Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fr. Anthony Symondson Questions the Borromean Revival

A great friend of the NLM is Fr. Anthony Symondson, a Jesuit from Farm Street in London who is also extraordinary knowledgeable in matters related to architecture and the sacred arts. Father Symondson's interests have expressed themselves in the publication of a book on the work of Sir Ninian Comper, the English gothic revivalist, published by Spire Books.

Father Symondson also has a great interest in the matter of vestments and he recently wished to submit to the NLM a piece considering the "Borromean" form of chasuble, which is the style that might be said to sit halfway between the more full flowing "gothic" form and the typical Baroque form that we are accustomed to seeing.

Recently, we have seen our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, use all of these forms of chasuble, and there has been something of the beginnings of a revival with regard to the Borromean form.

Fr. Symondson has often expressed his own personal reservations on this point and a recent exhibition of an antique chasuble further spurred him on in his considerations of this. He wished to submit these considerations for discussion here on the NLM which seemed to me to be a worthwhile endeavour, whatever our own particular thoughts upon the matter.

For that reason, I am very grateful for Fr. Symondson's proposal and submission and would invite people to serenely consider, debate and discuss the issue.


by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.

Recently interest has been shown in the revival of what has come to be known as the ‘Borromean’ chasuble. Not long ago Shawn Tribe published some interesting photographs of the vestments of rose-red silk that had belonged to St Charles Borromeo and which are kept in the museum attached to S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. Another of his chasubles in this style is kept in the relic cupboard of St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, London, dating from the period when the Oblates of St Charles ran the parish.

This form of chasuble is also well known from portraits of St Ignatius of Loyola and St Philip Neri. It is characterized by breadth at the back and front and the shortness of the sleeves which hang over the shoulders. These result in a bulky vestment that marks a transitional phase between the full, late-Medieval Gothic shape and the classic Roman, or Latin, chasuble. Some, evidently including the Holy Father, see it as a compromise between these shapes.

It is uncertain how many old chasubles in this form exist, although there are examples in the Vatican Museum, but a curious survival of the transition survives in the collection of vestments kept in the sacristy of Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, the English Jesuit public school. The chasuble in question is known as the Leagram chasuble and dates from c1450. It is made of a Genoese silk-velvet weave of deep purple on a gold ground with orphreys embroidered in the style known as Opus Anglicanum.

The chasuble is believed to have been made for the Houghton family and used in the private chapel of Leagram Hall near Chipping, in the Forest of Bowland, in north Lancashire. In the c18 the house came into the possession of the recusant Weld family, many of whom had been educated on the Continent by the English Jesuits at St Omers, Bruges and Liėge. In 1953 it was presented to Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ, the eminent English Jesuit, and he, in turn, presented it to Stonyhurst. Currently it is on exhibition in St Francis Xavier’s, Liverpool, part of a fine show of treasures from Stonyhurst, entitled Held in Trust.

In the catalogue it is suggested that the chasuble is in its original form but it is unlikely that a chasuble of this shape would have been made as early as 1450. Rather, it appears to have been modified about a hundred years later to conform to the new fashion, care being taken to keep the repeat of the diaper pattern in its integrity. Through history vestments have been altered to conform to evolving shapes, especially in the c19 when Gothic chasubles were sometime cut down into the prevailing Latin shape. Alternatively, the chasuble might have been re-made in the c16, using old materials and orphreys. Or perhaps, given its age, it may be a curiosity from the c15, made in a modified form because of the cost of the tapestry.

The reason for posting a photograph of the chasuble is twofold. The first is to make it better known as a curious survival of the shape with an enigmatic history. The second is more personal. When I was based at Stonyhurst occasionally I used this chasuble despite the fact that it was known in the Jesuit community as the ‘horse blanket’ because of its weight and cumbersome cut. In the photograph the chasuble looks quite small; in reality it is enormous and extends beyond the shoulders. It was the most awkward chasuble I have so far worn for the celebration of Mass, not least because it rode up in an ungainly fashion at the Elevations of the Host and chalice and hung clumsily.

One of the best c20 designers of Gothic vestments was Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960). His work was governed as much by antiquarian as current liturgical principles and his desire was to conform to the most authentic sources. When designing Gothic vestments for Downside Abbey, in Somerset, Comper appealed for direction to the Sacred Congregation of Rites and was gratified to be told that ‘a chasuble may reach a little below the wrists, or a little below the shoulder, but not in between.’ ‘To my eye,’ he recalled, ‘the “not in between” is very important; it is the blindness to this which has been I think responsible for the desertion of the full shape.’ I wish that such sound principles for the design of Gothic vestments would be reapplied if the beauty of line is to be restored. The ‘Borromean’ shape is an unwieldy compromise between two better forms – Gothic and Latin – and I think its revival is a compromise that is not actually needed.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: