Vestments of Recusant England: The Requiem Chausuble of Helena of Wintour

Continuing on with our considerations of the English, recusant era vestment work of Helena of Wintour, we now turn our attention to her black requiem Mass chasuble for which Stonyhurst College provides the following descriptive details:

The black silk and velvet backing are replacements of the 17th century fabric, but the embroideries have been reattached according to their original places in Helena’s familiar hierarchy of grace. A massive dove, bright with silver and gold, iridescent silks and spangles, hovers dramatically over a black void. Like an eclipsed sun in the night sky, a Marian monogram, crowned and displaying Mary’s heart pierced with the sword ofher sorrows, sparkles above five smaller stars. The position of the dove over the monogram of Mary’s name appears on other vestments; a reminder of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Annunciation. The smaller stars, too, bear monograms, two for Mary (MAR and MR), two for Joseph (IOS and IOPH) and one for Ignatius Loyola (IG), the founder of the Jesuits. St Joseph’s intercession was associated with the Catholic notion of a good death, in other words, having received the Last Rites and made a full confession. Neither of these sacraments was easily available in Helena’s times, as priests were scarce, and intercessions to St Joseph were common as Catholics sought to make the best arrangements they could for their deaths and those of their loved ones.

The back of the chasuble has a similar gold sun-burst to the front, bearing the Jesuit IHS monogram above a red and god heart. The stars, thirteen in number, again represent Mary and Joseph and include the Jesuit saints Francis Xavier (twice) and Ignatius, another IHS monogram and two bearing the names of Mary’s parents Anna and Joachim (AN and IOM). Helena’s iconography includes the Jesuit saints and their IHS symbol as part of the Holy Family, with Joseph represented by six small stars and Mary by five small stars and one large monogram.

Helena blurs the boundaries between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, allowing a double-reading of the images on this vestment. The Dove which can also be seen as representing the Virgin, sends its blessings through the Virgin to the Jesuits and saints, who provide inspiration and act as intercessors for the faithful, often represented by Helena’s initials or family symbols. It is a complex iconography, indicating a deep reading of Jesuit spiritual texts and an intelligent, creative interpretation of personal faith expressed through embroidered images and symbols.

Bearing in mind then that the black silk and velvet shown here are replacements of the original historical materials, the primary focus from a historical textile point of view are the embroideries -- though, that being said, the basic design of the chasuble itself with its familiar Italianate form is certainly also of interest as well as it shows just how long such designs have been with us.

One of the more striking features of the work -- to contemporary eyes in particular -- is the inclusion of the image of the Holy Spirit as well as the Marian monogram on the front of the chasuble. I say it is striking because we have become rather accustomed in our time to thinking that certain symbols can only be properly paired with particular liturgical colours -- such as the dove of the Holy Spirit being paired with red, or Marian imagery with white. While these pairings certainly make symbolic sense, of course, it is a reminder that there really is no particular rule around this. 

A few details, beginning with the aforementioned dove and large Marian monogram found on the front of the chasuble:

From the back

Finally, the following video presentation will give you more views of the chasuble. 

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