A Contemporary Case for the Inclusion of Memento Mori on Black Vestments

Over the years I have shared many photos of black requiem vestments replete with skulls, scythes, bones, even the poor souls in Purgatory. These vestments usually inspire a great deal of interest for reason of their relative rarity and also for reason of these symbols. Reaction to them is either one of great interest or, alternatively, a certain hesitancy and discomfort.

Most of the extant examples of this sort of work comes from the 18th century. In the realm of liturgical books we also find a number examples from the first half of the 19th century. Interestingly, however, such inclusions -- at least as far as paraments were concerned -- were already excluded at least as early as the 1600 edition of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. The text of the C.E. notes that images of the dead (imagines mortuorum), as well as white crosses (cruces albae), were not permitted on the paraments of the altar, the sacred ministers' vestments, the seldom used missal covering, for the coverings of the faldstool and so on. (See Book II, Chapter XI, No. 1) Later, in the 19th century, clarification was asked of the Sacred Congregation of Rites as to whether the prohibition against images of the dead was meant to only exclude those of the souls in purgatory as opposed to skulls and such, however the answer came back in the negative. It excluded both. (See SRC 4174.)

Three souls seen in the purifying Purgatorial fires
As to why, I have yet to find any documented rationale. Perhaps they were deemed too morbid or there was a concern that they might obscure the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead. It has also been suggested by some that it may have been to do with negative associations with items such as plague panels and plague crosses.

On the other hand, these sorts of symbols have historically been employed within the Church as memento mori,  reminders of mortality and the four last things -- death, judgement, heaven and hell.

The Case for Imagines Mortuorum Today

Whatever reasons informed this decision in the past, today it seems that a good case could be made for the prudence of rescinding this prohibition (or at very least loosening it).

In the first instance we live in a time when there is a woeful lack of awareness around purgatory.  Rarely does one hear Catholics speak of it. Going hand in hand with this is a related lack in the offering of prayers and Masses  for the faithful departed.  Were images of the souls in purgatory to be allowed on black vestments, these could present a powerful teaching moment, reminding people of this reality and of the importance of praying for the faithful departed.

In the second instance we likewise live in a time that places very little thought on three of the four last things; namely, death, judgement and Hell.  In fact, in Western societies there is a particular avoidance of thinking of one's own mortality, almost to the point of denial, which of course is also not helpful in promoting a life of penance, avoidance of sin, and the pursuit of Christian virtue. Here again, the presence of memento mori such as these, particularly within the context of the Requiem Mass, could be a useful and important counterbalance to this far too neglected reality.

Evidently in executing such designs they would need to be done tastefully and ideally they would also find ways to incorporate the Christian hope in the resurrection in some way as well. But given the aforementioned issues that our culture and time struggles with, I firmly believe these memento mori should themselves find some sort of resurrection.

As far as the feelings of discomfort they can trigger within some, it may be worth considering that sometimes we need to feel that little prick.

We should not lose sight of Christian hope of course, but these two poles are not mutually exclusive and in fact together they form a fuller Christian picture. The issue we face today is precisely that there is a cultural avoidance of this fuller picture, and it has even found its way within the walls of our churches. We need a counter-balancing corrective.

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