Saturday, August 26, 2023

A Modern History of Gothic Vestments, 1838-1957 (Part 2): Guest Article by Nico Fassino

This is the second part of Mr Nico Fassino’s article on the history of the revival of Gothic vestments; the first part was published on Wednesday. Mr Fassino is the founder of the Hand Missal History Project, an independent research initiative dedicated to exploring Catholic history through the untold and forgotten experiences of the laity across the centuries. Learn more at or @HandMissals. Once again, we are very grateful to him for sharing his interesting and thoroughly well-researched work with us.

Reception of the 1863 letter

Despite the 1863 letter from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, the use of Gothic vestments did not seem to be much changed in the years which followed. Records demonstrate the widespread and uncontroversial use of Gothic vestments around the globe during these years, including:

  • In 1870, a magnificent set of Gothic vestments worth approximately $50,000 in modern valuation was given to Bishop Richard Roskell of Nottingham for use in the cathedral. [15]
  • In 1873, Archbishop of Sydney John Polding wore “rich” Gothic vestments as he ordained Christopher Reynolds as Bishop of Adelaide in a large ceremony attended by at least four other Australian bishops. [16]
  • The 1867, 1879, 1883, and 1885 retail catalogs of Benziger Brothers, the premier Catholic publishing house and church goods retail in the United States, offered Gothic-style vestments. [17]
  • At his ordination by 1887, newly-consecrated Bishop of Wilcannia John Dunne wore “a superb and costly” set of white and gold Gothic vestments. [18]
  • By 1895, one account observed: “… there is a great diversity in this respect [of vestments] in the Roman Catholic Church. In England, the Gothic, French, and the Italian chasubles are all freely used by the Roman Catholic Clergy. [...] The Swiss Roman Catholic clergy and those in many parts of Germany use Gothic vestments, not those of Renaissance form”. [19]
Archbishop of Sydney John Bede Polding in Gothic vestments, 1866
Another summarized the situation thus: “[a]s in England, so also on the Continent, the advance of the ample chasuble was notable. By 1900 many dioceses in Western Europe could show churches where it was in use. Some of them had secured indults, some had simply accepted a growing custom, and all could cite the example of Rome itself, where several cardinals and at least two popes (Pius IX and X) encouraged the ample chasuble and used it themselves.” [20]
Helene Stummel, ca. 1890
Helene Stummel, wife of the famous artist Frederick Stummel, was a vestment maker, and a passionate advocate for the revival of Gothic vestments during these years. She was sought after by many bishops, taught regularly across Europe, and published books on recommendations for the design of vestments:

“Madam Stummel has lectured before cardinals, bishops, and the clergy in Rome, before the Congresses of Cologne and Dusseldorf. Recently a number of the Bishops of England have invited her to speak before the conferences of the clergy and in their seminaries to the students of theology. She possesses a singular mastery of the subject, and has the means to illustrate her clear and erudite expositions from a rare collection of paramentics gathered and disposed with artistic skill and a thorough realization of the dignity of the subject.” [21]

One may wonder how such a situation could exist following the circular letter of 1863. It seems exceedingly implausible that significant numbers of bishops and priests of multiple countries throughout the world were deliberately disobeying Roman directives. What then is the explanation?

Interpretation of the 1863 letter
First, it is interesting to note that the 1863 letter was not published or included in the official collection of decrees and decisions of the Sacred Congregation of Rites for more than sixty years after it was written. It is possible that, because of this, in some isolated cases the letter went unheeded due to lack of awareness, or because it was viewed as less authoritative than a formal decree. [22]

The letter was widely known in general, however, and regularly cited in clerical journals or similar interpretive authorities. These discussions demonstrate how the 1863 letter was understood and applied over decades and suggest an explanation for why the use of Gothic vestments continued: in short, the letter was not considered to be an unequivocal or totally restrictive ban.

Writing in 1884, the editors of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record explained that this letter permitted Gothic vestments to continue to be used but prevented any new vestments from being produced: “[i]n the face of this decree, it is not lawful to manufacture new vestments of this pattern. The bishop may allow the use of those already made, till they are worn out.” [23]
Painting of Rev. William Lockhart, from the cover of “William Lockhart: First Fruits of the Oxford Movement” (Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2011).
Rev. William Lockhart, a convert and friend of John Henry Newman, offered extensive commentary on the 1863 letter in the pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1890, stating that, among other things, the manufacture of ‘Borromean’ chasubles (in the size and shape prescribed by St. Charles Borromeo) remained fully permitted without requiring any special permission, as did the ‘Galway’ chasuble in Ireland. [24]

