Liturgical Vestments & Symbols

Historical Context

Formal liturgical vestments did not make an appearance in Christian Liturgy for almost 600 years, despite claims stating they have a more remote origin in priestly attire references found in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. Defined descriptions of priestly vestments may have provided biblical justification and doctrinal purpose, however Christian liturgical vestments, not only came at least six centuries after the birth of Jesus Christ, their overall descriptive design has its origins in the Roman Empire.

Source: Wikipedia

In the West, liturgical vestments were firstly mentioned at the Council of Toledo (in modern Spain), in the year 633 AD. Just a mere 43 years earlier, an altogether new form of Papal Authority began to emerge when Pope Gregory The Great issued a number of Papal Edicts in 590 AD, regarding liturgical vestments. These edicts mark the first time the Christian Church made a move to define specific vestments to be used in Christian Liturgy. In the year 590 AD therefore, the vestments approved for liturgical use were the maniple, the pallium and the dalmatic. We will have a look at these later.

Vestments: An Overview

The Alb

Albs became mainstream in the life of the Church, from a very early stage. Consisting simply of a long gown covering the whole length of the body, the alb was a Roman garment. The alb was what the average Roman citizen used to wear, under a tunic for example, as an everyday garment. J. C. Noonan in “The Church Visible”, says that

“in a passage of Trebellius Pollio, he speaks of an alba subserica (half-silken alb) mentioned in a letter sent from Valerian to Zosimus, Procurator of Syria (AD 260–70).”

It is thus perfectly acceptable to assume that the alb has been in use since the 3rd. Century. Pope Sylvester I, whose Pontificate ran until his death in the year 335 AD, decreed an alteration to be introduced to the alb: long narrow sleeves. The original Roman garment had no sleeves. But it was not until Pope Innocent III decreed in 1206 a major shift, turning the alb into the sacred vestment it has been ever since in all of Christendom. The alb was to represent the “purity of the clerical state of life”, be always pure brilliant white linen in colour or if made of wool, in that material natural white colour, with narrow long sleeves, and must cover completely the clerical attire underneath it. Pope Innocent III’s edict has never been revoked. And today, the alb still has to cover the whole length of the cassock and the clerical collar. If the alb neck is open square, an amice must be put on to cover the clerical collar, first.
The rules remained the same from 1206 until the 20th Century, when other fabrics were introduced, namely cotton, poly-cotton and polyester. Other colours were also introduced, such as cream, off-white, beige and light grey, although the pure brilliant white only rule has never been abolished and remains a mandatory requirement, at least in the Latin Rite, right until the present day.
The sacred character of the alb, introduced by Innocent III, meant that a prayer should be said during vesting of the alb, which today is as follows:

“Purify me, O Lord and make me clean of heart, that
washed in the blood of the Lamb, I may possess eternal joy”

The Chasuble

Another vestment with roots in the Roman Empire, the Chasuble has for centuries been made in a few basic designs. The Roman Style, the Gothic Style, the Monastic Style, and the Neri Style. The latter is named so because it was introduced by St Philip Neri in the 16th. Century. It is a hybrid design between the Roman and the Gothic styles.

Genuine Gold Bullion thread embroidery on deep red velvet, an 18th Century Chasuble – Italy

The four basic styles are by no means followed by basic design, for it is in the manufacture, creativity and artistry of tailoring, embroidery and cloth manufacturing that we find the higher and truer expression of the art, which over many centuries has given us such a rich and beautiful heritage. However, the chasuble has its origins in the humble casula, a garment much like a rain-poncho, widely used by farmers in the days of the Roman Empire. This was for hundreds of years the rain-cloak of choice for farmers, peasants and the working classes generally, probably since the year 300 BC. For a good 600 years this remain the case, but by year 300 AD, the casula was a widely worn garment, by all grades in Roman Society, not the least by courtesy of Church influence, after 300 years wearing the casula as a liturgical vestment.
The casula evolved into the Planeta, retaining its traditional shape, but the Planeta became a more more ornamented garment, worn only the the upper classes, the political establishment and the highest ranks of the Church Hierarchy, the bishops and the Pope. This gradual process of gentrification as it were, of the casula and the Planeta meant the garment was hijacked for liturgical use, and thus it became prohibited for lay members of the Church to wear a casula or a planeta in Church. The chasuble became firmly established as the liturgical garment of choice for priests and bishops.

Polichrome and Gold Bullion embroidery on Silver cloth, an 18th Century Chasuble – Italy

St. Martin, who became in the year 371 AD, Bishop of the French town of Tours, declared in his correspondence that he always celebrated Holy Mass, wearing a pure white Alb and a Chasuble; thus we can establish with some degree of certainty that the combination of Alb and Chasuble as the vestments for Holy Mass is a 1.649 years old tradition in the Church, but the definition between what was suitable for priests and bishops – the Chasuble – and what was to be assigned to deacons – the Dalmatic – did not occur until almost 400 years later, in the 8th Century.
Highly ornamented chasubles did not really appear until the 10th Century, especially the Roman Style, which incidentally was a Renaissance creation, though it is often thought to be the first design that appeared. In actual fact, the Gothic Chasuble was the first to appear, because its circular, conical shape closely resembles the Planeta. The design of the Gothic Chasuble is the same as the Roman Casula or Planeta, but the sides of the cone are cutout, to match the arms’ length.
The Roman Chasuble – called “Roman” because it was conceived in Renaissance Rome, rather than be inspired in the original Roman Casula – removes the fullness, becoming a panelled chasuble, in the shape of a fiddle at the front, and a rectangular panel with rounded corners at the back.

The comparative illustration above shows two types of chasuble, both available from Catholic Liturgicals. On the left, a 21st. Century copy of the Renaissance Roman chasuble. On the right, a 21st Century copy of a Gothic chasuble, which is also reminiscent of Monastic style, as the raised neck suggests

The Roman or Fiddleback Chasuble gradually prevailed as much more popular, reaching the peak of popularity at the end of the 18th. Century, then declining very slowly during the 19th. Century. The Gothic Chasuble, also know as Planeta, enjoyed a revival in the first twenty years of the 20th Century, to become a much more popular choice, a trend which is still true now, in the 21st. Century, although a comeback of the Roman Chasuble has also been very noticeable, being increasingly seen, being worn during Liturgical events, all over the World.
The revival of the Roman Fiddleback Chasuble in the first years of the present Century is strongly linked with a renewal of interest in Traditional Liturgy – which has always been available in Old Catholic and Liberal Catholic churches – especially following Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, of July 2007, reenacting the optional use of the Tridentine Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.
When putting on a Chasuble, while vesting in the Sacristy, the celebrant says the following prayer:

My yoke is sweet and my burden light;
grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.

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