Black Vestments and More: The Move Away from Minimalism in the Liturgical Arts

I spoke yesterday of consistencies of signs in relation to the accoutrements of Masses for the Dead. Requiem Masses do not simply mean the use of black vestments after all.  This isn't to say they aren't important; quite the opposite in fact. Black vestments, on the one hand, symbolically recognize and are not dismissive of the human reality of mourning and, on the other, are a reminder that one's fate after death should not be a matter of assumption or filial neglect. Black vestments are certainly important, even central, but as noted there are other signs that also have importance and they should not be brushed aside as though symbolically unimportant.

A number of these signs show up in the following photos which were sent into LAJ from the All Souls Day liturgy celebrated at the Church of All Saints in Minneapolis yesterday by Fr. Gerard Saguto, FSSP.  Let's dig into them a bit.

Above you can see the altar setup for solemn Mass. The features we see here are many of those noted in yesterday's article -- the only exceptions being that the candlesticks and cross utilized here are the usual brass sort as opposed to silver, wood or some other material. While it would be ideal to see these, the perfect should never become the enemy of the good -- and practical realities being what they are, it takes time to build up these things anew, especially in smaller communities. (Benefactors, take note. This could be a wonderful gift to your parish.)

One can see that unbleached beeswax candles are being used on the altar as well. Perfect.

Now a closer view of the altar cards:

As noted, requiem altar cards adopt the same muted approach as the other elements. Gone are the bright colours that are typically seen on these, replaced by blacks, greys and dark blues. Golden frames have been muted as well, utilizing black. Often these are black entirely, but I think this approach works well also, adopting a similar approach to that taken with black vestments where silver and gold embroideries, fringes and orphreys form the decorative elements.

That is, in point of fact, a key point to note here as well. While a sombre approach taken, sobriety does not have to necessarily equate to "plain." 

I have remarked in the past that these sorts of brighter highlights interject a sign of another Christian reality: hope in the midst of sorrow. 

At the catafalque we see the fuller symbolic manifestation and impact of the use of unbleached beeswax and simple wooden candlesticks. Here again,  I would note that plainness isn't a requirement, but neither is it a bad thing in instances such as these. Much of this is contextual. For example, what would be symbolically jarring would be if the items under discussion were more ornamental than those that were used otherwise. Greater ornament is typically reserved for festal arrangements so our symbolic approach here should ideally be marked by a measure of "toning down."

No detail can be too small when it comes to thinking through these signs. Even the altar missal  itself, which is nothing more than a typical mid-20th century Benziger Bros. issue, continues on this same theme with its black binding and black ribbon marker.

While these photos came within the context of the ancient Roman liturgy, it must be noted that most any of these expressions could and should also be adopted in the context of the modern Roman liturgy as well. On that point, it would be desireable if some ambitious liturgical publisher would reproduce the requiem altar missal, but absent of that development, an industrious parish could always opt to have the usual altar missal rebound in black and black ribbons sewn into place if desired. Needless to say, black vestments, unbleached beeswax and muted candlesticks and cross are also perfectly employable in the modern rite.

Photos:  Tracy Fallaschek Dunne

* * *

Moving now to the modern Roman rite, I wished to draw your attention to the All Souls Day liturgy yesterday in Krawow Cathedral, Poland. A few images which likewise show some of these elements in use and as I've provided commentary above already, I won't repeat myself.

I would point out, however, that the Mass was celebrated ad orientem.

Photos: Piotr Tumidajski

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.