A few words about the chasuble
The chasuble is a basic element of the liturgical attire used by the clergy during the celebration of the liturgy. It is the outer garment, put on the alb (or surplice/rochet depending on the church rites) and the stole. The priest is obliged to wear a chasuble during the Holy Mass, of which he is the minister, although there are exceptions to this rule at present.
Its name comes from the Latin word ornatus, which simply means: dress, attire. Although the function and general shape of the chasuble has not changed over centuries of Christianity, it has undergone a kind of formal and symbolic evolution, before finally adopting its current appearance.
The genesis of the chasuble, as well as of the most of the first liturgical garments, should be sought in antiquity. Elements of everyday Roman garments were adapted as a garment pattern, which acquired full liturgical significance in about the 6th century, when they were no longere worn as an everyday garment.
This vestment obtained its form from the sleeveless hooded coat used in Rome (detachable or worn separately, called cucullus or cucullio)s, pulled over the head and reaching to the knees; sometimes slit at the front: referred to as the paenula. It served as a traveling cloak or was worn in particularly cold weather, because it was made from thick fabric. Greeks also called it planet (according to Saint Isidore) because it was sewn on a circular basis and could rotate around the body. It is also known as casula, referring to parva casa; that is, a small house, a cell in which — as in a robe — a man was locked.
The first chasubles were exclusively white (until the ninth century, later the number of liturgical colours increased). They had the form of a circle segment, fully covering the arms. During the celebration, the fabric was lifted and thrown over the shoulders to gain freedom of movement. At the front they were decorated by an emblem, on the back, by a cross. Also, the decoration used in paenula was adapted to them, namely the belts called clavi. They took the form of a narrow, purple band at the front (pectorale) and on the back of the robes (dorsale).
In the Middle Ages (around the 13th century) the sides of the chasuble were shortened, so that they reached the elbows, while the front and the back were extended. In consequence, a custom was born whereby, during the liturgy, at the time of the elevation, when the priest kneeled, the altar boy lifted the long back of his chasuble. The belts adorning the robe — still quite narrow — took a form close to the Greek letter upsilon (Υ, υ), namely, one of a narrow cross with transverse arms raised up (see: Sculpture of St. Nicholas).
Starting from the fifteenth century, chasubles without side covering began to appear, with shoulder breadth. The fabric fell only down the front and the back, and it was donned by pulling it over the head. This shape was established in the 17th century. The edges of the fabric were hemmed with a decorative tape — a braid — which also marked a wide belt called the orphrey through the middle of the robe, a derivative of the earlier clavi. Most often, it created a simple column at the front and the Latin cross (cross orphrey) on the back. In order to prevent the chasubles from slipping, strings were sewn into the lining, which were tied around the priest’s torso. Violin box chasubles, with an s-shaped cut-out in the side line at the front, became typical for baroque (white liturgical chasuble).
Over time, chasubles came to be made of extremely expensive, colourful, and ornate fabrics (satin, damask), with plentiful patterns and embroidery created with gold and silver thread, sometimes also decorated with precious stones. Interestingly, it was also customary for noblewomen to donate splendid gowns to the church, which were later used to make whole sets of liturgical vestments (sometimes their cuts can be recreated on the basis of fragments of the fabric from which the garments were made). The column of the chasuble, delineated by a decorative braid, was usually made of a different material than its sides and was filled with rich embroideries (whole figural scenes, sometimes additionally with elements painted on canvas) and applications. Coats of arms, for example, those of the donors, usually appeared on the back, at the bottom of the column (see: the chasuble of the Lubomirski foundation). In the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, kontusz belts were often sewn into chasubles as an orphrey.
The symbolism of the very form of the chasuble was indicated by its former nomenclature: planet. This evoked its cosmological significance, the divine universe, casula and — as a small chapel or cell — an enclosed form of contemplative space or prayer. Already, in the oldest scripts (Honorius, St. Isidore, St. Jerome), there appeared references endowing the chasuble with the symbolism of love which should cover up the whole person, reflecting its perfect character. A reference to this view became embedded in the rite of ordination, during which the bishop put a chasuble on the presbyter (nowadays it is done by a priest); then he rolled it up. The fabric’s spacious folds referred to love which should embrace the entire soul of the new priest, and the circular pattern: perfection. At the end of the ceremony, the vestment was unfolded — evoking innocence — which should accompany love. The chasuble also symbolizes the Lord’s yoke, which is laid on the shoulders of a new priest, though grace makes it light, according to the words: “My yoke is sweet and my burden is light, let me carry it, so I might have Your grace”.
Presently, the cut of chasubles is relatively uniform. These are long robes, reaching to about mid-calf at the front and at the back, while the sides cover the arms fully or up to the elbow. The use of appropriate liturgical colours of garments, according to the church year, is regulated by the General Introduction to the Roman Missal.
See also the specimens from the Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków (chasuble from Wadowice) and from the Niepołomice Museum (chasuble of late Renaissance set of liturgical vestments).
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Encyklopedja Kościelna podług Teologicznej Encyklopedji Wetzera i Weltego z licznemi jej dopełnieniami, wyd. Michał Nowodworski, t. XVII, Warszawa 1891;
Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, red. Krystyna Kubalska-Sulkiewicz, Warszawa 2007;
Longin Żarnowiecki, Ozdoba Domu Bożego, t. 1, Warszawa 1904.