Despite the continuing use of Gothic vestments and the prevailing interpretation that the 1863 letter permitted this (but not the manufacture of new ones), Rome did not issue any further instructions, clarifications, or restrictions. [25]
The hated modern ‘French’ style
It is also worth noting that there were a number of prominent clerical and lay figures during these years who regularly wrote about their preference for the Gothic style in clerical journals and Catholic periodicals. Ernest Gilliat-Smith, for example, wrote in 1890, “... to my mind, Gothic vestments are preferable to Roman, both from an artistic and symbolic point of view, and I hope and trust that one day their use may be universal.” [26]

There was also widespread and long running disdain for the cheap, mass-produced French (modern fiddleback-style) vestments. These had undergone rather significant changes in style – described by some as “cutting and clipping” and others as “mutilation” – both before and after the French Revolution. These new forms were not forbidden by Rome and had quickly spread throughout Italy and elsewhere. [27]
Example of French-style clerical dress, 1776
The trend was described by the editors of the American Ecclesiastical Review as “[t]he growing abuse of the viol- (fiddle-) shaped chasuble, forced on the ecclesiastical market by the French makers of paramentics and silk merchants.” [28] Commentary in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1890 is at turns both comical and illustrative, and seems worth quoting at length:

“Who can describe the abortion of the chasuble that pervades France at the present day? Fiddle-shaped in front, not coming down to the knees, stiff with buckram, or paper pasted on the poverty-stricken half-cotton-half-silk material of Lyons manufacture. They are as stiff as tea-boards, and crack if they are bent.

“I was told a story lately in Belgium, of a priest who objected to the stiff paper pasted between the flimsy silk and cheap cotton lining. The manufacturer [...] misunderstanding the objection of the priest, replied: ‘Yes, M. l‘Abbe, we always use paper, in order that they may wear better, and to add to the substantial appearance of our vestments; but I assure you, on this point I have a delicate conscience, and I never put into vestments anything but des bons journaux Catholiques [good Catholic newspapers].”

“These Lyons vestments are going every day all over the world. They are cheap, and Les Dames pieuses can thus make their collections go a good way in providing vestments for Les Missions Etrangeres. [...] We need not wonder that Pius IX intimated in the letter of Cardinal Patrizi that there might be good reasons (rationes alicujus ponderis), in favour of a return to the more ancient form of the vestment.” [29]

Even the noted authority Bishop Josephus van der Stappen commented dismissively on the French corruption of the chasuble:

“Hence, when the ancient chasuble had, in the course of time, been cut down from its generous proportions of old, to the skimp reduction of modern times, and the evil had found its way from France into the neighboring countries, there arose in England, France itself, Germany, and Belgium men who, animated by a zeal for Christian art, sought on their own account to restore the ancient practice by adopting the more beautiful style of Gothic vestments...” [30]

American Gothic (Vestments)
In America, by the turn of the century, there was some regular use of Gothic vestments and clear clerical support for more. Even the editors of the Ecclesiastical Review, nobody’s idea of progressive innovators, routinely featured pieces and editorials supporting their adoption.
Excerpt from the Ecclesiastical Review, April 1910
Beyond mere support, the Review was considered to be a driving force behind a movement pushing for the change in vestments. A letter from 1910 begins: “To the Editor, The Ecclesiastical Review. My hearty congratulations upon the movement you have started for the very desirable reform in our church vestments. Enclosed is a typical letter showing that you have many well-wishers with you in this matter…” [31]  Multiple examples of proposed Gothic designs were published in the Review, along with example measurements of what was permissible.
Model of proposed Gothic chasuble in the Ecclesiastical Review, December 1909, page 687.
The use and permissibility of Gothic vestments were widely discussed in various Catholic publications of the time. Some discussions even considered the potential future of a Roman decree to abandon fiddlebacks and exclusively adopt the Gothic! A 1910 editorial in the Jesuit journal America commented on the matter in a rather cheeky fashion:

The proper form and colors of vestments is being discussed in the Ecclesiastical Review[…] they represent a school long in existence in Germany and England, and are strong in art and aesthetics. We fear the faithful are largely Philistines [regarding which style of vestments they prefer]. Moreover, the Latin races are not likely to submit gladly even in this matter to the Teuton. [...]

