Some Characteristics in the Evolution of Vestment Design and Decoration Through the Centuries

Those who have studied vestments are familiar with the fact that there are clues that can help identify their age and even their place of origin and/or destination. One of the most obvious is the matter of the particular shape (or "cut") of the vestment -- though this can be obscured by the fact that many fuller vestments were cut back in later centuries; a matter not merely tied to style incidentally, but also liturgical practicality.

Beyond the shape of the vestments there are other visual clues that can point to the particular era from which a vestment likely originates. These visual cues generally relate to either the particular textiles which are used (i.e. style and colour) or to the particular forms of decoration found upon them.  

The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century

The vestments of this period were frequently cut back into shapes that reflect later periods, but one of the  defining characteristics of the period was the frequent use of stamped velvets:

However, not all velvets were stamped of course:

Of course, it goes without saying that velvet was not the sole material used in vestments from the period (as per the next three examples) but it was certainly one of the more common fabrics of the period.

The Seventeenth Century

Vestments of the seventeenth century can be some of the most difficult to identify in the way we are discussing. The works that are perhaps the most readily identifiable are the embroidered works. Embroideries from this period are frequently very fine and intricate in their design, often accentuating the orphreys.  

Another feature that can often be seen in vestments from this period is the re-use of earlier pre-17th century orphreys on fabrics we would otherwise consider more typically 'modern' (i.e. eighteenth century and later). 

The period also typically saw the use of thinner galloons than were used within the eighteenth century.

The Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century was characterized by muted, pastel shades with meandering pattern repeats -- sometimes striped patterns. Metallic lace for galloons were also frequent features found in the vestments of the period. 

In terms of embroidered works, the eighteenth century saw a great deal of range, but one defining characteristic of many examples from the period is of a moderate weight embroidery that feels slightly more heavy and restrained than its seventeenth century counterparts, but still looser and more "meandering" than its nineteenth century successors.

Of course, it must be noted that there is also a great deal of stylistic overlap that can be found in embroidered examples from this century, sometimes echoing more the previous century and other times showing a clear lineage to what would come in the next century, so one must be careful about assumptions here.

The Nineteenth Century

Compared to the more muted and pastel tones of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century frequently saw the use of very rich and dark colours, frequently paired with bold gold brocades with large and orderly repeat patterns. 

The embroidered vestments of the nineteenth century are typically characterized by very orderly patterns of vines that are either embroidered very lightly, as in the first example below, or quite heavily, as in the second example:

Where floriated vestments are concerned, while variations exist one frequently sees deeper, more Victorian tastes in the colours used by comparison to similar vestments from the century before.

I will take this opportunity to also note that one also sees, toward the later half of the nineteenth century, the introduction a symbols and saints into vestments -- something that would come to particularly define the vestment work of the twentieth century. 

The Twentieth Century

As we turn toward the later part of the nineteenth century and to the twentieth, we enter a time that became fixated upon symbols -- whether that came in the form of specifically "ecclesiastical textiles" that had symbols woven right into the fabric, or whether we are referring to embroideries and appliques. Monograms such as the IHS, the Chi-rho become frequently seen, as do symbols such as crosses, saints, lambs and doves and so on. 

Of course, the same period also saw the revival of the fuller, gothic inspired cut of many centuries earlier -- a cut whose revival was actually prohibited by the Church but which nonetheless was able to take root (as is so often the case when it comes to such things). One of the more curious hybrids of this time was the use of the gothic y-orphrey on a vestment of the later shape.

Concluding Thoughts

This is not intended to be an exhaustive consideration and, what's more, I cannot over-emphasize the fact that it is not possible to make rigid absolutes where these stylistic considerations are concerned; exceptions and overlaps can be found. However, what is the case is that one can find general stylistic trends throughout these different centuries that can help one to start to make educated guesses as to the time of their origin. 

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