A Brief Consideration of the Historical Use of Oriental Silks in European Vestments

While the silk trade would eventually spread, the history of silk is inextricably tied up with the Orient and the ancient Silk Road; a trade route that connected the civilizations of East and West. By means of these trade routes precious silks were exported from the Orient to Europe and other locations. These were a highly valued and sought after commodity, being utilized in fashion and design by wealthy, noble families as well as liturgically within the Church. It is for this reason that is not uncommon to find vestments from 19th century and earlier that utilize fabrics that are transparently oriental in their origins, often including images of dragons, phoenix's or other such motifs woven into them.

To some this might seem strange, accustomed as many have become since the late 19th century to fabrics which are explicitly Christian in their symbolism, however, it is must be understood that this is a relatively recent (and by no means universal) phenomenon. Throughout much of Church history, the explicit symbolism woven into the fabrics mattered less than did their scarcity, quality, preciousness and beauty. It was these qualities, not their specific imagery, which made them worthy of sacred liturgy.

In view of this history, which may be unfamiliar to many, I thought it might be of interest to share some examples of these sorts of textiles in ecclesiastical use, with particular focus on those examples which make their oriental origins quite clear. Enjoy.

Rose, 18th century
The chalice veil reveals the designs much ore clearly
This red cope is dated to the 17th century and readers will no doubt note the snaking, dragon-like patterns in gold.

Blue, 18th century
Violet, 1750-1774
Here again, the chalice veil gives a better look at the design in the silk
Red, 1775-1799
Red, 19th century
Red, 18th century
Green, 1750-1799

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