Saturday, January 31, 2009

High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to Nineteenth Century

I wanted to share with NLM readers -- a number of whom are interested in the paraments of the Church -- a book I recently received, which looks to be of some notable interest to many of our readership.

The book, which is titled High Fashion in the Church, pertains to "the place of Church vestments in the history of art from the Ninth to Nineteenth century".

What first drew me to the title, which is authored by Pauline Johnstone and published by Maney press in 2002, was a review by Fr. Neil J. Roy, the former editor of Antiphon and a good friend of the NLM. In that review, written for The Catholic Historical Review he commented that the book "affords the reader a fascinating and lavishly illustrated study of the origins and development of sacred vestments, chiefly in the Catholic tradition." He continued:

This splendid tome ought to adorn the shelves of every Catholic seminary and house of formation where, according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "During their philosophical and theological studies, clerics are to be taught about the history and development of sacred art and about the basic principles which govern the production of its works. Thus they will be able to appreciate and preserve the Church's ancient monuments, and be able to aid by good advice artists who are engaged in producing works of art" (Sacrosanctum concilium 129).

This snippet certainly piqued my interest, and indeed, so far I haven't been disappointed.

The book has a nice foreword by Fr. Jerome Bertram of the Oxford Oratory which includes a pertinent reminder for those who might react to subjects such as these with some discomfort, or particularly, with disdain:

Through most of Christian history, men and women have believed in giving the very best for the worship of God. All the arts have been enlisted in the service of the church... Though a few scoffers have been found in every century to ridicule the splendour of liturgical art, echoing Judas in the gospels who begrudged the oil to anoint the Lord's feet, there have always been more who, like Mary Magdalen, are glad to pour out their oil as a sign of the love they feel for their Saviour, and for the church which brings them together.

Among the treasures of ecclesiastical art, not the least important are the vestments. They were not made to enhance the priest but rather to humiliate him. The priest in his own clothes is only himself, and can attract people or repel them by his own character and his own abilities, or lack of them. But once vested in the raiment of the church, he ceases to be himself, he 'puts on Christ', speaking not in his own name but in that of the church. Vestments are a continual reminder to the priest that he is nothing, only the mouthpiece of the church at the service of the people; they are a continual reminder to the people that the man inside them does not matter, but only the eternal priesthood. They are not the property of the priest to display his affluence or his poverty; they are the property of the whole church, beautiful things for performing the service of the poor. Beauty and colour, splendour and art are offered for all to see and appreciate, so that the poorest outcast may enjoy treasures such that in other societies only the rich can see.

At present, I have only had time to quickly survey the book, but from what I can see of it, it shows itself to be quite useful as a resource.

The book's introductory chapters contain pertinent summations of the origins, usage and development of the various liturgical vestments. This is comprised not simply of the most common vestments (such as the chasuble, alb, dalmatic, and so on) but also includes the likes of those used for pontifical ceremonies, such as buskins, as well as others like the humeral veil. This section also covers some of the different forms of ornamentation of vestments, even touching upon apparels upon albs and amices. The matter of the development of liturgical colours and their observance (or lack thereof in particular periods) is also touched upon in its own chapter.

I am also pleased to note, at least in what I have been able to survey so far, that the author acknowledges and speaks to some of the differences that might be found between the Roman rite and rites such as the Ambrosian -- at least in passing. Consideration is likewise given to particular regional variations that might be observed.

The bulk of the book analyzes vestment design through four primary periods: the Mediaeval period, the Renaissance, the Baroque and Rococo, and finally the 19th century and early 20th century. In these sections, Johnstone considers particular technical developments like embroidery and textile techniques to in turn consider how this manifested itself in terms of vestment design. She also gives consideration to stylistic and ornamental developments -- with consideration to how they were reflected culturally and regionally -- including textile design and particular iconographic themes. In this regard, the book is extremely useful for tracking and understanding the origins of these designs, their influences and how they may have spread.

If there were one element that I can see which would have been of great benefit for a subject such as this, it would have been having all of the photographs in colour. Instead -- as is not uncommon in books as these -- the photographs that are interspersed with the text are in black and white:

This said, even these provide a good illustration of the various designs and design elements and give clues for further exploration. To be fair as well, there are 32 pages of colour plates to be found at the back of the book, so one does have this desire satiated to a decent enough degree. Here are some sample pages of the colour plates found at the back of the book:

All said, it seems like a book that would be well worth acquiring, particularly those interested in sacred vestments, which is perhaps an area of the sacred arts which we see published upon all too rarely by comparison with other areas of ecclesiastical art.

Book Details

176 pages plus 32 colour plates; 176 b&w and 110 colour illustrations
ISBN 1 902653 60 2 (978-1-902653-60-0)

Price : £36.00 / $59.00

Product link:

Further Details

As a treat, here are some details of some of the vestments featured in the book.

(Early 11th century, in the collection of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich)

(19th century; based off 15th Century Netherlandish crucifixion orphreys)

(A chasuble you have seen here before. The 17th century chasuble of the Barberini Pope, Urban VIII)

(17th Century Viennese Chasuble)

(A pair of 12th century episcopal sandals and buskins from Canterbury)

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