From dailiness to ceremonial – about the origin of liturgical vestments

The priest of every religion — as a person worthy of leading worship practices and mediating in the contact between people and God (gods) — was an ennobled figure in society. Therefore, priests — as a social class — were distinguished from the common folk by special attire, appropriate to their dignity and the activities represented by them.
The current form of the elements of the liturgical vestments for the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, traces its origin back to the beginnings of Christianity. The followers of Christ, due to the dangers of persecution and the poverty of the early church, did not use any official attire accompanying the practice of worship. During prayer, the men had their heads uncovered and the women were veiled.
Initially, people celebrating the liturgy did not use special vestments. They used the clothes which were worn by the Romans at that time. In order to distinguish priests from the lower classes of society — townsmen and commoners — vestments took the form of the luxuriant costumes of consuls, senators, and patricians. The robes of different status did not differ from each other in their cut, but in the type and quality of the fabric. Some sources claim that men belonging to priesthood covered their heads for the duration of the prayer.
The crucial moment in shaping the appearance of liturgical vestments occurred during Emperor Constantine’s reign, when Christians were granted freedom of religion through the Edict of Milan (313). In the Constantinian era, the etiquette of court costumes had a great impact on the appearance of the robes of Christian priests, as many distinctions used in court attire were adopted. At that time, bishops were recognized as imperial officials and, because of this, they adopted the insignia they were entitled to. Around the 7th century, in the wake of the increasing influence of fashion from Germanic countries, the formula of the Roman costume underwent change. However, the robes adopted earlier by the Christian priests retained their form. On this account, the robes worn by the clergy began to stand out among the clothes used in everyday life, distinguishing priests as a different social class. It was the process of consolidating certain patterns which, over time, also gained a symbolic significance. It is a natural consequence of the transformation of rarely used elements of everyday garment into a festive or ceremonial attire which has taken place in various cultures (e.g. folk cultures).
In terms of the cut and function, Roman robes were divided into two categories. There were robes worn underneath (inductus) and outer garments (amictus ). The first group included all types of tunics, as well as stola and dalmatica. The second was a type of outer covering in the shape of a coat, such as a toga, paenula, pallium, paludamentum, or chlamys (see also Greek chiton and himation on the Stele of Chaeremon and Isidore’s son from Kom Abu Billou). Tunica was generally used as an undergarment. In ancient Rome, it took the form of a short-sleeved outfit, which was worn by both sexes. Men wore it under the toga, and women under the stola. Many types of robes were defined as “tunic”, differing in form, length, and type of decorations. This is why their descriptions were supplemented with adjectives (tunica manicata, tunica recta, tunica augusti clavia etc.). On cold days, more tunics were sometimes worn at once — one on top of the other. They also served as nightgowns, called camisia (hence an alb is camice in Italian).
The church tunic and its secular counterpart diverged in the 4th century. There were many types of tunic, differing in material [tunic linea — linen], length [tunica talaris, poderis, camisia] and colour [tunica alba]. The alb [Lat. albus — white] was derived from the white tunic. The alb is the base garment or undergarment in liturgical attire. It is a long garment, usually made of linen, pulled on over the head, with long sleeves. In the Old Christian period, albs were worn for the baptism of catechumens. When it became established as a liturgical vestment, the alb also received appropriate decorative details, such as edges finished with lace or embroidery, a collar hemmed with parure (a decorative material strip).
