Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Click to enlarge

Vestments. IN WESTERN EUROPE.—By liturgical vestments. are meant the vestments that, according to the rules of the Church or from ecclesiastical usage, are to be worn by the clergy in performing the ceremonies of the services of the Church, consequently, above all, at the celebration of the Mass, then in the administration of the sacraments, at blessings, the solemn recitation of the canonical hours, public services of prayer, processions, etc. The liturgical vestments of the Latin Rite are: the amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole, tunicle, dalmatic, chasuble, surplice, cope, sandals, stockings (or buskins), gloves, mitre, pallium, succinctorium, and fanon. The pope has the most elaborate and the greatest number of liturgical vestments, for all the vestments mentioned belong to him. The vestments of the priest are the amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole, chasuble—vestments which the priest wears at the celebration of the Mass—then, in addition, the surplice and the cope. Besides the vestments worn by the priest the liturgical dress of the bishop includes also the tunic, dalmatic, sandals, buskins, gloves, and mitre; those of the archbishop include further the pallium. The subdiaconal vestments consist of the amice, alb, cincture, maniple, and dalmatic; those of the deacon of amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole, and dalmatic. Finally, the lower clergy wear the surplice as a liturgical vestment, a vestment that belongs to all the grades of ordination.

IN THE EAST.—There are also liturgical vestments in the Oriental Rites. They are fewer than the sacerdotal vestments of western Europe, and vary from these also as regards form, nature, and use. Nevertheless the sacerdotal vestments of the East and West agree in essentials. The liturgical vestments worn in all Oriental Rites as well as in western Europe are: the undertunic (alb), the cincture, stole, chasuble, and omophorion (pallium). In the East the chasuble is still bell-shaped, but, according to present usage, is slit in front in some rites. It is customary only in a few of the Eastern Rites to use the humeral veil and the mitre as in the Latin Rite, still, some, instead of a mitre, have a hat like the tiara, a covering like a turban, or, lastly, a cowl or veil. The vestments peculiar to the Oriental Rites are: the sakkos, the outer vestment of the Greek bishop, which is like a dalmatic; the epigonation of the Greeks and Armenians, a rhombic-shaped ornament of bishops and prelates that hangs on the right side to below the knee, hence the name; lastly the epimanikia, cuffs, or gloves with the part for the hand cut off, customary in all Oriental Rites. Pontifical vestments are the liturgical head covering, excepting in the Armenian Rite where the priest also wears such a covering for the head, the sakkos, the omophorion, the epigonation, and the epimanikia.

Liturgical Vestments in a more General Sense.—Besides the vestments worn by the clergy there are various other articles of clothing worn by ecclesiastics which are not, it is true, designated as vestes sacroe, but which, nevertheless, in a general sense can be included among the liturgical vestments. Thus, in the Latin Rite, there are the cappa magna, the amess, the mozetta, the rochet, the biretta; in the Greek Rite the mandyas (mantle) of the bishops, and the biretta-like covering for the head called kamelaukion, which, when worn by monks or bishops, has a veil called exokamelaukion.

Origin.—The liturgical vestments have by no means remained the same from the founding of the Church until the present day. There is as great a difference between the vestments worn at the Holy Sacrifice in the pre-Constantinian period, and even in the following centuries, and those now customary at the services of the Church, as between the rite of the early Church and that of modern times. Just as the ceremonies that today surround the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries are the product of a long development, so are also the present liturgical vestments. It was sought at an earlier era to derive the Christian priestly dress from the vestments of the Jewish religion. Yet even a superficial comparison of the liturgical vestments of the New Covenant with those of the Old should have sufficed to show the error of such an opinion. The Christian vestments did not originate in the priestly dress of the Old Testament, they have, rather, developed from the secular dress of the Gaeco-Roman world. The influence of the dress of the Mosaic cult upon the form of the Christian priestly dress can only be conceded in this sense, that the recollection of it must have made the use of liturgical garments specially reserved for the services of the Church appear not only entirely in keeping with the dignity of the mysteries of religion, but even necessary. This influence, however, was clearly general in character, not such as to make the Jewish priestly dress the prototype of the Christian.

