The Importance of Variety and Distinctiveness in Vestment Design. Part 1: Gothic Revival

Why is it that gothic revival vestments are seldom features of artistic interest in the same way other period styles might be? This observation is based, admittedly, upon the anecdotal evidence of what has been featured, ‘liked,’ shared and commented upon over the years. Even for those of us who have not adopted any particular ideological camp as our own in the ‘style wars’ that have raged this past century, we may find ourselves less often being “wowed” by much of the work that passes for “gothic” in this area than in others. There are a few exceptions to this. The odd conical may capture our attention for instance, though possibly for reason of their relative scarcity as much as anything. Certainly much early gothic revival vestment work is of great interest and appeal, especially by the likes of Sir Ninian Comper. Beyond these exceptions, however, it seems that our reaction tends to be rather muted. As one who appreciates all styles I have found myself asking, why is this?

To begin to approach an answer to this question, I believe we need to go back and consider what the gothic revival was desiring to revive, medieval vestments. This raises an important point: in speaking of our muted response to many gothic revival vestments, this should not be confused with our approach to actual medieval vestments which, in my experience, is entirely different.

Medieval vestments are frequently characterized by brilliant and colourful embroideries and in some instances, boldly ornamental textiles. In other instances, such as the famous Beckett chasuble housed at Sens Cathedral, they are characterized by complex orphrey patterns. Many find these vestments of great interest and appeal; as items that capture their attention. What seems to drive our response and interest in these, aside from their historical qualities, are their ornamental qualities. They pique our interest because each vestment, while unified by certain qualities such as cut, orphrey patterns or what not, also has a certain uniqueness. In other words, there is a balance between stylistic familiarity on the one hand and a distinctiveness founded in the beauty of ornament and colour on the other. To help illustrate the point, here are just a few examples of some period medieval vestments:

 Chasuble the Archbishop of Toledo, Don Sancho de Aragón (1264-1275)
Chasuble of St. Thomas à Becket, 12th century. Sens Cathedral Treasury.
Photo credit: Kornbluth Photography
The Whalley Abbey Chasuble
Wolfgangkasel Chasuble, c. 1050.
Spanish Cope, 15th century
15th century cope
15th century cope
Chasuble, Sweden, 15th century
Butler-Bowden Cope. c. 1330-1350. (V&A Museum)
Detail from the Butler-Bowden Cope (V&A Museum)

From just these few examples, one can see the detail, colour and complexity within them and each one, while sharing similarities with the others in many instances, is also distinctive in its own particular beauty.

If we turn our attention now to the early gothic revival, these tend to get the same sort of positive response as their medieval forebears precisely because they too exhibit these same characteristics -- or at least that is my contention. The following are just a handful of examples of some of the earlier gothic revival work and I believe you will see the clear co-relation between these and their medieval counterparts:

Cope, AWN Pugin, 19th century.  Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Lundberry Cope, designed by Mother Francis Philomena Ullathorne OP,. 19th century.
Chasuble, Sir Ninian Comper. St. Mark's, Philadelphia.
Detail. Hood of cope designed by Sir Ninan Comper, St. Mark's, Philadelphia.
Dutch chasuble, 19th century
Early gothic revival forms
As in the previous medieval examples, these early gothic revival pieces truly attempted to pick up where the middle ages left off in terms of their use of colour, textile, embroidery and so on. They also did not try to approach it in substantially the same way. The end result is both pleasing and interesting.

All of this points toward an answer, I believe, as to why we approach so much of the later 20th century gothic revival work (which, it must be remembered, is far more common) with such muted indifference. Namely, much of it tends to lack the ornamental details and variety that brings about a more positive response. Put another way, it all tends to look very much the same with little or no significant variances between them. As such it fails to capture the imagination or to move us; it becomes rather flat -- and in fact, it often is rather flat by comparison with what we have just seen. Some examples:

There are some differences to be found between them of course, and there are certainly ornamental qualities to be found as well, but they are all substantially similar to one another. That lack of creativity and variety seems to be a key difference maker between these and the previous examples -- that and a relative lack of imagination in their ornamental composition and details.

To give you a sense of how just a little more ornamental imagination can make a difference, compare the chasubles immediately above to this:

The template is, of course, relatively the same in its basics, but the orphrey design sets it apart from those above.

So why are these being approached this way? Some of this is driven by an idea that exists in some quarters which believes the textiles and trims used in vestments should be explicitly ecclesiastical in nature. The consequence of that principle, of course, is that the options are necessarily limited to just a handful of selections -- which is hardly going to promote stylistic or ornamental variety. Others do not hold such a view, but yet somehow seem to end up with very similar brocade patterns and in usually only one or two shades of any particular liturgical colour. Perhaps it is simply a case of imitation; of being so accustomed to seeing vestments use certain types and colours of textiles that it has made it difficult for many to think outside that box.

Whatever the case, the good news is that there are contemporary gothic revival vestment makers out there today doing excellent work that is thinking outside of that box and the results are noticeable.

Granda Liturgical Arts produced this replica

Davis d'Ambly
Davis d'Ambly

St. Bede's Studio
Watts and Co.
There is much more that could be said here about the types of ornamental details that can help to make for powerful and beautiful gothic revival vestments, however we shall leave that to our final and more general considerations after we have next pursued a similar consideration with vestments done in the baroque style.

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