A slightly greater relationship can be shown between two other garments derived from the tunic — namely the tunicella and dalmatic — both worn over the alb. Dalmatic took its name from its country of origin, namely Dalmatia; in church it was worn by deacons and bishops under the chasuble (see: Dalmatic from the late Renaissance set of liturgical vestments). Subdeacons were entitled to wear tunicella, which was a kind of dalmatic. The dalmatic was worn by Greeks and Romans of the 2nd century; later, it was popular in Byzantine countries, and subsequently it spread to Western Europe. In the 5th century, it disappeared from everyday life, gaining strictly liturgical significance. Both tunicella and dalmatic were white and made of linen, decorated with two vertical and transverse stripes at the front and on the back, up to the 13th century (Clavi). Originally, tunicella was longer than the dalmatic and had narrower sleeves; over time both of these garments became very similar and — in the 14th century — they were shortened. They had short sleeves and were slit open at the sides to the bottom seam of the sleeves, where they were tied. Over time, they came to be tailored from increasingly rich fabrics, decorated with ornamental embroidery. Most often, the same material was used as in the case of the chasuble, cope, and the stole, as they all constituted a set of vestments. The use of tunicella was abolished along with the function of subdeacons, while the dalmatic is currently only used during the Tridentine Mass. In the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic rite, the sakkos has a form close to the dalmatic (see the attire of the Eastern Rite bishop on the Icon “Christ on the cross”).
Antique tunics and all undergarments (especially the long ones) were tied around the waist with a strap or a belt — in the form of a flat, wide band — in order to better fit the body. This solution was also adapted to liturgical vestments. The alba (as well as the religious habit) is tied at the waist with a more or less decorative rope, called cingulum.
Another element of the priest’s attire is the stole, which is worn over the alb. It takes the form of a band with bell-shaped extensions, which is put on the neck and falls down the chest (see: a stole from the late Renaissance liturgical vestment set). It is also called orarium [Lat. ors. oris — mouth], and in the eastern rite — orarion [Lat. ora—pray, because it gives you the sign to start the prayer]. There are several versions of the story describing the origin of stoles. One of them claims that it comes from a Roman female outer garment: a stole, which fell on the chest in the form of a wide drapery. Adapted as an element of strictly Christian liturgical attire, it was becoming increasingly decorated and narrower, over time reaching the width of the ribbon. Another source sees the genesis of the stole in the Jewish prayer scarf called tallit, because it assumes a similar function. It is most likely, however, to indicate its prototype in the ribbon worn on the neck by the officials of the Roman Empire, as well as the clergy recognized during the Constantine period as members of the Roman administration, who received appropriate signs of this dignity (maniple, pallium).
The maniple had a form similar to the stole, but its purpose and symbolism were different. It took the form of a short ribbon, widening in a shape of bells and stitched at the ends. It was put on the left forearm. Its name, lat. maniple, means a handful or an armful. It evolved from the antique fabric worn by the townsfolk and Roman dignitaries known as sudarium, which was tied at the wrist, or held in the hand. It was used to wipe the face and hands, or to give signals to start the ceremony. The maniple was also used at the Byzantine court for liturgical purposes, from the 7th century until 1969, when its use stopped after the then reform. Maniples were made of the same material as the stole, because they belonged to the set of liturgical vestments.
The chasuble [Lat. ornatus — outfit], i.e. the upper vestment worn on the alb (either on a surplice or a rochet, depending on the ecclesial dignity) went through a most interesting and varied series of changes. Its form is derived from a traveller’s coat with a hood worn in ancient Rome, put on over the head and reaching down to the knees, called paenula (more on that in a separate article: A few words about the chasuble). The equivalent of the chasuble among the Greek Catholics is a phelonion, worn on the sakkos. However, it takes a slightly different form: put on over the head, it ends at the height of the breast at the front, while the back reaches to the ground.
The development of worship practices, as well as the centuries-long separation of various rites, contributed to the emergence of further elements of liturgical attire, bearing unique symbolism, which greatly expanded the range of paraments belonging to specific ecclesial functions and dignities. The garments became increasingly decorative and embellished with a multitude of details; a division of liturgical colors reserved for a specific period in the church calendar emerged. However, despite the whole process of shaping them, links with traditional patterns remained clearly visible in the cut of individual vestments: proof of the durability of certain customs since the beginning of Christianity, with only slight changes due to the liturgical reform of 1969.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
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