A Contemporary Black Vestment Set with Memento Mori: Theorized and Realized

It was around All Souls Day 2018 that I first wrote my article, A Contemporary Case for the Inclusion of Memento Mori on Black Vestments. In that piece I commented:
... 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.

...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... Here again, the presence of memento mori such as these... could be a useful and important counterbalance to this far too neglected reality. [...] 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.
On this matter I would emphasize again that the use of images of skulls or souls in purgatory are not meant to be morbid or hopeless. That would be a distortion of their intent. Instead, they fall within the much broader tradition of "memento mori." This Latin phrase means "remember you must die" which isn't morbid, simply true, and the point of remembering that truth is not nihilistic; it is not meant to end there. The point is, rather, that you should remember the inevitability of your own mortality so that you can better prepare for eternity; the point is not to take a short-term view but the long view. Beyond recalling this in our own regard, it is also a reminder too of our charitable obligations to the faithful departed.  Their mortal life may have ended, but their journey is not yet necessarily over.

These 'mementos' can be found everywhere from funerary monuments in Roman basilicas to skulls placed upon the refectory tables of monastic communities. For many centuries they were also found upon vestments.

This matter got me to thinking about how this tradition could be manifest today in a way that serves the purpose without seeming "over the top" -- though that this need be a consideration at all is somewhat ironic given how raw the imagery is on our televisions and computers but I digress.  It seemed to me that it would likely be best manifest in a very simple version of them, perhaps a simple skull and crossbones, or potentially it could also include other symbols of the resurrection (such as lillies or what not). I had an image of a skull that was part of the binding of a Requiem missal and, using that, I set out to graphically play with a few digital design concepts set within the Roman and Lyonese traditions. Here is what I came up with:

Having published these designs, I can say they received a very positive response and over the course of the intervening weeks and months I was contacted by various parties asking my permission to produce the designs I had come up with. This led me to finally make the determination to, myself, approach one of LAJ's partners, Sacra Domus Aurea, about the possibility of actually producing the design. After some discussion and looking at the designs, we decided to proceed utilizing the simplest version I had come up with -- that with a single skull at the base of the orphrey (which also has the effect of making it somewhat like Adam's skull as traditionally depicted at the base of the Cross.)

This project was recently completed and I wished to share the end result. In all likelihood, this is the first black vestment that has been produced with this symbolism for more than a century (the latest having crossed my path only recently being from late 18th or early 19th century Poland).

The set is made from black velvet and uses silver galloons. The skull and crossbones are likewise in silver, embroidered and with black highlights. Straight galloon was used to add a touch of reserve and sobriety to the design and the stole and maniple were designed to have a similarly simple and sober look and feel to them.

Were a cope, dalmatic or tunicle to be added to this, I would place the skull and crossbones in the usual places on those pieces as well

Chasuble, stole and maniple
The burse and chalice veil
Here is a closeup of the embroidery:

Evidently a set like this is traditionally used for a requiem, but if one were to employ a strategy of re-vivifying this traditional symbolism liturgically, it seems to me that it would be especially tactful to begin by re-introducing it on All Souls Day (when our remembrance is at the fore but more detached) or Good Friday in the usus antiquior -- where, again, the idea of the skull at the foot of the Cross is brought before our minds and takes on a whole other symbolism.

Evidently, in terms of the possibility of actual liturgical use, some will take a hard legalistic line on this question, but it seems to me the Church presents to us, by her own historical modus operandi in these regards, with openings and much broader possibilities.

For more information about this set or their work in general, please contact Sacra Domus Aurea.

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