The Importance of Variety and Distinctiveness in Vestment Design - Part 2: The Baroque

In part one we looked at gothic revival vestments and their medieval forebears and discussed some of the reasons why the current approach to much gothic revival work may not have the same positive impact that some other styles seem to.  Arguably this is because of a contemporary approach, evident since the mid-20th century, which makes them all rather similar to one another in design, lacking a certain ornamental quality, variety and distinctiveness.

In the realm of the baroque (or what some term "Roman") arguably there has been a greater variety when taken in whole, but it too has had its share of the same sorts of problems. One can quite easily find many inadequate contemporary approaches to it. Here are just a few examples of this.

Below is another example; one that is certainly significantly better than the two examples above, but which still comes off as fairly generic and commercial all said.

There are other examples beyond these of course, but typically this contemporary approach relies heavily on appliqués and the sort of orphreys that are usually employed in modern gothic vestments. They often have a Latin or 'French' style cross on the back, place an IHS monogram, Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho or some other such symbol in its axis, or perhaps place an image of Christ, the Virgin Mary, a pelican or dove, or some popular devotional image of a saint there. In a nutshell they are approached in the same way our lack-lustre gothic examples were, just with a different shape.

It's worth noting that these examples tend to be based upon nineteenth century approaches rather than eighteenth and we see in them many of the same issues that we found in our previous article. The same sorts of textiles are used over and over -- usually a limited selection of specifically ecclesiastical brocades -- and often in the same one or two shades for any given liturgical colour. The aforementioned appliqués as a rule do not work particularly well, partially because of their size or placement, but also because of their quality -- coming off as commercial and low quality (which they are after all). They are essentially a quick way -- a cheat if you will -- to try to get more ornamental, quickly, easily and cheaply and it certainly shows. In other instances they have a Saint-Sulpice quality to them.  The end result is more often than not one of tired approaches whose artistic merits are limited at best and dubious at worst.

Cut can also be an issue and many of these contemporary approaches often seem less than satisfactory in this regard. Some of them are too wide, others too flimsy so that they do not 'fall' gracefully. The front, however, is where the problem of cut most comes to bear. If you take our first example above, it is too wide and bulky; the second is far too narrow, exposing too much of the breast and shoulders -- the so-called "bib" effect.  The cut and the construction of a baroque style chasuble is particularly critical if it is to come off right; it cannot be underestimated.

If we are to analyze what makes for the most edifying approach to this style it seems to me that we must again dive back into history and cultivate an awareness of what makes the baroque -- well -- baroque.

In the first instance, figurative depictions seldom enter in to most eighteenth century vestments.  However, in those instances where they do, unlike later nineteenth and twentieth century vestments, they do not dominate the vestment. Here is an example:

Treasury of St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna.
My own experience is that it is not easy to successfully incorporate figures into vestments in general, but this example is utterly exquisite in form, content and colour. The key seems to be that the figures seamlessly integrate into the greater design of the chasuble. By contrast, in some later examples we see a move toward figurative elements that might disrupt the unity of the design or dominate it. This could be manifest by devotional like pictures which were integrated into the vestment, or in some instances by very large figures which almost seem to be just 'stuck' onto the vestment.  In other instances the front and back of the chasuble became a canvas of sort that hosted entire scenes. In both of these instances some worked better than others.

The real historical strength and character of baroque, however, rests mainly in the beauty of its braids, textiles, embroideries and the variety of shades that are employed for the liturgical colours. For our purposes we can break this down into two main categories or types.

I. Embroidered Ornament

The first is what we might call the embroidered category and within it are two main subcategories. The first would be those which employ heavy use of gold or silver thread for the embroideries; the second are of the floriated variety which employ various colours in the embroidery. This latter is most common for the white, so-called 'Marian' vestments, but occasionally it turns up in other colours as well. Some historical examples for your consideration:

Chasuble of the Cardinal Duke of York, Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807)

Chasuble of Pope Clement XIII

II. Patterned Textiles

The second major type are those which are not reliant on heavy embroidery but instead utilize patterned textiles as their ornamentation -- typically floriated designs, vine work and other naturalistic motifs. Such textiles were not unique to the baroque period of course (and one can look at earlier centuries like the Renaissance and Middle Ages to find similar sorts of textiles used in vestments) but they were certainly particularly characteristic of this period -- and, in my estimation, are one of the particular points of interest and strength within it. (By way of brief digression, for those who might find themselves uncertain about the propriety of this sort of usage, it would be good to recall that the distinction between an ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical textile is quite a new concept, coming up only within the past century or so -- and even then, it is a somewhat abstract distinction as there is no requirement to utilize a textile that specifically employs ecclesiastical designs within it. In other words, the usage of such textiles is more representative of the long history of vestment design than it is not.)

Here are just a few historical examples of this type:

As noted earlier, one of the strengths in the baroque period are the variety of colours, trims and textiles.  There is unity in that variety, but variety there is -- and it provides that quality of distinctiveness of which we have spoken. 

A Contemporary Approach

The historical samples shown here are good templates upon which to build but, of course, the question will rightly be asked, how are we to apply this today?

Admittedly approaching the embroidered version of baroque could be difficult -- though it can be done in view of the possibilities provided by machine embroidery today. Beyond this however, the model we have shown just above of patterned textiles are what seem provide the greatest opportunities today.  Whereas specifically ecclesiastically themed textiles (like those shown at the beginning of this article) are limited in both options and variety, the sky's the limit when it comes to these.

One thing to take note of in the historical examples is that many of the colours are often very soft; often (but not exclusively) pastels. This is another reason why they appear quite differently from many contemporary vestments and thus stand out from the crowd.

So then, what might these look like in a contemporary but historically informed approach? Here are just a few examples of new, baroque inspired work that has been done over the past decade or so. Each of these draws from the historical strengths of this period in both form as well as design -- and I would certainly invite you to compare and contrast the results of these to our examples at the beginning of the article. The results are extremely pleasing and certainly worthy of the sacred liturgy.

There isn't only one acceptable shade of any particular liturgical colour.
(St. Michael's Abbey, Orange County)

Take note here of how the chasuble covers the breast and shoulders. This is ideal.
(St. Michael's Abbey, Orange County)

(FSSP Lyon)
A nice example of how two textiles can be sensitively combined to good ornamental effect. (FSSP Lyon)
Simple, but striking. (FSSP Lyon)
Simple but elegant and striking. (FSSP Lyon)

Bold patterns work best when there is a complementarity to the colours and particularly when you can harmonize it with the orphrey trims. (FSSP Lyon)
While embroidered versions of floriated vestments will be more costly, there are other ways to approximate this style. (Luzar Vestments)
Ordination chasuble of Fr. Alex Stewart, FSSP. It is important to be imaginative when planning out vestments in this style. Think 'outside the box' as the saying goes.
A new rose set unveiled recently at Ss. Trinita dei Pellegrini in Rome

A set designed by Fr. Cyprian La Pastina at St. Gabriel's, Stamford, CT. 

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.