Thursday, March 20, 2014

Vestments Illustrate Liturgical History

by Jonathan Eubanks

Located in the Abbey Museum are four liturgical vestments from the early days of the monastery: three chasubles, each in a different liturgical color, red, purple, and white, and one black vestment previously worn by a deacon for funeral masses.  

The purple vestment, most notably worn during Advent and Lent, has, according to the information given at the display, a needlepoint ophrey style cross. The material is like a heavy carpet. The pattern is that of several golden-brown flowers set on a light purple field with the letters IHS centered at the nave of the cross. Outside the cross is a filigree design, which uses an intricately flowing, floral and vine-like pattern to create a web that covers the entire chasuble. The filigree pattern is a lighter and much duller purple than the shiny, darker purple field that it is set upon.


The red, worn for feasts of martyrs and on Palm Sunday and Pentecost, has simple gold embroidery of several different stylized flowers. Each flower is individually shaped like a cross, and collectively they form the entire cross that encompasses the back of the vestment. The field of red is comprised of a similar filigree style as the purple piece; the background is a shinier, darker red than the dull, lighter red of the pattern.

The white vestment, worn during the Christmas and Easter seasons and specific holy days, has a solid white background. The cross has gold embroidery outlining the perimeter and the fleur de lis at each of the four points. Located throughout the spacious interior of the cross is stylized filigree, and at the nave of the cross is a sunburst that emanates from the letters IHS.


The black piece, worn by a deacon for funeral masses, has two golden lines set parallel to each other, running down vertically on the left and right side. There is a same gold line running perpendicular to the other two running horizontally at the top part of the vestment. This piece is the most intricate of them all. It has a metallic, golden tapestry of ornate shapes and depictions of birds set inside circles, all on a field of black.

The history behind these specific vestments, according to Brother Andre Love, OSB, is that they belonged to Fr. Abbot Thomas Meier, the second abbot of the monastery. After returning from Europe in 1928, he became abbot in the 1930s, and during his travels overseas he saw that the Europeans were using the gothic style vestments and decided to make it the style worn during the celebration of community mass in the abbey. However, Abbot Meier still allowed the fiddlebacks to be worn in private mass.

The fiddleback style was not introduced to the church until very recently, sometime in the last two or three hundred years. In fact, the fiddleback is the final stage in the evolution of the gothic style, which has been around since the medieval period of the Church. The gothic style chasuble can be described as a long, draping oval-shaped poncho. It was because the artistry and stylized embroidery on the evolving vestments, as Br. Andre described it, “became burdensome” on the priest’s arms, that the sleeves slowly started to disappear from the gothic style until finally the shape became that of a broad scapular.

The vestments have changed from the intricate designs of the fiddleback to the more simple gothic style. The fiddleback style of vestment today is only used in the celebration of the extraordinary form of the mass. 

Br. Andre explained that after the Second Vatican Council the fiddlebacks were no longer the preferred style of chasuble worn in the United States. Since then several other liturgical items have been remodeled to fit the spirit of the council. For example, the altar is no longer a high altar where the priest faces away from the congregation and toward the literal or liturgical east but is now more centrally located in the sanctuary. Also, the tabernacle in most parishes is now located on either the left or right side of the sanctuary, whereas in the past it had been located directly behind the altar.

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