Symbols in Vestment Design: Some Design Considerations

In the medieval and renaissance period it was common to see embroidered panel scenes within the orphreys of the highest end vestments. Of course not all medieval and renaissance vestments would have had such images for, then as now, not everyone would have been able to afford or source such works. As time moved on this style gave way to vestments with little or no explicit symbols with the exception of the orphreys themselves which typically were made in the form of a cross; the rest of the decoration either relied on the textiles themselves or on floral and naturalistic motifs, or on embroideries of the same, with the vestment itself being the primary symbol. With the coming of the gothic revival in the 19th century and the archeologistic revivals associated with the period, interest arose in the inclusion of more medieval style fashions and imagery on vestments and thus in symbols generally. Sometimes these were manifest as images of the saints (though only rarely given the amount of work required), though more frequently they were manifest in modern interpolations such as monograms (e.g. IHS, MR, etc.) or symbols such as the chi-rho, Sacred Heart, Immaculate Heart and so on. 

Coming to our own time, after passing through the primitivism of the 1960's and 70's newer generations have taken up the task of reviving more classically ornamental vestments. There are two primary design schools which this has broken down into; the first is the more Italian or baroque school, focused on the quality and design of the textiles and galloons themselves. The second is that school of design which has been influenced by gothic revival with its inclusion of imagery and symbols. It is the latter which has caught my attention recently for I have noticed a trend developing which I believe needs to be discussed. The trend in question is what I consider the undue multiplication of symbols on vestments.

What do I mean by this?  In brief I mean that there seems to be a developing trend -- small but noticeable -- whereby there is an apparent desire to include multiple, disparate symbols on vestments. (I am not referring here to the repetition of a singular symbol please note; but the inclusion of various symbols on one vestment). Now I should note that it's not that this cannot be done, it's more a case that it probably shouldn't be in many cases as it is difficult to pull it off tastefully.

Turning back to our medieval examples, these very frequently included images of multiple saints throughout an entire orphrey. The way this was frequently handled was by way of the inclusion of architectural motifs that helped to unite the distinct images into a unified whole. In short, the embroiderers handled the use of multiple images in the same way architectural artists would. To my mind, if one wishes to include multiple symbols/images on a vestment, this is the way it must be handled. The distinct symbols must not be presented as distinct; rather they must be integrated as a whole by a design that will unify them.

What we sometimes see happening today, however, is that someone simply determines that they want these three symbols on the chasuble (just for example). In addition to this challenge, often there is not sufficient consideration of the established design canons for the different shapes of chasuble -- and while these are merely informal "canons" that bind no one in any absolute sense, it seems to me they serve as a good starting and reference point that should be approached with a certain amount of deference and respect.  (By way of example, until the 20th century only infrequently would we find an Italo-Roman chasuble with an image or explicit symbol put in either the front or back orphrey. To my mind, there is a reason for this; namely, design wise it really doesn't work particularly well, so in the main it was dropped and other designs took prominence. See figure 1 for an example of the type of thing to which I refer).

Figure 1: Symbols placed in the midst of the column orphrey or Tau cross rarely come off well. They generally feel orphaned and tacked on as afterthoughts.

Back to the multiplication of different symbols, this practice can lead to various issues. For one thing it can come off as rather kitschy -- a bit like a house filled with too many "knick-knack's" and trinkets. For another it can lead to a vestment look and feel that echoes something like secular clothing covered in logos or advertisements. 

In reality I believe this contemporary fixation on symbols itself is somewhat problematic for by no means is it a necessity -- yet some seem to think it is and approach it as though it were. How many times have I heard someone say that this or that vestment "lacks any explicit Christian symbolism" and yet not only is this notion antithetical to the history of vestments, it also fails to consider the fact that the vestments are themselves symbols regardless of whether or not an additional layer of symbols are laid upon them.

So then, my advice for those who are commissioning such vestments would be this: 

1. Do not consider these additional symbols and images as somehow necessary; they are not. Rather they are a design choice and sometimes symbols can even become a distraction if that are not done in good proportions and harmony with the rest of the design. (See figure 2 and 3).

Fig. 2: An oversized (and misplaced) image of the Virgin Mary.

Fig. 3: The crosses here were unnecessary. This particular chasuble would have been better without their addition. 

2. Resist the temptation to needlessly multiply different symbols.  Saints in architectural niches are one thing but too many different symbols can easily result in visual clutter. (See figure 4a and 4b). If you wish to use symbols, pick a theme and focus on it rather than trying to cram in as many symbols and images as you possibly can.

Fig. 4a: An example of over-doing symbols. 

Fig. 4b: Another example.

3. If you do wish to use multiple symbols and images, ensure there is some uniting theme or focus that ties them together content wise and design wise. (See figures 5a and 5b and compare these more successful examples to the much less successful example in figure 4b above)

Fig. 5a: The various symbols in this instance are collected together by their integration into the cross keeping them unified and orderly. 

Fig. 5b

4. Finally, respect the informal design canons that exist within our tradition. While one does not have to slavishly adhere to these, they should be referenced, respected and built upon.

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