Development.—Four main periods may be distinguished in the development of the Christian priestly dress. The first embraces the era before Constantine. In that period the priestly dress did not yet differ from the secular costume in form and ornament. The dress of daily life was worn at the offices of the Church. In times of peace and under normal conditions better garments were probably used, and these were especially reserved for the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. It would undoubtedly have scandalized the faithful if they had seen the bishop and his assistants perform their sacred office in dusty, dirty, or worn garments. The opinion which St. Jerome expresses- “The Divine religion has one dress in the service of sacred things, another in ordinary intercourse and life”—is certainly true also for the pre-Constantinian period, which it is hardly permitted to regard as a period of liturgical barbarism. It is even possible, though not demonstrated, that, as early as the close of the pre-Constantinian period, liturgical insignia came into use among the bishops and deacons, as the orarion, or stole, and the omophorion or pallium.

The second period embraces the time from about the fourth to the ninth century. It is the most important epoch in the history of liturgical vestments, the epoch in which not merely a priestly dress in a special sense was created, but one which at the same time determined the chief vestments of the present liturgical dress. The process of development which was completed in this period includes five essential elements: definitive separation of the vestments worn at the liturgical offices from all non-liturgical clothing, and especially from that used in secular life; separation and definitive settlement of certain articles of dress; introduction of the sacrales distinctiva; employment of the vestments definitely assigned for use at the Divine offices with retention of the ordinary clothing under these vestments; lastly, introduction of a special blessing for the vestments intended for liturgical use. It cannot be decided positively how far this development was consummated by means of mere custom, and how far by positive ecclesiastical legislation. However, it may be taken as certain that the growth of a priestly dress did not proceed everywhere at an equal pace, and it is very probable that this development was completed earlier and more rapidly in the East than in Western Europe, and that the Orient was the prototype for Western Europe, at least with regard to certain garments (stole and pallium). It was of much importance for the forming of a special priestly costume differing from the garments ordinarily worn, that the poenula (cloak or mantle) and the long tunic, which came into universal use in the third century and were also worn in the offices of the Church, were gradually replaced in daily life, from about the sixth century, by the shorter tunic and the more convenient open mantle. The Church did not join in this return to the former fashion, but retained the existing costume, which was more suitable to the dignity of the Divine offices; this fact in itself was the beginning of a rubrically distinct priestly dress. As regards the influence of Rome upon the development of a liturgical costume in other parts of Western Europe, such influence cannot have been of much importance outside of Italy before the eighth century. The case, however, was different in the eighth century, and as early as the ninth century Roman custom was authoritative nearly everywhere in the West. The great simplicity of the liturgical dress in the pre-Carlovingian era is very striking. The dignified shape with many folds that is constantly met in the sculpture and pictures of that era did not in fact require decoration, which at that time was limited almost exclusively to the clavi, the red ornamental trimming of the dalmatic.

The third, period, extending from the ninth to the thirteenth century, completed the development of the priestly vestments in Western Europe. It ceased to be customary for the acolytes to wear the chasuble, stole, and maniple. The tunicle became the customary vestment of the subdeacons; the chasuble was the vestment exclusively worn at the celebration of the Mass, as the pluvial, the liturgical cappa, took its place at the other functions. Another, and new vestment is the surplice, which, appearing in the course of the eleventh century, began in steadily increasing measure to replace the alb. In the third period, above all, the pontifical dress received its definitive form. This was the natural result of the enormous advance in the secular importance of the bishops and of their position in public life, which occurred in the Carlovingian era. Vestments such as sandals and stockings became exclusively episcopal ornaments. New pontifical vestments were the gloves, the sue-cinctorium, and the mitre, to which was added among the German bishops the rational, an imitation of the pallium. When Amalarius wrote his treatise, “Deofficiis ecclesiastic’s”, at the beginning of the ninth century, eleven garments were included among liturgical vestments: amice, alb, cingulum, maniple, stole, tunic, dalmatic, chasuble, sandals, pontifical stockings, and thepallium. In the time of Innocent III the liturgical vestments numbered seventeen, the fanon, that is the papal amice, not being included among these. Protestants have claimed that the development of the priestly dress in the third period was due to the formulation of the dogma of Transubstantiation. However, this is entirely incorrect. As early as about 800, therefore, before the discussion concerning the Eucharist, the liturgical dress was complete in all its essential parts. The introduction of the pluvial, or cope, and the surplice arose from the desire to be more comfortable; but the development of the pontifical costume was based, as has been said, upon the important secular position Showing Vestments of a Latin Primate in the XVI Century which the bishops enjoyed from the Carlovingian era, which naturally brought about a corresponding enrichment of the pontifical dress. The doctrine of Transubstantiation exerted no influence upon the development of the liturgical vestments.

