The Novelty of the "Ecclesiastical Textile"

It can be very difficult to see beyond one's own era. The only way to combat it is by way of familiarity with history. One example of this that I constantly come across is that many, shaped and familiar mainly with vestural expressions of the past century or so, have come to think the "normative" or only appropriate expression of vestments are those fabrics which include the use of explicit Christian symbols in their design -- in other words the notion of the specifically "ecclesiastical textile." 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these particular design expressions whatsoever; the issue that can arise is when some choose to absolutize these expressions as though they are somehow the only valid expression for sacred vestments. Very frequently this absolutization is expressed in terms of the feeling that a vestment somehow "lacks any explicit Christian symbolism" (forgetting in part that the vestments themselves are Christian symbols in their own right). But the other thing this fails to comprehend is that the distinctly "ecclesiastical textile" is an innovation of the 20th century (though examples can also be found in the later 19th century as well).  

If you look back into the history of the design of vestments, the notion of the ecclesiastical textile simply doesn't exist. Textiles were textiles; they were expensive and precious and used for all sorts of different purposes ranging from sacred vestments to domestic finery. The beauty and quality of the textile is what mattered, not what was woven into it or upon it -- which is why we can even find examples of vestments made from Ottoman textiles with Islamic themes woven into them. This beauty and quality was offered for the purpose of divine worship.  In many ages, textiles were donated by well-to-do, aristocratic families which came from their houses or wardrobes for originally secular purposes, then repurposed for use as sacred vestments. (In this regard, the modern polemic about a vestment "looking like a couch" or  "wallpaper" is a totally anti-historical view, because the reality for most of history is there was no such distinction between the textiles used for sacred of secular purposes, and if a vestment could be said to look "like a couch" a couch could equally be said to "look like a vestment.")

To assist in the understanding this point, let's make a very brief survey of some vestments coming from different centuries up until modern times.

13th century

14th century

15th century

16th century

17th century

18th century

19th century

20th century -- the "ecclesiastical textile"

At the end of the day, the modern ecclesiastical textile is a by-product of the industrial revolution and the concurrent catalogue industry of religious goods and it is my experience that where this anti-historical notion most reigns supreme are in locations where Catholicism mainly established itself from the 19th century onward -- places like North America, Australia, etc. In that regard it is somewhat understandable since, in such locations, many would have little tangible familiarity with the tradition of previous centuries and you're most comfortable with what you know. Here again, this is not to say there is any issue with 'ecclesiastical textiles'; it is simply to say there is an issue with the notion that only these textiles are somehow the only appropriate one's; in point of fact in the history of vestment design, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.

Share: