Sacred Vestments from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century As Seen In Historical Paintings

We have previously touched on the subject of Vestments in Art and I thought I would return to this subject once more, turning this time to some other paintings. Vestments do appear in places other than paintings of course -- illuminations and sculpture being the next most obvious places to look -- but it is within painted works that we find the most possible detail of these objects of liturgical art. 

My own particular interest in this subject stems from the fact that these painted works help to provide us with an insight into the look and feel of vestments dating to the period in which the artist executed his work. In this regard it can help to provide a kind of witness to everything from the forms of decoration to the particular cut of the place and time in question. 

So with that in mind, let us continue our consideration of this, taking a look at a few more paintings, beginning with this detail from El Greco's work, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz" dated to 1588. 

Detail from El Greco's "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz", 1588.

A closer look at the details of the vestments helps to demonstrate that the ornamentality some strictly associate with the baroque period certainly pre-dates it, extending to the renaissance and before. We see here a beautiful mitra pretiosa in a design that will be well familiar to many of us today -- thus showing a certain continuity in the design and ornament of our traditional sacred vestments.  Typical to the period, as an extension of the common approach in the middle ages, we see embroidered images of saints in the ophreys, counter-balanced by precious textiles comprised of floral and organic motifs as were popular from the renaissance onward. 

As an interesting side note in this particular painting, the use of memento mori on vestments (such as skulls, bones, skeletons, the souls in purgatory and so on) are sometimes considered an innovation of the 18th century, but in point of fact they predate this. One can see that in this painting, dated to 1588, that memento mori already found in evidence on the orphreys of the cope:

One will note that on the deacon a typical Spanish "collarin" is found in evidence, and if we turn to this painting by the Italian mannerist painter of the Venetian school, Giovanna Antonio de' Sacchis, otherwise know as "Il Pordenone" we will see another version of this same collar -- a descendant of the apparel on the amice. 

Detail from "Madonna in Trono col Bambino e i Santa Ilario di Aquileia, Taziano, Antonio Abata e Giovanna Battista", 1520-21 by Giovanni Antonio de' Sacchis

This particular work is dated to 1520-21 and shows a relatively simple, yet precious and ornamental vestment of voided velvet, typical to the general tastes of the period.

Here is an example of an actual vestment from the 15th century which uses a similar voided velvet to that shown in the painting.

Located behind the deacon we can see a beautiful mitra pretiosa made of a white silk damask and ornamented with precious stones.  As in the previous example, we see here once again the saintly figures placed within architectural niches and the like, reflective of medieval tastes, paired with an ornamental fabric. 

This decorative scheme continues in our next work, also from the earlier 16th century, now showing one of the patterned textiles that was popular and fashionable in the north of Italy around this period of time.  Our modern eyes sometimes find it difficult to interpret the intended liturgical colour of a textile such as this, but what this speaks to in part is the fact that textiles were rare and precious commodities and earlier centuries used what they had at their disposal. Their nobility and beauty to serve the sacred liturgy was the most important consideration, as well as the frugal use of what was donated and available.  

Detail from "San Gottardo in trono fra i Santi Sebastiano e Rocco", 1525-27 by Giovanna Antonio de' Sacchis

Rather than repeat this same commentary over and over, here are some further details coming from other words. I'd particularly draw your attention toward the design of the textiles themselves. One can certainly see that the textiles of this era were certainly highly ornamental.

Detail from "Il santi Antonio, Cornelio e Cipriano", 1565-71, by Paolo Veronese

One point of note worthy drawing your attention to in the case of this painting by Paolo Veronese is the use of tasseled fringes on the edges of the copes. This feature was quite common around this period of time. These would later come to be dropped altogether or replaced instead by lace braid trims on the edge of the vestment. Their inclusion can be understood as both practical (i.e. helping protect the edges of the fabric itself from soiling and fraying) as well as ornamental. 

Perhaps the most famous textile pattern of all during this period of time were those which saw bold, snaking lines topped by elements like pine cones or pomegranates, an example of which can clearly be seen here in this detail from one of the many paintings of the Mass of St. Gregory.

Detail of the Mass of St. Gregory from the Master of Aachen Altarpiece, ca. 1495-1520

This next painting, showing an image of the same, also gives you a good understanding of how the "Y" orphrey pattern on a chasuble relates to the cross, with the outstretched arms of the "Y" relating to the outstretched arms of Christ on the Cross. 

Detail of the Mass of St. Gregory from an altarpiece of the Master of Aachen, ca. 1495-1520

Seen just below the figure of St. Gregory are two prelates wearing copes. Typical to this period are the use of heavily embroidered scenes with architectural motifs for the hood of the cope. Both copes also show the tasseled edging on the bottom of each vestment as in earlier examples, as well as a tassel. 

Detail of the Mass of St. Gregory from an altarpiece of the Master of Aachen, ca. 1495-1520

Of particular interest, to me at least, is the cope on the right, whose fabric is of particular interest, showing as it does a multi-coloured type of silk lampas of gold, blue and rose highlights. 

The same holds true for the cope/mantle shown in this painted image of Ss. Fabian and Sebastian by artist Giovanni di Paolo which dates to approximately 1475:

We will conclude our considerations today with this painting of St. Vincent of Sargossa which is dated to 1462-1466, painted by Tomas Giner. 

This work shows a particularly clear and unhindered view of the textile itself, not to mention the fringed edges and the ornamental textiles frequently used for the apparels on the alb and amice -- decorative details which were also accomplished by the use of decorative laces -- a decorate feature that was already found in evidence within the medieval period and which would become the standard approach in successive centuries. 

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