In the Greek Rite—the development of the liturgical dress in the other Oriental Rites cannot be traced in this period—only the pontifical dress was enriched. The new pontifical vestments were: the sakkos, still a patriarchal vestment; the epimanikien; the epigonation, in so far as this vestment had not already been introduced before the ninth century; the epigonation first had the form of a handkerchief and was called enchirion (hand-cloth, handkerchief), it was not named epigonation until the twelfth century.

In the fourth period, from the thirteenth century to the present time, the history of the liturgical vestments is almost entirely the history of their rubrical evolution, their adornment with embroidery and ornamental trimmings, and the nature of the material from which they are made. For the various particulars the reader is referred to what is said in the articles devoted to the various vestments. In general the tendency in the fourth period has been towards greater richness of material and ornamentation, but, at the same time, towards greater convenience, therefore, a constantly increasing shortening and fitting to the figure of the vestments, naturally impairing the form and the esthetic effect of the vestments. The mitre alone has been permitted to grow into a tower, disproportionate in shape. Taking everything together, the development which liturgical vestments have experienced since the thirteenth century, and more especially since the sixteenth century, hardly appears to be a matter of satisfaction, notwithstanding all the richness and costliness of ornamentation, but rather a lamentable disfigurement caused by the taste of the time.

In the East there has been little or no development in the fourth period. The one vestment which has been added to the liturgical dress of the Greek Rite is the episcopal mitre.

Liturgical Vestments and Protestantism.—As is known, all denominations of Protestantism rejected the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of the priesthood. It would therefore have been logical if all denominations had done away with liturgical vestments. For even though these are not in themselves essential to the Sacrifice of the Mass, being only something external, yet by their entire history they are connected most intimately with it. Without the Mass our liturgical dress would not have appeared either in the East or West. Of all the Protestant denominations logical action was taken only by the Reformed Churches (Calvinist and Zwinglian), which did away entirely with the Mass and the Mass vestments, and substituted for these vestments in the church service a dress taken from secular life. On the other hand, the Lutherans did not show themselves so logical. It is true that, in agreement with their rejection of celibacy and the degrees of Holy orders, they rejected the cincture, the symbol of chastity, as well as the maniple and stole, the insignia of the higher orders, but they retained the alb or surplice and the chasuble for the celebration of Communion; and this was the case in Germany until the eighteenth century; in isolated cases the surplice is worn there even now; it is worn also in Scandinavia, where the bishops retained the cope, and in Denmark up to the present time. In England the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 still permitted the surplice, alb, chasuble, cappa, and tunic; three years later, however, on account of the greatly increased strength of Calvinism, the second edition of the Prayer Book only allowed the rochet and surplice. It is true that the third edition, of 1559, issued during the reign of Elizabeth, restored the force of the regulations of the first edition, but only in theory. In practice the regulations of the second edition prevailed. Further, the attempt of the bishops at the Convocation of Canterbury to save at least the cappa and surplice had no permanent success on account of the domination of Puritanical opinions. Not even the surplice, the minimum of liturgical dress, remained in universal use. A movement for the revival of the old liturgical vestments began in England with the appearance of Ritualism. Although the ecclesiastical authorities fought the revival with determination, yet it has continually advanced until now there are at least 2000 Anglican churches where the old liturgical vestments have been reintroduced.

Blessing of the Liturgical Vestments.—Not all the vestes sacroe necessarily require a blessing. This is strictly commanded only for the amice, alb, maniple, stole, chasuble, and perhaps also the cincture. The blessing of the liturgical vestments is a prerogative of the bishops; others can bless them only when specially empowered to do so. Vestments that have been blessed lose the blessing when the form is essentially altered, when they are much worn, and are therefore unworthy of the holy service, finally, when very greatly repaired. On account of the lack of positive information, it cannot be even approximately settled as to the time at which the blessing of liturgical vestments was introduced. The first certain statements concerning the blessing of liturgical vestments are made by the pseudo-Isidore and Benedict Levita, both belonging to the middle of the ninth century, but the oldest known formula of blessing, which is in the Pontifical of Reims, belongs to the end of the ninth century, for the benedictory prayer sin the Pontifical of Egbert of York are an interpolation of the tenth century. From the twelfth century and especially in the later Middle Ages, the forms of blessing were very numerous. The blessing of the vestments was probably always the prerogative of the bishop, though this is not expressly mentioned before Gilbert of Limerick in the early part of the twelfth century.

