On the Use of Tapestries at Traditional Papal Masses and Ceremonies: A Brief Survey

A feature of the traditional papal liturgies and ceremonies of yesteryear that has been lost in the post-conciliar period (at least to date) is the use of tapestries for the papal throne and, in the case of the Sistine Chapel, as the dossal for the altar.  These tapestries were not solely ornamental of course, but were beautiful woven scenes take from the life of Christ, of the Virgin Mary and so forth, often selected thematically to reflect some aspect of the liturgical feast or celebration that was taking place.

In the instance of St. Peter's Basilica this loss has primarily been the result of the papal throne being moved from its traditional location beneath and before Bernini's Altar of the Chair (which location was also symbolic, tying relic of the Chair of St. Peter himself to the throne or chair of the Roman pontiff, his successor) to its current location before the main altar., over the confessio  However, in other instances, such as papal Masses in the Sistine Chapel or outdoor papal Masses, this elimination is more of a question mark since they certainly could be continued to be used in those particular locations. Whatever the reasons, our focus today is simply on the tapestries themselves.

It is not extremely easy to pull up a great deal of information on these as certainly the Vatican has commissioned any number of tapestries, so by no means is this article intended as a detailed, scientific history of these tapestries; it is rather more a case of taking a quick but focused glance at how some of these were used. 

In this first instance, seen also above, we see an image taken from the outdoor Mass of the papal coronation of the Pope Paul VI. So it was for this particular occasion the tapestry that is selected is that showing Christ giving the keys to St. Peter -- which of course, obviously is well suited to this particular Mass, coming with reference to the Petrine mission as the Vicar of Christ. 

A slightly better view of it taken in daylight from the same Coronation Mass:

Next we have a consistory, this time coming from the time of Pope Pius XII. For the consistory which saw the creation of new cardinals we see used here a replica of the tapestry of Clement VII which shows three of the cardinal virtues (Prudence flanked by Justice and Charity). No doubt there was a specific symbolic reference here to the role and mission of the college of cardinals and the cardinal virtues themselves. 

These next three images are taken from the pontificate of Pope John XXIII and it is unfortunately not clear or well-documented as to which occasions they were for.  What can be said, however, is that at very least the first two are not from a Solemn Papal Mass as is made clear by the pope's own vestments (mantum and mitre) and also the fact of the choir dress of the cardinal attendants at the throne -- rather than vestments.

Still, let's take a look at the tapestries themselves for these occasions. The first appears to show a depiction of the communion of saints in heaven, the Trinity seen above in Glory, beneath them the Virgin Mary interceding, and then finally a host of sainted figures including Ss. Peter and Paul and what appears to be St. John.  It is quite possible something of this sort may well have appeared in the context as well of canonizations. 

This next tapestry depicts a beautiful image of the Virgin and Child. 

The same tapestry can also be found here used as the dossal of the altar of the Sistine Chapel:

Next we see the pope being vested. The throne is set up inside the Vatican basilica, but not beneath the altar of the Chair; instead it is to the side of the 'choir' where the pope traditionally vested -- though these thrones for Terce did not generally include tapestries of this sort. As a result, I would speculate that it is is possible the pope was being vested here for the consecration of new bishops which frequently took place at the altar of the Chair. The tapestry appears to show the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which would certainly make sense within the context of an episcopal consecration. 

This same tapestry can also be seen in use here for the papal conclave within the Sistine Chapel as a dossal tapestry, coming with reference to the invocation of the assistance of the Holy Spirit in selecting a new pontiff..

One of the tapestries one sees less commonly is that which depicts a scene of the crucifixion. Here it is shown in the time of Paul VI within the context of some sort of non-liturgical gathering in 1964:

Last but not least, I would show this tapestry which was taken within the context of the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. In this particular instance we see a tapestry of a less baroque style than the others, showing an image of the Coronation of the Virgin. 

Should we come across more detailed information about the particular history of some of these tapestries we will endeavour to provide it, but for now, we hope that drawing your attention to these will help inform some of your sense of some of the rich liturgical traditions and expressions of papal Rome that have not made an appearance in the past few decades. 

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