Sunday, 12 June 2011

Another extraordinary link back to the time of Christ

We have the Latin, we have the evolved liturgy and sentiment but, we also have the vestments! Not the flowing, nylon, Gothic type but the original Roman "fiddleback" Chasuble and all the accessories that go with it. These connect us back to the days of the early church, drawing us closer to Christ and the times he lived in.

Photo: Luzar Vestments
The chasuble or 'little house'

The meaning of vestments -

"Nevertheless, the sacred vestments translate the profound intuition of faith that the man who is a priest should vanish in the Person of the Everlasting Priest whose living Sacrament he is. The vesture he wears at the altar symbolises his reclothing with Christ who acts through his ministry".

Father Gerard Ellard SJ., writing in the early fifties, tells us that the vestments are derived from the everyday dress of Roman citizens. He explains the origin of the seven vestments as follows:-

"The ministers at the Sacrifice wear garments such as we now see nowhere else. These are modifications of the ordinary civil dress of the late Empire, say, of the 4th Century. Some of the priestly vestments are garments properly so-called, others are insignia of office.

Amice. In the order in which the vestments are put on, the first is a white, rectangular linen cloth put upon the shoulders and wrapped about the neck. This vestment is called an amice (amicta). It is a survival of the customary neckerchief or scarf of the ancients; by the older authors it is often called 'the protection of the voice'. Originally meant to serve purely practical purposes, to cover the neck and to protect the other vestments from the hair, the Amice becomes a very conspicuous item in the Middle Ages, when it was decorated with a wide, rich band of embroidery and allowed to show outside the other garments. Up to a certain point in the Mass it was even worn over the head, a usage that survives still in some monastic orders.
With the disappearance of this rich ornamentation, the amice went back to its original, humbler form.

Alb. In the whole of the Roman Empire of the 4th Century the customary body-garment of both sexes and all classes was a sleeved tunic reaching well below the knees and caught at the waist by a girdle. It was of white linen. Later, a short tunic became commoner in civil life, but churchmen kept to the longer form in their official functions. This old tunic lives on in our alb (Latin for white). .............The use of lace on the alb is a modern departure from tradition, and destined, it would seem, to disappear before long.

Tunic and Dalmatic. The decorated outer vestment worn by the subdeacon, called a tunic as well as the vesture of the deacon, called a dalmatic, are, in origin, outer tunics, with shorter, wider sleeves, and shorter body. The dalmatic is so called because this style of highly ornamented tunic came from Dalmatia (Croatia region).

Maniple. The maniple, a band of coloured, decorated fabric laid across the left forearm, is a relic of a handkerchief carried as an emblem of office by Roman officials. The consul carried such a ceremonial handkerchief and with it gave the signal for the opening of games and other functions. In the first detailed description of a Roman Mass we have, the Pope's handkerchief is used to give the signal to begin Mass. The maniple was formerly made of linen, and by reason of its humble origin was called a sudarium, a sweat cloth, or, because carried in the hand, a manual. Until about the year 1000 this clerical emblem of office was carried in the hand (usually the left); then began the custom of wearing it on the wrist or forearm. When that happened, its original purpose was lost sight of, and instead of white linen it was made of a coloured and ornamented fabric.

Stole. Quite a different mark of the clerical order is what is now called a stole ( a Greek word for garment in general). This was in  ancient times called the orarium (literally, mouth-cloth). How it was that a long, flowing band, slung over one or both shoulders and hanging loosely about the body, and originally destined for such humble purposes, should have become a highly prized symbol of the clerical order remains in the present state of our knowledge, an unanswerable question. Old mosaics and pictures show the stole worn in many different ways, even as it is now worn in distinctive ways by bishop, priest and deacon respectively.

The Chasuble. The most conspicuous of the sacrificial garments is the chasuble, as we say from the latin casula, a little house; so called, said St Isidore of Seville, because it covered the whole man. It is a modified form of the ancient paenula, a cone-shaped outer garment reaching down, more or less, the full length of the body all around, and provided with an opening and hood for the head. Designed for protection against all weathers in travelling, it finally became the ordinary outer garment for all wear, even replacing the toga of the high officials. At Rome it continued to be the ordinary outer garment for both sexes and all classes until the end of the 6th Century or later.