In the Oriental Rites the blessing of the liturgical vestments is also customary; it is given by the bishop, but in case of necessity the priest can perform the ceremony. The benedictory prayers in the Creek Rite are very similar to those in the Latin Rite. It is perhaps even more difficult to determine the time when the blessing of the vestments in the Oriental Rites began than to settle its date in Western Europe.

Symbolism.—It has been said at times that mystical considerations were the cause of the introduction of liturgical vestments and consequently of their existence. But this is absolutely wrong. These mystical considerations did not create the priestly dress; they are, rather, the result of the appearance of these vestments and of the defining of the individual ones. The omophorion and orarion were the first to receive symbolical interpretation, which was given by Isidore of Pelusium (died about 440); the earliest symbolism of the entire priestly dress of the Greek Rite is found in the Istoria ekklneiastike, probably of the eighth century. This work was the basis of the symbolical interpretation of the sacred vestments among the Greek liturgists until the late Middle Ages. In Western Europe the first attempt to give a symbolical meaning to the vestments of the Mass is found in what is called the Gallican explanation of the Mass. However, it was not until the ninth century that a more complete symbolism of the priestly dress was attempted in Gaul. The mystical interpretation became from this time a permanent theme for the writers on the liturgy, both in the Middle Ages and in modern times. In the symbolical interpretation of the sacred vestments. Amalarius of Metz became especially important. Even in his lifetime Amalarius aroused much opposition on account of his symbolism, which, it must be acknowledged, was not seldom peculiar, labored, and arbitrary. In the end, however, his mystical interpretations, which in reality contained many beautiful and edifying thoughts, were greatly admired, and were a model for liturgists until far into the thirteenth century. Various traces of the influence of Amalarius’s interpretations are evident even in the late Middle Ages. A symbolism, however, appeared even as early as the ninth century in certain liturgical prayers, the prayers that are spoken when putting on the sacred vestments, and the words pronounced by the bishop at an ordination, when he gives the garments to the newly ordained. It should, however, be said that up to the twelfth century these prayers appear only occasionally in the Sacramentaries, Missals, and Pontificals, but after this they soon appeared more frequently in these books. It is a striking fact that the symbolism of these prayers often pursues its own course without regard to the interpretations of the liturgists. It was not until towards the end of the Middle Ages that a greater agreement arose between the symbolism of the liturgists and what might be called the official symbolism of the Church expressed in the prayers in question; this official symbolism, moreover, differed greatly at different periods and in different places.

Characterization of the Symbolism.—This is not the place to enter into the details of the many interpretations which the various liturgical vestments have received and which, notwithstanding the chaff, contain much pure wheat. (For such detailed presentation cf. Braun, “Geschichte der liturg. Gewandung”, pp. 701 sqq.) It must suffice here to give them a general characterization. The symbolism customary among the liturgists from the ninth to the eleventh century is a moral symbolism, that is, the liturgical vestments were made to symbolize the official and priestly virtues of their wearers. In the twelfth century there was added to this the typico-dogmatic symbolism, in which the vestments were expounded in reference to Christ Whose representative is the priest, and soon they symbolized Christ’s Incarnation, the two Natures of Christ, the unity and relation to each other of these natures, before long the virtues of Christ, His teaching, and soon, lastly, His relations to the Church. Curious to say the vestments were not made to symbolize Christ’s Passion and Death. This last symbolism, which may be called typico-representative, first appeared in the course of the thirteenth century, and quickly became very popular, because it was the most easily expressed and consequently most easily understood by the people. The people interpreted the vestments as symbolizing the instruments of Christ’s Passion, as the cloth with which Christ’s head was covered (amice), the robe put on him in mockery (alb), the fetters (cincture, maniple), etc., and the priest who was clothed with these was regarded as typifying the suffering Savior. A fourth method of interpretation may be called the allegorical. This method of interpretation looks upon the priest at the altar as the warrior of God, who fights with the foe of the God of the people, and regards his vestments as his weapons in this spiritual struggle. The first traces of this symbolism are found in the ninth and tenth centuries, but are not seen in a developed form until the twelfth century. However, this last method of symbolism was never very widespread. As early as the Middle Ages the moral symbolism was customary in the putting on of the vestments, and in the prayers of the ordination service. The typical reference to Christ was always foreign to them.

Up to the fifteenth century it was customary among the Greek liturgists to make use, almost exclusively, of typical symbolism. It was not until later that they employed moral symbolism; this symbolism apparently arose in connection with the prayers pronounced while putting on the vestments, a custom of prayer that had in the meantime come into use. In these prayers the liturgical vestments symbolize the virtues of their wearers.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!