ritual is inseparable from the human need to be creative. In this instance, form does not follow function but both proceed hand in hand.


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