Approaches to Simpler Vestment Designs

Within the Church, the concept of "noble simplicity" is both frequently misunderstood and it is also often inappropriately weaponized against more traditional and ornamental expressions in liturgical art.  In architecture this manifest itself in many "white-washings" of churches, covering up beautiful frescoes and pattern work, while in metalwork we saw gothic, renaissance and baroque brass and silver designs dumped and traded in frequently for works characterized by what I call "faux primitivism." (Designs intended to look rough and primitive, lacking sophistication in design). In the realm of vestments this became manifest by swapping out of vestments made from beautiful silk damasks, embroideries, gold and silver trimmings, in exchange for rather lack lustre designs both in material (frequently polyesters and other like materials) and design -- designs once again rooted in a kind of faux primitivism typically based on the least sophisticated designs that were scrawled out by a primitive Christian onto the rough-hewn walls of the catacombs. (Which is certainly understandable from a sentimental point of view, particularly as more of these were coming to light as a result of modern day excavations, but there are better and more refined ways to pursue paleochristian revival.)

In the realm of sacred architecture these unfortunate trends are fortunately now being reversed, and so too are we seeing newer generations of clergy, those who did not have their formative years situated in the 1960's, 70's and 80's (times when this desire for faux primitivism was at its strongest, to the point of becoming a near absolute) restoring to use a more classic approach to sacred vestment work -- which is what our focus is here today. Of course, as part of this there is another concurrent temptation that must be equally avoided, and it is one we have spoken to here before, and that is to avoid overdoing it for there is a distinctive difference between an elegant, richly ornamental vestment and a merely "flashy" one; the former is counter-reformation Rome whereas the latter is merely Las Vegas.

When properly expressed, however, this movement toward reclaiming a greater classic ornamentality in sacred vestments is very encouraging, but it must also be said that there is still also a place for "simpler" designs in vestments so long as we learn from the mistakes of the second half of the twentieth century, avoiding faux primitivism and taking our cues from the classical tradition. In fact, every parish and community should have both types in my estimation, for if we always have the one and the same visual diet of vestment style, they tend to lose their respective liturgical impact. For example, if every vestment in the sacristy looks practically festal, how do we distinguish feast from fast, Sunday from weekday? Concurrently, if every vestment looks practically Lenten and ferial in its sobriety, how do we visually distinguish feria from feast?  Variety matters.

But how simpler designs are approached is also important, starting with the materials used in their design. A noble material can go along way, as well as a few decorative accents.  Take for example this dalmatic/tunicle seen in Rome in the mid-twentieth century, made from a cream silk damask fabric, which has been delicately accented with a patterned geometric embroidered orphrey, as well as a secondary accented fabric in a renaissance style (seen on the end of the maniple) and completed also with renaissance style tassels. The end result is very dignified and certainly can be characterized as yet another instance of "Romanitas:" 

Context is also important. What might work well within a monastic context, for example, is one thing, but that is not always the best model to always follow in parishes, shrines, never mind cathedrals. For example, these very austere monastic chasubles below seem well suited to monastic traditions such as the Carthusians or Cistercians, and I'd point out that what they lack in textile sophistication is made up for by the fuller conical shape with the resulting play of light and shadow on the folds of the arms. 

Contextually, the liturgical time can also make a difference. Such simple designs seem best utilized for violet and black times, especially during the weekdays, which naturally tend toward a greater sobriety and in that regard, if something less ornamental than a silk damask is desired, a raw silk would seem particularly well suited. Of course, strictly there is no such necessity,  but it is certainly an option. 

Here are some other, simple designs, which are I think are more broadly applicable to any liturgical context. They all share the common trait of utilizing a simple but beautiful silk that is then further accented by orphreys that are colourful as well as geometrical.

Two 'gothic' manifestations, the first semi-conical, the second truncated gothic revival:

In terms of renaissance and counter-reformation styles of vestments, these simpler variations might be manifest in simple tone-on-tone silks, silk moiré or lamé, paired with a simple galloon as follows :

Similar to our very first Roman example which included an embroidered orphrey, here is something akin to it, but which, at heart, remains relatively simple and certainly noble (and while these are done in silk lamé, they certainly could also be done in other silks as well):

To conclude, there is a difference between "simpler" vestments and mere minimalistic blandness -- which amounts to the artistic and liturgical equivalent of unseasoned, unsalted food and "if the salt lose it savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing anymore but to be cast out and to be trodden on by men.: (Matt. 5:13)

So then, when we're approaching simpler styles and designs for vestments, let's still make sure they are characterized by quality, nobility and beauty. 

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