If the Holy See so ordains, priests will all exchange our aniline-dyed, fiddle-shaped vestments for modified Gothic of subdued, esthetic hue. But many will do so with heavy hearts and there will be heavy hearts, too, among their people. It is hard to part with old friends, and the modern form and the bright colors have many to love them. For, after all, as Andrew Lang, singing in ‘The Galleries’ the charms of the two schools of art, confesses: ‘You still must win the public vote, Philistia!’ ” [32]

Examples of a proposed three-tiered system of vestments, in the Ecclesiastical Review, March 1910, page 351. This system was devised by Bishop Wilhelm von Keppler of Rottenburg, Germany. [33]
Through the first decade of the twentieth century we find records of the use of Gothic vestments across America. In 1910, Gothic vestments were in use in St. Mary’s church in Portland, Oregon. The Tabernacle Societies of the cathedrals in Baltimore and Cincinnati, which funded supplies and furnishings for parishes too poor to afford them, regularly produced Gothic vestments during these years. [34]

In 1914, the general American situation was summarized as follows: “[d]uring the last few years there has been a steady advance, especially in our larger city churches, towards a more exact observance of the rubrics and the carrying out of the solemn services of the Church. One of the notable features has been a closer approach, in the matter of vestments, to the old Roman usage, and many churches have adopted altogether the use of the so-called Gothic (old Roman) chasuble in place of the violin-shaped garments introduced by Gallican enterprise.” [35]

Example of Gothic vestments being given to bishops as gifts. Source: NCWC News Service, May 28, 1923, wire copy page 15.
Parishes were proud to own fine Gothic vestments and hefty sums were paid out for the best sets from American and European retailers. They were also frequently given as gifts by various parish or diocesan groups to their priests and bishops. For example, in 1922 the St. Anne Married Ladies’ Sodality at St. Mary's parish in Dayton, Ohio paid $900 for an imported set as a Christmas gift to their pastor (equal to $16,345 in 2023 when adjusted for inflation). [36]

By 1924 they seem to be in widespread and regular use, at least in certain parts of the country. In Cincinnati alone there are multiple examples of Gothic vestments mentioned in less than 12 months: at the Student’s Crusade Castle chapel, at the parishes of St. Margaret of Cortona and St. Agnes, and even at the Cathedral. [37]