Thus, everyone in  a Roman church then wore a chasuble. St Augustine speaks of it as the clothing of even the poor, but, of course, it could be something very fine, and only a generation or so later St Fulgentius will not have a coloured chasuble because he thought that something for wealthy people. But Fulgentius was a monk and wore his monk's robe at the altar.
In the new European nations the chasuble was at first the ordinary garment of clerical attire for church, street and domestic uses. In the course of time it became reserved for priests and, later still, for priests only at the time of Mass.

The ordinary chasuble of today represents a very truncated form of the ample 'little house' of former ages. The garment, to allow freedom to the hands, had to be caught up over the forearms. Even in classical antiquity the chasuble was often cut somewhat shorter at the sides to facilitate freer movement. As long as pliable silk, the prescribed material for this vestment, continued to be used in making it, there was no great need for radical altering, but it was another thing entirely when stiff, brocaded velvets, themselves heavily embroidered, began to be substituted for silk. Then it was necessary to trim and cut away all that should have been folded. The nadir of the trimming process was reached in the 18th Century. Since that day a gradual reversion to the traditional garment has been making itself felt. This movement will probably be slow in progressing, because it depends in the last instance upon the slow-growing, inner religious sentiment, to which all change in external features of worship corresponds."


  1. Thanks for this very educational and enlightening post and for providing another example of how the TLM is not the old Mass, it is ancient and as such, should be revered, not despised.

  2. You've got it the wrong way around, Richard. It's the so-called "gothic" form that's authentic - the "fiddleback" is an abbreviation from the baroque era: "what's the minimum we can get away with and still have a 'chasuble'?"

    As with so much of what passes for traditional Catholicism, "Roman" vestments are very much a product of the modern era and its rationalistic mentality.

  3. Anagnostis - Fr Ellard wrote this piece not me but I understand that what he is written is correct. If you look at all the websites of suppliers of vestments you will see Gothic listed as the free flowing type and 'Roman' as the type illustrated on my post. Is your point that the original chasuble was of the Gothic style? The nickname of casula (little house) onbviously belongs to the type illustrated.

  4. Richard: Your comment is incorrect. The original style of chasuble in the West is indeed the so-called "Gothic". So-called "Roman" vestments are very modern. See:

  5. EricG - I think the clue might lie in the descriptor ie Gothic vestments came in during the 15th century, Roman ones at the time of the Romans :)

  6. Though the Gothic can be rather ugly, I've seen some very nice ones. They just need some effort put into them.

  7. Some clarification needed - I think that my use of the word "fiddleback" is misleading. I intended it as a generic descriptor. I have since checked various learned references and find that, as Fr Ellard states, the original casula was a cloak type garment that evolved over the centuries and was cut back until it became as it is today. The Gothic style (also a free flowing style) was introduced in the 15th Century.
    The Roman style is the modern day version of the the original.

  8. There's an excellent account here at the New Liturgical Movement

    The author has serious reservations concerning the “Roman” vs. “Gothic” distinction outlined by Fr Ellard.

  9. The designations "Roman" and "Gothic" are, in this connection, BOTH essentially and equally modern. That doesn't alter the fact that the authentic and original form of the western chasuble is the latter, not the former. A "Roman" chasuble which hasn't been cut away into a bare sandwich board and artificially stiffened to make it hang properly is - guess what - a "Gothic" chasuble.

    The vestment in your illustration is an invention of the Baroque era. Full stop.

  10. PS: I ought also to bring it to your attention that Fr Ellard was an early proponent of celebration versus populo: he claimed this was the original and primitive practice too...

  11. Anagnostis - I yield....apologies, profuse obsequious salutations...Pax!

  12. It seems that the vestments worn by the priest during Mass are all based on what the ordinary citizens of Rome were wearing in the early centuries of the Church.

    Does this mean that if the Church were to start today, the priest would wear jeans, a teeshirt and a body-warmer?

  13. Bohma - they are already wearing those!

  14. OK, I *have* noticed that casual clothing seems to be popular with most priests for everyday wear.

    The point I was trying to make was that the vestments worn by priests while celebrating Mass in the first centuries seem to have been the normal every day clothing of the time and what they wear today has evolved from these.

    Therefore, if priests were to wear current fashions, and the Church was in its infancy today, would they be wearing jeans and teeshirts to celebrate Mass?

  15. Bohma - yes, thank you I got your point. I was just being a shade lighthearted! God bless.

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