This concludes the second article in this series. The third and final article will explore the use of Gothic vestments between 1925 and 1957 and offer conclusions concerning the whole series.
NOTES (numeration continued from previous article):
[15] The Nottinghamshire Guardian, April 22, 1870, page 2. The set was donated by nuns of Cologne, Germany and was valued at between £400-500 in 1870, or £39,180 adjusted for inflation as of June 2023.
[16] The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), November 3, 1873, page 2.
[17] See Sadliers’ Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo (1867), page 52; and Katherine Haas, The Fabric of Religion: Vestments and devotional Catholicism in nineteenth-century America, page 32.
[18] Freeman’s Journal (Sydney), August 20, 1887, page 17.
[19] The Daily Telegraph, January 26, 1894, page 5.
[20] Rev. Edwin Ryan, “May we use ‘Gothic’ Vestments?” in The American Ecclesiastical Review, June 1934, page 577. These comments are confirmed by other sources. Pius IX explicitly authorized Gothic vestments to be used by the French Dominicans and the Diocese of Moulins (see Raymund James, The Origin and Development of Roman liturgical vestments, page 28). Pius X, in comments made to Msgr. Heinrich Swoboda and later relayed to the 1912 Eucharistic Congress of Vienna, praised the Gothic vestments used by German parishes in Rome which he had authorized and said “the vestments of the Mass must once more be made according to this beautiful large form” (see Roman liturgical vestments, page 28). Pius X also, in responding to criticisms of the modern fiddleback chasuble by Msgr. Anton de Waal in 1906, said “Ha perfettamenta ragione, è il piu brutto possibile, questa forma” (see “The Reform in Church Vestments,” Ecclesiastical Review, March 1910, page 320). The widespread use of Gothic vestments is noted in many places during these years, including: “... the use of the Gothic vestment is recognized in some of the principal churches of Italy, not excluding Rome, and especially England, Germany, Belgium, and parts of France.” (see “The Pattern of the Chasuble for the Mass,” The Ecclesiastical Review, December 1909, page 686), and “In most of the churches of the archdiocese of Cologne hardly any other kind is used at present.” (see “The Reform in Church Vestments,”page 320).
[21] “The Pattern of the Chasuble for the Mass,” The Ecclesiastical Review, December 1909, page 688.
[22] It is even claimed in a handful of sources that the 1863 letter did not, in fact, actually have the approbation of the pope. This claim is made by Rev. John Laux, CSSp (writing under the pen name George Metlake, “The Reform in Church Vestments,” Ecclesiastical Review, March 1910, page 320) and for support he cites: “See Pruner, Pastoraltheologie, vol. I, p. 56; and Braun, Die priesterlichen Gewänder des Mittelalters, 174.” I have not been able to verify either citation and therefore cannot assess the credibility or details of the claim.
[23] See the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 5 (1884), page 56. The interpretation of the 1863 letter as permitting ongoing use of Gothic vestments but forbidding the manufacture of new ones appears to be fairly widespread and is attested to again in 1890: “But you will, perhaps, say, all this is very true, but we are not allowed to make new Gothic vestments. I am perfectly well aware that more than one diocese is restricted to the Roman shape, at least so far as concerns the manufacture of new vestments.” See Ernest Gilliat-Smith, “Ecclesiastical Vestments,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 11 (1890), page 312.
[24] Lockhart’s commentary is fascinating. He argues that with the 1863 letter “no prohibition has been issued against a return, even to the largest form of the vestment in use previous to the Council of Trent”, and that what the letter actually forbids was a return to these vestments in a way which appears to be an innovation. He says that “the change in the size and form of the vestment, in the sixteenth century [to the fiddleback-style chasuble] can only claim for itself toleration on the part of the Holy See” and “that the Sacred Congregation admits that there may be reasons of some weight, “rationes alicujus ponderis,” in favour of a return to the usage of antiquity, and distinctly invites an inquiry.” See Rev. William Lockhart, “The Gothic Chasuble,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 11 (1890), pp 1084 & 1091. Lockhart’s article was reprinted and in places edited and expanded as The Chasuble: It’s Genuine Form and Size (London: Burns & Oates, 1891).
[25] Lockhart, “The Gothic Chasuble,” page 1084; see also Rev. John Walsh, The Mass and Vestments of the Catholic Church (Troy: Troy Times & Art Press, 1909), page 475.
[26] Ernest Gilliat-Smith, “Ecclesiastical Vestments,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 11 (1890), page 312. Other writers already cited and quoted above, like Rev. James Connelly and Rev. William Lockhart, also favored the Gothic.
[27] Rev. Claude de Vert, writing in the early 1700s, heavily criticized “[the French vestment makers] who are allowed the liberty of nibbling, clipping, cutting, slashing, shortening, just as the whim may take them, chasubles, dalmatics, tunicles, and other priestly garments or ornaments which serve for the ministry of the altar; in a word, they give these vestments what shape they would like, without consulting the bishop” (English translation from Raymund James, The Origin and Development of Roman liturgical vestments, page 27; James does not cite the source, but it seems to be from Explication simple, litterale et historique des cérémonies de l’Eglise Vol 2). For more description and commentary of the trend of “the mutilation and even destruction” of vestments during these centuries, see Roman liturgical vestments, pp 19-27; see also Rev. William Lockhart, The Chasuble: It’s Genuine Form and Size (London: Burns & Oates, 1891), pp 16-20.
[28] The Ecclesiastical Review, March 1926, page 309.
[29] Rev. William Lockhart, “The Gothic Chasuble,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol 11 (1890), page 1090.
[30] As quoted in “The Pattern of the Chasuble for the Mass,” The Ecclesiastical Review, December 1909, page 682. Other articles in the same journal cited additional comments from Van der Stappen on this topic: “Of our present-day chasuble, which is said to be a French contrivance and partly the outcome of commercial motives and industrial accommodation, Van der Stappen says: ‘[...] In place of the former flowing robe gracefully falling over the body they thus produced a sort of fiddle-shaped garment which had to be cut in front so as to permit the free movement of the arms.’ Subsequently this form degenerated still further and under the commercial influence of French vestment-makers the front part was often arbitrarily reduced so as to expose the arms and shoulders of the priest standing at the altar. ‘This new fashion of commercial chasuble,’ continues the author, who writes for seminarists [sic], ‘is lacking in both beauty and due reverence and should be censured and rejected.’ See “Roman versus Gothic Vestments,” The Ecclesiastical Review, December 1925, page 629.
[31] “Anent the Reform in Church Vestments” The Ecclesiastical Review, March 1910, pp 349-350.
[32] “What Vestments Shall We Wear?” America, February 19, 1910, page 509.
[33] See “The Introduction of the Old Roman (Gothic) Chasuble,” The Ecclesiastical Review, January 1910, page 86; and “The Reform in Church Vestments,” Ecclesiastical Review, March 1910, page 321.
[34] See: Our Sunday Visitor, October 21, 1910, page 5; The Baltimore Sun, May 31, 1913, page 6; and The Catholic Telegraph, June 8, 1916, page 5.
[35] “The ‘Color Rosaceus’ for Laetare Sunday” in The Ecclesiastical Review, March 1914, page 326.
[36] The Catholic Telegraph, December 28, 1922, page 5.
[37] See The Catholic Telegraph, October 11, 1923, page 9; The Catholic Telegraph, April 17, 1924, page 5; The Catholic Telegraph, June 26, 1924, page 8; and The Catholic Columbian, September 12, 1924, page 3.

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